Saturday, January 9, 2010

Initiative and Responsibility

I recently read A Message for Garcia, which is a story about a man named Rowan who was asked to deliver a very important message to a man named Garcia who was hiding in the mountains of Cuba during the Spanish and American War. President McKinley was trying to get a message to Garcia and had no means of doing it. Someone suggested that if there was anyone who could find Garcia, it would be Rowan. Rowan was summoned to the President and given the message to deliver. Rowan sealed the message in a pouch that he placed across his heart. He landed on the coast of Cuba by night and entered the jungle. Three weeks later he emerged from the jungle, having traveled through some of the most hostile country by foot. He delivered the message to Garcia just as he was told to do.

The reason why this simple story was written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899 was that he was very impressed by Rowan and his initiative. He was given a challenging task and did it without question. He accepted his role and responsibility and took it very seriously. In the end he got the job done. What impressed Hubbard was that Rowan didn't get hung-up on endless questions about how to start or complete the task. He just did it. He took the initiative and figured out what he needed to do. In 1899, Hubbard was impressed by Rowan's work ethic and identified it as something many people needed if they were going to be successful.

Now it is 2010 and not much has changed. Employees in general do not take initiative, responsibility or show the confidence Rowan showed over 100 years ago. Many employees can not be given a task without asking their employers a number of questions about how to start and complete the task. Many employees also dislike their employers for asking them to do the things they are getting a good wage to do. Employers do not trust their workers because of this embedded dislike for anyone who asks a worker to do something that is a little hard, challenging or uncomfortable. Employees in turn steal time, materials and products from the same person who pays their wage. Why are there so few Rowans in the workforce?

Part of the blame goes on to the schools. We have provided so much scaffolding to students that they do very little without asking dozens of questions. The students are so afraid to do the wrong thing, they lose half the learning experience by not taking initiative and problem solving to find the answers to their own questions. I do not blame students and parents for wanting so much information. Everyone wants to experience success and in the absence of clarity, will ask enough questions to make them comfortable enough to get started. I think that we need to provide more authentic learning situations where children need to figure out what to do. If we shed some of the high-stakes testing and accountability, we could begin to provide a safe environment where students can explore and learn without the fear of making mistakes and failing. Then we can begin to groom an employee who is not afraid to take risks, take initiative, take responsibility and who have the confidence Rowan had when he was asked to deliver his message to Garcia.

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