Ellie stood at the side of the pool. “I want my floaties!” I told her she wasn’t getting her floaties. I needed her to be brave. She melted down like a Bomb Pop in the Texas summer sun. I walked to the edge where she stood. I encouraged her to just let me hold her in the water. She got in cautiously.
I floated her around, holding her by her bathing suit. I encouraged her. She relaxed. I told her to put her face in the water as she swam. “No. I’m scared!”, she replied. I got frustrated. I thought to myself, “Just put your head underwater already!” I had to be patient, calm and encouraging.
We went to where it is shallow enough for Ellie to stand with her head above water. Her confidence grew. She started to swim on her own. I showered high fives and encouragement. In 30 minutes she went from existential crisis to swimming on her own and doing flips under water. Add more encouragement.
We headed back to deeper water. Ellie swam. From me to the wall and back – 15 feet each way. Then she regressed. “Daddy, hold my tummy,” she asked. I did. And as she was swimming, I took it way. A new meltdown. Again, I was frustrated. I thought to myself “What happened!? She had this.” I decided to comfort her. It was late. She was tired. She had her win. We celebrated the win.
The next week at the pool, she started off timidly. She needed me to be within a foot of her as she clung to the wall at the start. In two hours, she grew. At the end, she was diving head first and swimming 20 feet. She didn’t regress at the end. She finished at a high point.
Learning can feel like drowning. Scary to the learner. Frustrating to the person leading them. Leading people who are learning takes a balance. They need to be encouraged to take the risk of drowning. They also need enough support to feel safe. Safety builds confidence to push to competence. Celebrate the competence. Competence builds confidence. A virtuous circle begins.
The learner will get tired. They will plateau. They may regress. They will need support again. They’ll need compassion when their fear exceeds their faith in themselves (or those around them). After a respite, the learner will need deeper water, support, encouragement and celebration until they are good at it. And then they’ll still need support to get even better.
A leader is buoyed by the people they lead.
Lead poorly and sink. Lead learners and swim.
As with anything worthwhile, it’s easier said than done.