Team work

By Leah Shafer, AmeriCorps member serving on the State Street Foundation team at the Higginson/Lewis K-8 School

In the first week of Basic Training Academy at City Year Boston, the Leadership and Development team introduced us to the Leadership Compass. The corps read descriptions of four leadership styles: 

  • North: Action-takers with an “I’ll do it” attitude
  • East: Visionaries with creative imaginations
  • South: Empathetic individuals who are receptive to others’ needs and ideas
  • West: Analytical thinkers who value organization. 

We were asked to move to the corner/direction that we thought best represented our individual role in a professional environment. 

Without a second thought, I headed for the west corner.

The Leadership Compass reminded of my summer job’s go-to personality quiz, which sorted the staff into four colors so we could best understand how to work together. Three years in a row, that quiz informed me I was “gold”, a title I wore with pride. At my summer job, I didn’t need to come up with any crazy, creative ideas (green), or ensure all voices of the staff felt heard (blue); my position was to synthesize objectively the plans around me into a practical plan. 

But unlike that quiz, the Leadership Compass tool goes beyond teaching me to recognize and utilize my own traits. While it is good to know your natural leadership direction and style, City Year challenged us to move to the center of the compass. 

That day, I left confused. “I’m the organizer,” I thought to myself.” I’m objective, realistic, and I come up with the plan. I’m a crucial piece to any group!” Shouldn’t we play to each teammate’s strengths? Why should I have to change my leadership style?

Four weeks later, the corps spent the day on Thompson Island, tackling challenges while pausing to reflect on our team dynamic. Our facilitator asked us to deliberately switch our cardinal directions for one activity, and I instead stood silently behind my team, unsure how to assist outside my west instincts. 

But in our final challenge, the Giant’s Ladder—a giant rope ladder, forty feet high, with rungs placed three, four, and five feet apart—I realized not only did I had the power to change my direction, but also that shift could be both instinctive and necessary. 
My three teammates with whom I climbed did not pause to make a plan; instead, they sprang up the ladder with increasing speed and enthusiasm—a north characteristic. I went right with them. Twenty feet in the air, as I grappled for one teammate’s hand while another told me to just step on his stomach, I couldn’t slow us down to evaluate or assess our “jump into action” plan. 
“Is everyone okay with this?” I asked. “Alex? Dakota? Evan? Are you guys on board with what we’re doing?”

“Yeah, we’re fine. Let’s go let’s go!” they answered, driven by our common goal to reach the top as quickly as possible. My question—making sure my entire team felt comfortable with the activity—was a very “south” thing to ask.

In acting as a South, I took one step closer to the center of that compass. I’m learning to find and drawn on the strengths of each direction and becoming, I hope, a more rounded leader. 

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