Building Bridges

As a leader we have countless responsibilities. One of the leadership responsibilities I’ve placed in the top 10 list that makes up my leadership philosophy is the art of building bridges. Everyone who ever travels with me knows how much I love Bridges. The design, the engineering, the strong trestles holding it in place! The same can be said of building bridges between people, teams, organizations, and even entire countries.

At the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom I was teaching at Airman Leadership School. In a previous post, I shared a story from another class with two amazing Airmen who served in Iraq. A year after they graduated, I had a totally different dynamic in my classroom. I had the “Eternally Storming” class, the one my Instructor-Trainer warned me about.

This particular class was relentless. Egos ran high, individualism and self-serving attitudes filled my classroom each day, all day long. Absolutely nothing I shared or taught seemed to reach them. It was my third year teaching and I had experienced tough students, but never an entire class! I came to school daily with zeal and poured everything I had into them each day. My fellow instructor and I spent hours and hours counseling them in private – trying to inspire and get through to them.

I went home mentally and physically exhausted each day and held my baby son and cried from frustration. This was the first time I was unable to rally a team. Fortunately intuition was telling me to keep teaching them with the same care and energy I gave to my best classes. I knew somehow they would be the class to teach me true resilience and they would become a team. I had no idea how…but my gut said it would happen and even if it happened graduation night then well by golly they would graduate as a team!

A few days before graduation it happened. The one and only student I hadn’t counseled or corrected for a bad attitude taught his class a lesson in bridge building.

He shared a story about his childhood in Africa and growing up with his beloved sister. They were refugees in the 90’s who fled war in their country to America. They then joined the military immediately after 9/11, him joining the Air Force her joining the Army to serve. He started to tear up and said he had gotten word from his family in the east coast before class that day that his sister died in Iraq of unknown causes. I could feel the air getting sucked out of the classroom as he said each word. I saw the expressions on my students’ faces change from ego to empathy rather quickly. One by one his classmates embraced him or offered words of support. That morning, 4 days before graduation the class built a bridge and became a team.

We build bridges when we listen with empathy, when we show interest in the life journey of others. Through encouragement, teamwork, compassion, service, egoless leading, and an attitude of “we are stronger together” – we lift one another upright like the trestles of a bridge bound together not one stronger or better than another…but supporting one another equally – that my friends is why we must build bridges. Sometimes the bridges are built when someone shares their deepest pain with their team. Not always…but sometimes that’s all it takes to build the bridge – the bond.

Love & Leadership,

Erin

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