By Andy Gibbons
Mar 31, 2016

Provide Varsity Scouts a Model of Leadership

This is part 4 of a 12-part blog series that explores mentoring skills and principles for adults serving teacher and priest-age boys (14-18):

The remaining posts will appear weekly.

Principle #4: Provide a Model of Leadership

An old adage claims that “leaders are born, not made”. This is the false myth of the “born leader”. You are a leader—or at least you are capable of becoming one—even if you don’t feel that you were born one. If you have been appointed to a leadership position, then someone either saw existing ability or potential in you, because responsible assignments with youth are not made randomly. Therefore, as a mentor of youth you are in a unique position to improve your leadership and mentoring skills: you can learn in the laboratory of leadership. You are standing at the plate—the only question is, “will you swing?”

Varsity-Scout-PlanningMentoring involves a unique blend of leadership and teaching. Youth arriving at Varsity age need mentoring as never before in their lives. At an earlier age, most youth need direct instruction. That is, they often need to be” told” and “directed”. But when a youth reaches the age of 14 or 15, he doesn’t want to be “told”, and he certainly doesn’t want to be “directed”. A different kind of leadership is needed. Hence, the need for mentoring skills.

In mid-teen years, youth are feeling keenly the need to take charge of their own decisions and value choices. They want to claim their own individuality, and they are less willing to take direction from from authority figures, relying more on peers and their own judgment. This process continues into and through young adulthood. This is the result of a natural maturation of the physical brain and its mental processes. The alternative to this is an individual who fails to grow in independence and self-reliance. What kind of adult life would a youth have if this process did not occur?

Mentoring is the form of teaching and leadership that complements this naturally-occurring developmental process. Mentoring involves very little direct instruction and a great deal more listening, observing, and advising, but just enough advising and just at the right time and place. Older youth (16 and 17) are more ready for independent leadership, but during the Varsity-age transition, friendly and nurturing mentor support is needed from an adult who knows how and when to help without taking over. “Guide on the side” and “shadow leadership” sum up pretty well what is needed.

Ironically, the mentoring form of teaching and leadership is probably the least-talked about and least-understood form of instruction. This is not surprising, because so few adults have experienced an example of good mentoring. That’s why this series on mentoring might be useful for you. Mentoring is actually one of the most powerful methods of instruction, right through adulthood. The research literature on mentoring began to develop first in relation to the teaching of adults, who are much more independent and lose patience with direct and controlling instructional approaches.

In some ways, mentoring is like coaching. However, not all coaches are created equal. We all know that some coaches build a player, while others use their players up and wear them out. Good mentoring can be learned only from good coaches. Great coaches like John Wooden (UCLA basketball) and Lavell Edwards (BYU, football) are remembered for turning out professional-grade players year after year. Some of their great players became great coaches as well, because they had seen good mentoring themselves.

Here are some sound principles for mentoring that build players, and future leaders, at the same time:

  1. Provide a model they can use as a pattern. Wooden and Edwards treated their team members with respect, honesty, and accountability. Not only was the player accountable to the coach, but the coach was also accountable to the player. Make a promise; keep a promise. Be a model worth following.
  2. Be a friend but don’t try to be a chum. You are an adult, and the youth is probably not interested in chumming around with someone 25 years older. However, you can establish a friendly and respectful working relationship that gives credit to the youth for progress and achievement. If you treat youth as young adults, they learn to respond more like adults.
  3. Balance levels of support and challenge. Not every youth comes under your influence at the same stage of readiness to assume leadership. When you work with a youth, do a preliminary assessment of where they are and adjust the level of challenge to their particular needs. As you work with them over time, re-assess and adjust the level of challenge.
  4. Support, and don’t take over. The common wisdom is, “Don’t do for the youth something they can and should be doing for themselves”. In some cases youth require a good deal of support. In others, the best thing to do is to be available and watchful. Learning to make this judgment is a developmental task for the adult. For the adult who is willing to learn it, the payoff is immense.
  5. Fade support as soon as possible. As youth become comfortable with one level of support and challenge, the level of support given by the adult mentor can gradually fade. You can draw a youth forward, but it has to be at a speed determined by their faith in both themselves and you.
  6. Use a regular cycle of “Plan-Execute-Reflect.” Plan to have regular contact with whatever youth you are assigned to work with. You can do this during the part of the team meeting designated for adult-youth planning. Negotiate goals and responsibilities with your youth as called for by their assignments. Then follow up and do reflection after the activity is over during this regular contact. In this way, the cycle of leadership—”Plan-Execute-Reflect”—becomes a habit.
  7. Don’t let the monkey climb. Sometimes after agreeing to do something, a capable youth will try to hand an assignment back to the adult mentor (often at the last moment). This is the monkey trying to climb onto your back. If you work out a set of goals and responsibilities with a youth, monitor progress regularly. Spot problems before they become critical, and you will be less likely to have the monkey climbing back on you at the last moment.
  8. Recognize success and put the youth in the spotlight. Mentoring uses the principle of the servant-leader. When a youth needs support, give it at the level needed. When the youth succeeds by doing a good job, give the youth the credit deserved and stay in the background while he is in the spotlight.

The concepts and organization of Varsity Scouting are built around helping youth assume more and more responsibility for their own choices and helping them develop leadership ability. Mentoring is the adult’s responsibility in this relationship for growth, and both the adult and the youth grow in the process when it is done right.

AuAndythor: Andy Gibbons | Vice-Chair, Western Region Varsity Scout Program Committee and author of the “The Varsity Scout Leaders Day Book

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