The Buddy System: Why It Ain’t Just for Preschoolers

Remember the “buddy system” from childhood? On field trips, in swimming pools – any time there simply weren’t enough “responsible adults” to go around, each of us would be become a five-year old suddenly accountable for the safety and well-being of another five-year old.

What could possibly go wrong?

But somehow, at least in my experience, nothing ever did. I was the responsible rule-follower, and my buddy of the day, Jamie, was the impulsive rebel. (Side note, she remains my best friend to this day, but I digress…)

Somehow that crazy system worked. It kept us on track and safe. But now we’re all adults. So that silly buddy system no longer adds value – right? Yep – you guessed it. I baited you. There are so many lessons to be learned from that crazy old buddy system!   No field trips or swimming pools required. Shall we dive in? (Pool pun intended)

Why did these responsible adults institute said system in the first place? What were they protecting us from? Getting lost. Drowning. Eating something that fell on the floor.   These were our perils back then.

So what about today – for leaders in the workplace? (And yes – we all still eat stuff off the floor). But we really worry about things like handling a delicate situation ineffectively. Failing to inspire and motivate our teams. Not coaching or giving feedback effectively. Not harnessing our teams’ capabilities in delivering outstanding work.

These fears are real. Less life-threatening, perhaps, than drowning, but no less valid. And so often we expend energy and time on finding a mentor or a coach – someone whose job it is to educate us. To show us the way. And those mentors and coaches add a very real value. But they’re not the whole picture. So that buddy system… How did it actually serve us?

If offered a hand to hold. We love the idea of mentorship. It feels nice to have that wise and experienced “responsible adult” coaching and advising us through the complex situations we navigate daily. But “responsible adults” remain in short supply.

And who says that to provide value to you someone must be wise and experienced? We default to assume we need someone smarter than us in the realm of leadership. But sometimes as leaders, it’s not education or wisdom we need. It’s just support – validation for our challenges, and a small cheerleading section. We just need a buddy.

It exposed us to other ways of thinking. Back in the day, if a teacher gave me a map, you can bet I was following it. But Jamie always had different ideas. She was creative, ingenious, always scheming. By the end of any field trip, I’d have kept her from landing in museum security, and she’d have taught me ways to innovate on direction from the teacher.

She loosened me up. I taught her that once in a while, following the rules actually yielded a nice outcome. We balanced each other.   Often as adults we look for mentors who’ve achieved exactly the outcome we want for ourselves. And again – that approach serves a purpose.  

But what you can learn from or experience with a leader who has taken an entirely different approach to managing? Find someone who fits that bill. Learn new ways. Put down that map. Grab a buddy.

It let us play. Once, I was the “lucky” one who got to be the teacher’s buddy. You know – the line leader. Sweet! Or so I thought. But to date, it’s the least fun field trip I’ve taken. I was so focused on impressing her with my good behavior and insightful questions, I totally forgot to enjoy the day.  

Formal mentors can be wonderful contributors to our growth and education as leaders. But spending time with them can also create stress. We prepare, we anticipate questions, we strive to impress. Again – all good things. But sometimes we need a safe place to kick back. To be ourselves and totally informal. To speak freely about what challenges us without fear of looking bad in the eyes of a respected leader.  We need a buddy.

So what’s the take away? Mentors and coaches are great – they add a unique and specific value. But add some “buddies” to your toolbox – whether your relationships are 1:1, or community-based – and be really principled about how you utilize these very different relationships.    

And also, stop eating stuff off the floor.

Related: What Leaders are Getting Dangerously Wrong Right Now. And How to Fix it.