Friday, August 3, 2018

Accepting Failure as an Opportunity for Growth: A Troop Leader’s Story

Guest blog by Dana Jones, Girl Scout troop leader 

For five years, I was a Girl Scout troop leader. I led Troop 623 in Southwest Indiana from 2009 to 2014my daughter's first- through fifth-grade years. Over the course of those five years, my co-leaders and I had a total of 36 girls as part of our troop at one time or another. 

Those years were some of the most personally rewarding of my life. There is a huge emotional maturity difference between a six-year-old and a 12-year-old. I was able to witness and take part in the lives of dozens of amazing, incredible, and talented girls. It is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything. 

I realized later on that it was also a hugely important professional training experience. Leading a troop that large (we had up to 24 girls in our troop at a time) takes an enormous amount of organizational and communication skills, which I was forced to improve. I evolved a set of systems for recording contact information, skill badge progress markers, attendance records, and so much more. 

More important than the growth I underwent was the growth I saw in my girls. I made a point to try to expose them to new experiences and to force them to challenge their idea of what they thought they were capable of. I was very much aware that I was their leader at the most formative time in their lives, before society and media had planted too many doubts in them about their abilities. 

At the troop parent meeting, held at the beginning of each school year, I made sure the families knew that I viewed Girl Scouting as a safe environment in which to fail. Girl Scouts is a girl-led organization, and I took that to heart. To the greatest extent possible, depending on their age at the time, the girls chose what we did and how we did it. 

If we were going camping, they selected the menu and activities. As they got older, they did the shopping and meal preparation. They learned knife safety, fire-building, leave-no-trace camping and hiking principles, and first aid. We gave them ample opportunities to practice these skills, both individually and in groups. 

They failed. 

We had many dinners in the dark because fires are hard to build after a rainstorm. We had meals we had to improvise because key ingredients never made it to the shopping list. We had no end to splinters, tick bites, sunburns, and scraped knees. As a troop, we got lost (and then found) on hiking trails. The girls botched engineering and craft projects. Things were sometimes crooked or misaligned. Knots were wrong and didn't hold. Tents collapsed.  
They failed. A lot. 

But they learned. 

Their dinners gradually got better and more elaborate. They learned to avoid injury. They got better at marking and following trails. Their fine-motor and planning skills improved, and so did their handiwork. Their knots got stronger, faster, and more consistent. They mastered creating all kinds of shelters. 

They learned to work together to make each of them stronger individually. 

This became my leadership and management philosophy. I see it as my role to provide for my team the tools, training, and support they need to do amazing things. As best I am able, it's my job to anticipate and mitigate potential problems, provide structure, facilitate communication, protect them from unreasonable requests, encourage and applaud their successes, and get out of their way. 

My girls weren't the only ones who did a ton of learning and growing. I made plenty of my own mistakes along the way. I'm sure I'll continue making mistakes (hopefully, different ones) and that my management techniques and philosophy will evolve over time. But that core principle of embracing failure should remain, because fear of failure is what holds us back from innovating, from learning, and from achieving real success.