On this day back in 2004, I was attending a week-long “training event” in Portsmouth, Virginia. I remember it clearly because it was the early morning the followed a long night huddled around the television in the hotel’s bar following the results of presidential election pitting George W. Bush against John Kerry.
Every time the instructors called a pause, a small gang of eight or ten of us would skitter across the hall from the meeting room to see the latest changes. As that particular morning dragged on and no winner was declared, we were later and later getting back from breaks. Hey, we were engaged citizens and it was a moment in history.
Eventually, after a particularly lengthy break – maybe after lunch – one of the instructors wandered in and offered the words I like to imagine he lived to regret. To a dozen young-ish bureaucrats he foolishly said, “Well, if you think the election is more important that what we’re doing in class, you should go ahead and stay over here and do that.” Now I’m not a fancy big city lawyer, but even then I was enough of a bureaucrat to recognize a great big, beautiful open door to waltz through when I saw one.
I’m sure he was trying to shame us into compliantly filing back into the meeting room. A few of our little clutch did wither under the instructor’s stink eye and drift back to training, but as far as I, and a few like-minded souls were concerned, we’d just been handed a get out of jail free card. I was sure then, as I’m sure now, that the outcome of the election and the mechanics of how it was decided, were far more important than analyzing our Myers-Briggs type, learning fun facts about our “leadership color,” or any of the other tidbits that could have been gleaned in their entirety from reading the course handouts.
Half a dozen of us opted to stay put that day. Maybe we didn’t learn much out of the official leadership curriculum, but we did learn a bloody fearful lesson about being careful what options you lay out when you have no idea how people will react. In all my long career from then to now, when there was only one “right” direction, I never presented it as an optional activity.
Most of the “leadership training” I’ve been sent to has been laughable in one way or another, but just this once, I feel like there was a solid lesson learned.