In college, my summer job was "Playground Supervisor".
For eight weeks, from 9:00am to 11:30am, 1:00pm to 4:30pm, and 6:00pm to 8:30pm, four days a week (closing down at 5:00pm on Friday), I was partnered with a young lady. It was our job to corral anywhere between ten and forty youngsters, ages five to maybe sixteen. We had to plan activities that weren't too advanced for the five year olds, weren't too childish for the sixteen year olds.
There wasn't a better management lab than playground supervision. Some kids were needy, some were mean, some were sick, some were shy, some were outgoing. We earned $4.00 per hour, considered a good summer wage at the time, trying to balance the needs of three dozen kids.
We had maybe eight or nine playgrounds across the city of Manitowoc. Attendance at each park was directly tied to the environment created by the playground leadership team. Some parks had a half dozen or dozen kids during each session. Other parks had between thirty-five and fifty kids attending each session. All it took was effort, activities and kindness to bring the kids in.
I recall there being a sixteen year old who liked to stir up trouble. Overall, this kid had a good soul. But from time to time, he liked to pick on various people. Each Friday morning, we spent several hours at the municipal pool. His job was to drown me. My job was to let him drown me. Our management team thought it was good for the kids to try to torment us in the pool. At times, I'd have six or seven teenage boys trying to drown me. Those were heady times. Imagine what a lawyer would think of that in the year 2007?
After a few weeks of incessant horseplay, I became frustrated. It became my mission to find a way to "get even" with this kid.
My opportunity came during a game of dodgeball. This young man was standing all by himself, no more than fifteen yards away from me. I had a perfectly-sized playground ball in my right hand. Seeing the opportunity to toss this ball at a high velocity toward the teen's belly, I reached back, and with all the strength I could muster, catapulted the ball toward the bully.
The young man was quite agile. Realizing this whistling weapon would cause undue damage to his abdomen, he dove to the ground, his face full of fear.
As the teen hit the ground, I saw a young boy, five years old, standing maybe ten yards behind the teen. This young boy was not watching the epic struggle between sixteen and twenty-one year old. No, this boy was probably daydreaming about strawberries or frogs or Max Headroom.
No sooner than I could yell "Watch Out Harold!", the projectile struck the innocent youth flush in the left cheek, pushing Harold's head back at the velocity of the playground ball. The force of the impact lifted Harold's tiny little feet airborne, much like a teeter-totter. The back of Harold's wee-little head hit the pavement first, followed by his hands, buttocks, and finally, his previously airborne feet.
Lord knows how Harold felt. I know how I felt. I realized that I may have killed Harold!
Five seconds later, air returned to Harold's lungs, and he began to cry at decibel levels reserved for jet airliners. At that moment, forty children, a mortified playground leader, and a laughing sixteen year old bully stared at me like I was the anti-Christ.
No amount of apology solves a problem of this magnitude. I remember Harold wiping the tears off of his little face, a face that was half pale, half bright red, swollen slightly out of proportion. He quietly sobbed as he walked to his bike, mounted the vehicle, and peddled home.
Harold never came back to the playground.
As leaders, how often do we inadvertently do harm to the employees placed in our care? How often do our petty battles and problems with various leaders cause situations that spill over and impact folks like Harold? Worse, how often do we not notice the damage we do?