I made my first mistake within one minute of getting off the bus. There’d been a few spots of rain and the skies were grumbling threateningly, yet I went ahead and suggested that, rather than getting a taxi, we walk half an hour to the hostel in order to soak up the city.
It’s what I would have done if I were alone in a new city, so why couldn’t the two of us do it together?
Well, actually there were a few good reasons. Firstly the participant accompanying me had a suitcase, not a backpack. Secondly, it was her mother’s brand-new suitcase; not a scratch on it and expected to be returned that way. Thirdly, when the heavens eventually opened, neither of us were at all prepared.
We were completely exposed along the street, hugging the sides of buildings to get what cover we could from balconies overhead. Then the rain came at an angle and we admitted defeat, ducked into one of the many little cafes to be found everywhere; just caffeine dispensaries really, with a few bottled beers and potato snacks, sparsely decorated but perpetually populated by middle-aged men, slow-smoking cigarettes.
We ordered some coffee and shook ourselves off, sat down across from one another and watched the downpour outside. I noticed how each sip of espresso brought a little cringe to her face. She saw I was watching and we breathed out a laugh together, at the coffee, at the rain, at the unpredictability of two strangers sitting across from each other in a foreign land.
“Welcome to Turin,” I said with a smile.
I’d never led a team before, never really led anyone anywhere but myself. That’s easy – you make a decision and accept the consequences. Sometimes things work out perfectly, other times they don’t, but it’s just you and so you don’t worry either way, because you’re trusting your compass and when that fails, you trust in your ability to adapt.
But now I was responsible for others, and that felt different. It felt like something which could be measured; something I would be measured against. And so I was eager to be the best version of myself, the best that my team could hope for.
The place was Turin, Italy, and the program: Ever & Ever Green!; focusing on the environment and sustainable development, our ecological footprint as individuals alongside that of our societies, our nations, our continent. Five groups from across Europe with five participants and a team leader each. The first days we spent in workshops, in team building exercises and exploring the city. It is always an intense time, forcing each of us to adjust to a new environment, a new diet, a new climate, sharing a room with others and, for the majority, speaking in a language that was not their own.
Whilst many of these elements were not new to me, I had other obstacles to negotiate. Namely, I had to work out what was expected of me as a team leader, professionally but also socially, and how and when (and if) to exercise authority. I soon found I was distancing myself from non-essential mingling, but actually this was driven more by instinct than anything else. Because of course, youth exchanges such as these are blisteringly rigorous exercises in socialisation. In order for me to remain fully functional (and sane!) I made the most of my free time by spending it separated from the group.
Whilst the participants knocked a volleyball around and played games, I found a quiet place to read and reflect. Rather than sitting around smoking cigarettes and making small talk, I exercised, meditated and even took the occasional nap. My first few days as a team leader were accompanied by a teaspoon or two of extra stress, but once I had my routine I really began to enjoy the role. Personally, setting aside a little time each day for myself became essential, and being a team leader simply worked well as the unspoken explanation.
As for exercising authority? Well I soon learned that subtlety and respect were far more applicable than an iron fist.
The participant age range was 18-25, which drew a certain line in the sand as far as behaviour was concerned. But it meant we had a lot of young people on the brink of figuring out who they really were, or at least on the brink of abandoning the question as we all do once we realise the answer is not a word or a job or a title, but a feeling.
All this figuring-out can only be done blindfold and by touch, I think, which comes naturally to some, not so much for others. No matter what, in a group of thirty you’re bound to witness quite the spectrum of human behaviour. But really we’re all striving for the same thing; to be understood, to be recognised and have our voice appreciated, to grow into ourselves, our communities, our world.
As a leader I ended up practicing more empathy than authority. Through focusing on myself, on projecting the truest version, I was able to guide people forward rather than shove them from behind. In an environment where there is mutual respect, there is no need for ‘authority’. The more I showed that I was open to people, the more they opened themselves to me. In those nine days I learned a lot; I grew; we grew, together into a family. It was a hard goodbye for many.
Now then, what’s next?