Ahh, Leadership Bootcamp.
I can still remember the moment an instructor called out everybody’s names, one by one, to assign all the teams for this two-day intensive training program.
I heard my name, and there I was walking toward my 13-people team for the next 2 days of trying to make teamwork become dreamwork, solve mind-boggling puzzles, and build trust in one another in the process. All was done under time pressure and with a huge matter of fun. My name had been spelled wrong, but the fact that the line I was standing in was outstandingly longer than the rest and that there were 3 nationalities in my team took all my attention. It instantly got me worried:
“How on earth we are gonna do this?”
Little did I know that the incoming military-like experience would be transformative in my perception of what learning about leadership really entails and, importantly, who I am as a person.
For starters, this year’s bootcamp in Soc Son province is aimed at building “servant leadership” skills in practice, by putting students in risky (but not dangerous) situations to work together in overcoming challenging activities. In 2 days, we were continuously faced with real-life puzzles, like how to get everybody to the other side of a flood with limited resources, or building and surpassing a make-do bridge made out of wooden planks. Some were physically demanding while others required sharp problem-solving skills. Many were mentally challenging. But each of them required a huge amount of collaboration and trust within a team in order to succeed.
Fast forward to that night, I found myself lumbering through a jungle with a long rope tied to my belt and those of 12 others behind my back. After snapping the sharp edges of a tree stick to make it a little trekking pole, I would shout out to my teammates about obstacles and ridges ahead:
“Steep slope on your right, watch out guys”
As my eyes got used to the dark, I tried to rely on my night-eye vision as much as possible and left the flashlight to the middle person of the line so that the light could reach both the first and second halves of the team.
Perfectly balanced. As all things should be. But there was one,... okay, two problems. I would walk too fast at times, stretching the rope out and unintentionally making it difficult for some of my teammates to keep up. And two, my night-eye vision was not that good, so I once led the team in the wrong direction. Later on, when I sat down near the bonfire, I figured how those two problems reflected my weaknesses in leadership, not just in this bootcamp but possibly even in my past projects.
As much as I have learned about leadership lessons about the importance of not leaving anyone behind and of a good vision, it was the bootcamp that pointed out how I still messed things up regardless. From this experience, my key take-home idea was how vastly different leadership realities can be from leadership theories, and that we have to actually practice it to know how. We never know anything for sure.
Leaving Soc Son, my team ended up understanding each other so much more, from a point of being mostly strangers who walked by on the university campus. Yet, if we take a look at ourselves, we might come to understand who we are better than anyone else we worked with. So aside from new relationships, the end of the bootcamp gave us a new beginning: self-discovery in empowering ourselves and others in our exciting life-long leadership journey ahead.
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