Jeffrey had a lot of influence within the group, but not necessarily in a good way. On the surface, he had it all going on. He was athletic, good looking, and very experienced in the outdoors education environment. Every activity we did during the first two days of the program, he had probably done a hundred times before. At least that’s what he said. When we had to climb the 35-foot power pole and jump off from the top, Jeffrey climbed blindfolded. He said it was just too easy for him otherwise.
But while Jeffrey excelled in the activities, he also managed to alienate his teammates in the process. These first two days were supposed to help us bond and become a team. We were about to go into the wilderness together for eight days, and we needed to be able to count on each other. But for Jeffrey, it was all about Jeffrey. He clearly enjoyed having an advantage over the rest of us, and he made sure we all knew it. To show off his superiority, he always had to go first in every activity. Then he would sit back and enjoy watching the rest of us flounder.
On the second day, we had one final activity to do before dinner and packing up for our excursion. By this point, we had all gotten used to Jeffrey’s grandiose ways. And, in a weird sort of way, he actually brought the rest of us together.
Patrick, our lead instructor, gathered us together. “This is called Wind in the Willows,” he said. “It’s a trust exercise where each of you will get a chance to be in the center of the circle with your eyes closed. You will then fall back into the waiting hands of your teammates who will gently move you around the circle—back and forth and to the side.”
While Patrick demonstrated the correct body posture for both being in the center and for supporting the person in the center, many of us smiled and looked around. Collectively, we wondered, How will Jeffrey hijack this one?
“So, who’d like to go first?” Patrick asked.
We all glanced around with our eyebrows raised. You know how groundhogs’ heads pop up from the ground all at once? That’s kind of what we looked like at that moment.
More dead silence.
“Look, guys,” said Patrick, “we need to get going.”
Finally, someone other than Jeffrey volunteered.
Perhaps being a team player is finally sinking in, I thought, as I glanced over toward Jeffrey and smiled. But nothing…no reaction.
More and more of the group members took their turn, but still no Jeffrey.
“Jeffrey,” called Patrick, “you’re the last one.”
Something clearly was wrong. From a trust-building perspective, this activity wasn’t nearly as difficult as the power pole challenge, and yet Jeffrey looked timid. What happened to his “Anything you can do, I can do better” attitude, I wondered.
Waving his hand to signal No thanks, Jeffrey responded, “Been there, done that.”
“I don’t care,” shouted Patrick, getting annoyed, “we are all doing it.”
“Seriously,” complained Jeffrey, “I’ve done this a hundred times. I’m gonna skip it.”
The two squared off while we all watched.
“Listen to me,” said Patrick. “We’ve got things to do and we cannot move on until you get your rear end in the circle.”
Jeffrey slowly and reluctantly headed toward the center of the circle.
Crystal, a fellow participant, touched Jeffrey’s shoulder to let him know it was going to be okay.
He jumped, like he had just seen a ghost.
“Sorry, I was just trying to help,” apologized Crystal.
Sweat was now dripping from Jeffrey’s brow.
“Get into position,” directed Patrick.
Jeffrey was noticeably shaking, hesitant to close his eyes.
Patrick changed his tone, now seeing the fear that took over. “Look at me Jeffrey, what’s going on?”
Jeffrey stiffened up. “Nothing, I’m fine.”
He took a big breath before attempting to fall back. He was literally shaking. He stopped himself. He regrouped and tried a second time but still couldn’t commit to falling back. Finally, by the third attempt, he slowly leaned back far enough to come into contact with our hands ready to support him. But instead of easing into our hands, he bent over in the opposite direction and crashed to the ground.
He covered his face as his body shook. He was crying.
“Are you okay?” cried Kelly, while Kimberly stroked his back with her hand.
“Let him be,” asserted Patrick, “and give him some space.”
All eyes were glued on Jeffrey. We were as scared as he was.
I must admit, for a guy who triggered me so, I never felt more care and compassion for him than I did at that moment; and it wasn’t just me. Our whole team rallied around him. It was exactly what we needed. Jeffrey’s vulnerability literally brought the whole group together for the first time.
But it was short-lived.
Within seconds, Jeffrey brushed himself off, apologized for having been weak, and went right back to being the jerk that we all became accustomed to seeing. His brief instance of true authenticity was merely an aberration for him. He saw it as weakness; a mistake; a moment to forget. He just couldn’t get out of his own way.
Rarely will these types of outdoor education programs release a participant; but Jeffrey was kicked out four days later for continually refusing to be a team player. Ultimately, he put our group in jeopardy when he separated himself from us on the climb down Mount Elbert, choosing instead to go on his own. Unfortunately for Jeffrey, the instructors had enough of his antics and escorted him off the mountain and out of the program later that night.
Although Jeffrey never understood the importance of team dynamics, he did a pretty good job of teaching it to the rest of us. I guess there are no accidents!
* This story is from Geese’s latest book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese