I was always getting into trouble at school. I didn’t mean to, it wasn’t deliberate. I wasn’t always aware I was doing it. I just wanted to try things out and always got punished for doing so.
Here’s an example. It’s January 1981 and we’re all in assembly at Sherburn Village Infants and Juniors School near Durham in the North-East of England. If it’s your birthday you’re allowed to choose a hymn in assembly. Since my birthday is during the Christmas holidays I never get a chance to choose. If I had I might have chosen one of our favourites, To Be a Pilgrim because it has the line, ‘follow the master’ in it. Since the Master was an evil time lord in Doctor Who me and my friends belt out the amended lyric ‘Follow the Doctor’.
But for some some reason, just after my 9th birthday, they’ve given me a chance to choose a hymn.
“Adrian Instone will chose the next hymn.” says Mrs Lamb.
We’d already done To Be A Pilgrim and Lord of the Dance which would have been my second choice as it has the great bit about it being hard to dance with the devil on your back. A great image that. So I quickly come up with another idea.
“Number seventy-three miss.” I say loud and clear from the centre of the throng.
“Right children, number seventy-three says Mrs Lamb, deputy head.
Fat Mrs Middlemas on the piano flicks through the book. There was a rustling of hymn books. Mrs Middlemas indicated for Mrs Lamb to come over, then with a cross expression on her face, Mrs Lamb walks back to the centre of the front of the hall and looks me in the eyes.
“There are only seventy-two hymns in the book.” she says.
“I know miss” I say.
“You mean to say that you deliberately deceived us?” she barks.
The assembly of kids starts to snigger. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
“Yes miss” I say, without irony or facetiousness.
“How-dare-you. This-is-a-serious-religious-service” she says, staccato, like a Dalek. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“Thought it would be a laff miss” I say.
The next thing I know is that I’m being dragged by the scruff of my shoulder from the crowd, out of the hall and locked in a cupboard room for the rest of the day. I sat there, thinking, mainly about Blake’s 7 that was due to be on that night, wondering if Blake was going to come back and re-join the crew of the Liberator…
So, was I being naughty? Possibly. But wasn’t it just harmless fun? Wasn’t I just testing the boundaries a little bit? Would it have really hurt for the teachers to say, “Nice one, very funny, you had us there, now let’s have Onward Christian Soldiers”
How do you react when a maverick in your organisation or team bends the rules or tests the boundaries? How do you react when your child behaves in unexpected ways? Here’s another example.
It’s late autumn 1981. The playground is covered in leaves. The three large oaks are stripped down to their bare branches as if to brace themselves against the forthcoming winter, rolling up their sleeves, ready to sit and fight it out. Some younger kids are laughing and running and kicking the unwanted leaves up. It gives me an idea. I quickly organise a bunch of younger kids to collect all the leaves together into piles. If the trees don’t want them, we don’t want them. I get my troupe to grab handfuls and throw them over the school railings onto the pavement beyond. There’s a flurry of leaves as the wind catches our autumnal plumes and whisks them into the air. In about five minutes we have the area clear. A teacher spots us and shouts from across the playground. It’s clear I’m the foreman of the operation. Instead of the praise for my enterprise that I expected, I’m grabbed by the arm and marched inside and positioned outside Mr Jackson’s office. The headmaster. I’m told that the cane was a certainty for such grave a crime as throwing stones at cars. My protest as the misunderstanding is ignored and I’m left there in at one end of the silent corridor waiting for the inevitable judgement.
As I stand there I notice the bell buzzer on the wall. It’s the button the teachers press to sound the bell ringing that calls us all from work to play and from play to work. As I look at it I wonder how much pressure would be needed for it to make contact, complete the circuit and sound the bell. A voice in my head says ‘press it and see’. There’s about fifteen minutes of lunchtime left to run. I lean back on the wall and accidentally on purpose lean onto the school bell button. Continuous loud bells ring out. People start rushing around like bees, spurred automatically into action as lunchtime is brought to a premature end. Mr Jackson comes out of his office. A get a warm whiff of decades old slate tobacco air.
“What are you doing here?” he looks at his watch and then the bell push. Pushing the button again, the ringing stops, “Well?”
“Mrs Lamb said I was throwing stones at cars but I wasn’t, I was just clearing the leaves from the playground.” I say. I get the feeling that he’d laugh at this and the bell incident if he didn’t have something else more important on his mind. He ushers me into the empty classroom opposite without bothering to turn the lights on.
“You mustn’t throw stones at cars.” he says almost absent mindedly, “Write that out ten thousand times, ‘I must not throw stones at cars’”. With that, he returns to his office. I pick up a pencil and some paper and write out ten thousand times, ‘I did not throw stones at cars’.
At this point in my life I hadn’t yet learned to ‘play it safe’ when it came to experimentation within the structure of school. A few more incidents like this (there were plenty more) and I started to keep my head down and do things to please just like everyone else.
In business (and in family life) we’re often too busy to spend time to figure out why people do what they do and reward or punish on the result. We applaud success (even if success was arrived at with no skill or effort) and we despise failure (even when failure is often a brave step in a new direction). This is an arbitrary way to behave that reduces experimentation and creativity that can lead to better ways of doing things. It’s an especially mean way to behave towards children who only learn that ‘failure is bad’ from us and then stop trying.
Keep an open mind with mavericks. They could be experimenting in ways others never could. With a child, disruptive behavior is the tip of an unknown iceberg that could be a bigger problem potential talent trying to get through. In business, the green light for innovation and the chance to try and fail could be just what you need to open your organisation to new opportunities you couldn’t have guess existed.
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