Each summer, over 1000 children from the charity SOS-Children’s Villages come together at Lake Caldonazzo in Italy for a six-week international holiday camp.
We joined them, together with 16 leaders, who had signed up from different organisations, such as Siemens, SAP and Swisscom for five days.
The leadership challenge: to plan, organise and deliver a theatre spectacle for the entire village.
As an experiment we, the facilitator team joined the group in the task itself, taking a double role: as team members and as facilitators.
The learning philosophy
A tough task, a real outcome and a challenging workforce in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment provides ample opportunity for personal development.
Working with children, from multiple cultural backgrounds on a goal-oriented task without formal power (such as a teacher may have), requires leadership that is based on a heartfelt connection, inclusive and responsive to needs, but also very clear, assertive and structured.
In addition, the group was fully responsible for creating, agreeing and delivering their own processes – which required courageous leadership action and excellent team work on top of the challenging work on the task itself.
Finally, the project was supplemented with reflections, reviews, and feedback sessions. This meta-level work helped deepening each participant’s learning experience.
In the evening we sat together, to get to know each other. A representative of the SOS Children’s Village introduced us to the philosophy, and the amazing work of the charity, as well as explaining the practicalities and logistics of the summer-camp.
We also announced the leadership challenge to the group:
To develop and deliver a theatre spectacle for the entire village in the remaining four days.
We spend some time discussing reactions and questions and then went to have dinner together.
We gave inputs on important leadership concepts that would create a shared understanding, and support the team in the challenging task.
Then, everyone brainstormed various ideas for themes of the performance and agreed on a process by creating goals, structures and assigning roles and responsibilities.
We came up with a pirate story line that would integrate as much variety as possible, while giving space for the children to use their different talents.
We finished the evening with an Italian dinner.
We split into project teams and started working on various aspects of the project. We formed a central administration team, and pairs took responsibility for working with groups of children. We had a group of dancers, a team for costume and stage design, for acrobatics, a boat team, a band and a dolphin team (!).
Step 1 – recruitment. We dressed up as pirates and marched through the village with drums and anything noise-making, seeking to inspire kids to join our project. And we were successful: fifty 6-15 year old pirate enthusiasts signed up for the daunting task.
The children could choose which project team they wanted to join and we managed to strike a good balance. At the beginning, each project leader introduced themselves to their respective team of children and started working with the children on their task. Translators helped to bridge language barriers, and SOS-Children’s Village staff was always available for support, if needed.
The evening we spent reviewing our processes, leadership provided, our teamwork and exchanged feedback, before heading to our Italian restaurant again.
Day 3 and 4
Before the kids joined us, we had planning session early in the mornings and then continued our work within our project groups on either the performances or the costume making and stage design.
The magic of these kinds of projects really shows, when unforeseen situations occur. What do you do, if suddenly half of your team is missing or doesn’t appear at the agreed time? How do you keep your team engaged and focused for several hours? How do you deal with internal struggles and competition? How do you mediate conflict? Then during a break a child might tell you their story about how they lost their parents, and what it’s like living with their siblings in the village. You can’t help but be touched and in awe of how graciously they have been dealing with great adversity.
These are enriching encounters that go beyond any predictable, formulaic development plan and made this experience on of a kind.
The evenings we reflected on the day and enjoyed Italian food together – we also had one karaoke night, that was organised for all officials by the Village.
The big day had arrived and everyone feverishly prepared by rehearsing, making costumes and one group built a pirate ship (which was used to “attack” the village at the beginning of our performances).
Eventually, it all came together. There were several hundred viewers in the audience and for one hour the Caldonazzo Village immersed itself in a pirate fairy tale. We were surprised and relieved how well everything worked out. The children loved their performances and we celebrated the successful conclusion of our project.
The whole experiences had not only brought us together as a group, but also generated plenty of behaviour that feedback could be exchanged about. So the next day, before departures and final good-byes we had an in-depth feedback session in two subgroups.
We enjoyed an intense, deeply touching and thoroughly learningful experience that challenged our leadership, team-working and communication skills. It left us with a strong sense of having embarked on a real adventure, which would enrich and inform our professional and private lives back at home.