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Life’s Little Train Wrecks

Life’s Little Train Wrecks

Over the weekend, a group for which I have written grants in the past blew up. Not literally, but in terms of the cohesion of the volunteers. One of life’s little train wrecks. Sometimes it’s a community effort, as this is. Sometimes it’s a work group. Sometimes it’s a family. What’s the lesson when it happens?

I’d like to believe that as we get older, we get better at not only staying out of the middle of this kind of stuff, but of also being peacemakers–the force that helps knit the group back together. In this case, the older ones were nowhere near that. I’m not central to this group, and my role in the weekend disaster was as a spectator. But there are positive things to learn just by watching.

The group is a niche historical society, tasked with maintaining and providing access to a lighthouse and related structures in a city park. They have been diligent over the last 25 years. Six of the seven buildings in the compound have been restored, and they are in planning to do the last one–the lighthouse itself.

One of their annual community events has been an afternoon tea at the lighthouse keeper’s cottage during the month of December. These folks weren’t spring chickens when they started doing that, and they’ve been at it a while. They’ve been thinking they needed to stop hosting the tea because they didn’t have the stamina anymore.

Then several new volunteers agreed to do the tea. Problem solved, right? It should have been. Instead it turned into this train wreck. Usually, something trivial triggers this kind of disaster. In this case, it was two words–“Holiday” and “Christmas”.

The email I watched spool out was to okay the flyer announcing the tea. What should have been a routine nod, turned into a major email argument over whether they were going to call it a “Christmas Tea” as they had since when they started doing it or a “Holiday Tea” as the team planning the event deemed appropriate.

At first it was civil: “Please change it back to Christmas.” Then people started to “vote” with more heated words. Then Santa (the guy who said he would BE Santa for the event) said he wouldn’t show up if it wasn’t “Christmas.” My thoughts ran in two directions as I watched: “This is so sad” and “This would be really funny in a sitcom.”

Except it wasn’t funny. I also don’t think it was political. (I live in the Pacific NW, a proud part of “the Left Coast.”) No, the problem was an inability to let go that the longtime members couldn’t even see in themselves and a frustration with that for the newcomers who had to use their energy and enthusiasm to deal with the roadblocks instead of the event.

I tried to defuse the situation by asking whether they were planning a community event for our diverse, current community or a reeneactment of what the lighthouse keeper would have celebrated in the early 20th century–aka “Christmas”. But it wasn’t a rational situation so that went nowhere. (Silly me.)

Eventually, one of the new volunteers forthrightly described how difficult it was for the team that was so ready to make it happen to have everything they suggested and planned shot down or stonewalled. That was brave. But it didn’t stop the wreck either. The oldsters involved have “hearing problems” that have nothing to do with their auditory acuity. No one stepped up to that truth from the old guard.

In her last sentence, she quit. I can’t help but wonder if the rest of the new volunteers will follow suit. It wasn’t about “Holiday” versus “Christmas.” It was that the old guard wasn’t able to do the work any more, but they weren’t able to let go of dictating exactly how it was to be done.

So….the lessons…

First, I do NOT want to do that. Ever. If I can’t do the work, how it’s done isn’t my call. No matter how many times I excelled at doing it in the past.

Second, peacemaking is a lot easier if people are willing to be rational, but that’s not the typical terrain in this kind of train wreck. You can try, but don’t be surprised if you get ignored.

Third, there will be differences of opinion when you’re part of a group. Respecting and addressing them is best done face to face, and, if possible, one on one. Also right away and bravely.

Fourth, some things cannot be fixed. This organization may end up folding because they are so inept at giving full status to new volunteers.

There’s no good lesson in having that happen.