The Lessons of JengaⓇ

Lee Dieck (January, 2018)

It was a conversation about honesty and integrity, based on a dilemma we’d just debated.  When asked, “How does it feel when you do something that you know goes against what you value, what you believe in?”, students were thoughtful but quiet. So we asked them to think about a specific instance in which they made a choice that was not in keeping with their values.  Now the responses were delivered with certainty:  “it doesn’t feel good,” “it bothers me,” “sometimes I think about it after.”  And then from the other side of the Harkness table came this:  “It’s like when you play a game of Jenga—you take out pieces of yourself, and what’s left is less sturdy.”  In Jenga, the game in which blocks are stacked in layers,  the challenge is to pull out a block when it is your turn, and place it on top of the stack of blocks without causing the stack to fall.  So here we were, my co-teacher and I, being handed a profound analogy of what it means not to honor your personal value system.  There’s more to it than this, but I’ll save that for later.

This took place is our class in Ethical Leadership for 11th and 12th graders, an elective course that is part of our overall Ethical Leadership Project.  We start our work with students with an exploration of self.  Who are you?  What do you value?  Who in your lives has brought you closer to these values? Who in your lives pushes you farther away from what you value?  We have found this self exploration, this “leading of self” to be the essential first step in exploring leadership, in part because many of them haven’t deeply considered these questions.  Self-awareness is a critical piece of the Emotional Intelligence spectrum. In addition, multiple studies have suggested that congruence between our personal values/interests and our goals/career choices increases effectiveness and sense of well-being. It is imperative to start the conversation about leadership by allowing students to understand who they are more deeply.  

This Jenga conversation gave students and adults alike a powerful image of what happens when our values and choices fall out of alignment.  The foundation of the tower of our selfhood  is weakened, and while it might remain standing, it is more vulnerable.  As we considered that image, another student provided the final piece of the picture saying, “But you are re-forming who you are, too, just like when you put the blocks you’ve removed onto the top of the tower.”  Indeed.