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Navigation Lessons: 1

Note: Friends and colleagues have asked me to write about leading during these last few months at UNC. I’ve found the writing challenging, even though I think about such questions all the time.

On the wall in my home office is a frame approximately 4 feet by 3 feet that contains yellowed paper. From a distance, most assume it is a map, but the crinkled chart shows no countries or continents, no North and South Poles, only points drawn and connected by compass and ruler. It’s a navigation plot my dad made when he and his ship were literally lost at sea during World War II. The encouraging inscriptions from his shipmates are now faded and almost indecipherable, but the chart reassures me. And although it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t really go with my office decor, I keep it as a reminder of how to get back on course when I feel somehow “off the map.”  

Our University has been in uncharted waters for almost a year now, sometimes straight on course and sometimes seemingly adrift. I think frequently of a book called “Canoeing the Mountains,” which explores the Lewis and Clark journey as a metaphor of what it takes to move through an unimagined landscape. That expedition relied on canoes to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. But when the expedition approached the Rocky Mountains, their canoes did them no good, and they were forced to use other tools and training. In many ways, life at UNC has been like that. In my roles on this campus, I have had to learn what skills and tools are useful and which to leave on the shelf. 

In my first internship, still a “baby” social worker (I was 22), I began learning what it meant to really listen. Like most lessons that actually stick, it was born out of a mistake. A second-grade teacher in the elementary school I was working in was frustrated by a child in her class who would not stop crying. I desperately wanted to prove that I was useful and could help her bring her class back to a steady state. 

The student, all of seven years old, accepted the puppet I offered her. After a little warm up, I asked good open-ended questions: What is the classroom like? Tell me about crying in school. Can you tell me what has made you unhappy in school? I was expecting to hear about bullying classmates or difficulty with the teacher. So focused was I on my own assumptions that I completely missed what she was talking about: a missing bed and a dog puppet that needed a doghouse. She kept on with the dog and his missing furniture, but by the end of our time together, I still had no clarity, no strategy to fix the situation and was as frustrated as the teacher. Several days later, when the child had not come back to school, I learned her family had been evicted and dispersed to who knows where. The dog actually had no doghouse. The bed was actually missing. I was devastated and ashamed when I realized I had missed her message completely, listening only for the literal, looking for a quick fix answer to give her teacher.  

In addition to missing the symbolism of the child’s play, I failed to see myself as working for the student; I saw myself as working for the teacher. The teacher’s concerns about classroom management were foremost in my mind, and though I remember being moved by the child’s tears and concerned for her, the real empathy that undergirds deep listening was not there. She was a problem to be solved, not a person to be heard. 

After that, I began to listen differently, to discern more than one layer of meaning at a time. I got clear on who I was serving and comfortable pushing back against those who thought I should be working for them instead. Little by little, I also learned to notice when I was missing something, some message that because of my personal blind spots or other challenges eluded me. Another lesson, this time in the form of a teenage girl, taught me to pay attention to any gnawing sense that something didn’t connect and to take action to find the missing link. 

About four years after the puppets, I was working with teenagers in Baltimore, many of whom pregnant. I remember a young woman, maybe 16, who wanted to continue her pregnancy. She lived with her brothers and her grandmother, who had accompanied her to the clinic and were affectionate and supportive. I helped get her to a prenatal clinic and thought that was that. Except that she came back – not once, not twice, but three times to sit my office and say virtually nothing. By this time, I was not such a baby social worker. I knew exactly who I worked for; I was not trying to please her family or the medical team. She was the center and I paid attention.  

“What have you been thinking about since you last came in?”    Nothing.  

“Still feeling like you made the right decision?”         Yes.

“Want to tell me about the father?”             No, just a boy I know.

I made statements hoping she might have a reaction to them. 

“Some girls make a decision that they think they’re happy with but then they change their mind and they don’t know what to do.”           No response.

I asked questions that were completely leading. 

“Did someone do something that you didn’t want them to do?”  Absolutely not.

I told her I was here for her and to call or come back whenever she wanted.   Thank you.

She would leave, only to return a day or two after that. 

I knew I was asking the wrong questions but couldn’t think of what else to ask. I called in reinforcements – a psychiatrist who had 20-some years of experience to my two or three. She went back to the beginning as I listened. Who did the young woman live with? Grandmother and brothers. Where was her mother? (I’d never asked that question.) Dead. How long? 18 months. How did the young woman feel? Terrible. She wanted to be with her mother. How could she do that? By killing herself. With what? The gun on her grandmother’s closet shelf.  We hospitalized her that afternoon. 

I was wracked with guilt that I’d missed a basic and critical question. In the community where I was working, many children and teens were living with their grandparents, their parents lost to the crack epidemic. It was so common that, as long as the grandparents were involved and caring, I sometimes didn’t ask about the actual parents because I thought I knew the answer and because I wanted to spare people having to discuss something many considered shameful. This young woman, who went on to have a successful pregnancy and birth and later brought her little girl to visit me often, might have lost her life to the grief and depression that enveloped her because of the assumptions I made and the questions I failed to ask.

As I second guessed my abilities, my colleague was gentle and understanding. She trusted you. She knew you’d find a way to help her if she kept coming back and you did. You learned something. Next time, you’ll know something that you didn’t know this time. This is what happens to those of us who “practice on people” as we develop in our careers. You were right to ask for help.  

I’ve learned a lot since I was a 22-year-old MSW student. It has taken many years and mistakes—fortunately most of them less dramatic than these examples—to learn how to connect, listen, seek help, and stay focused on who or what really matters in any given situation. I still stumble and seek out guidance and encouragement when I feel challenged. But now I know that when I am in deep water and off the map, there are no leadership tricks or gimmicks that will truly illuminate the way. When crisis comes, I will, as the saying goes, default to my training, leaning hard into those formative moments, remembering those early teachers and tough lessons. When I do this, my own version of rulers and compass emerge, the tools I need to chart the right course.

My boys covet my father’s navigation chart, seeing it as a relic of war, adventure, and heroism. Some day they will decide where it should hang, but for now it belongs with me. Like my sons, I think of my dad as a hero too. He saved his ship when it was lost at sea. It seemed miraculous, but it was the product of preparation; he had taken his training seriously, not knowing exactly when he would need it most. He had practiced those calculations, learned every constellation in the night sky, aimed the sextant at the horizon day after day. When it became clear that his superiors did not know what they were doing and the ship was in peril, his actions were not extraordinary, although his grace under pressure probably was. He simply defaulted to his training, used the tools that had been with him all along, and found his way.  

Photo Credit: Mimi V. Chapman

By Mimi Chapman: Writing about the intersection of personal and professional life

Professor, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I started this blog because I enjoy reflecting on different parts of life and work and sharing that with others.

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