Fast forward a number of years to when I’m working my first teaching job. The principal of the school at the time identified leadership traits within me early on and started providing opportunities for me to try new and varied things. This would ultimately lead to my first principalship. In some respects, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have now without the insight, courage, humility, and wisdom of these two individuals. They were what some would call my mentors and their initiative in no small way provided the groundwork for the development of leadership capacities within me. You can all hear the echo of your own stories in my words and you know that if it weren’t for that certain individual or two, you wouldn’t be where you are today.
I am writing this now because I believe that I have failed in accomplishing what my mentors were able to accomplish. I’m certainly not saying that I haven’t had excellent people around me. I have. But, I question whether or not I have explicitly and intentionally identified leaders and worked to help them develop their leadership potential. Because the development of new leaders is so tremendously important to the future of our Christian schools, I want to explore the topic of mentorship here as a means of helping you as a Christian school leader to begin thinking intentionally about being that protégé who will spark the flame of some future leader.
Sir Ken Robinson admits in The Element that mentors are crucial in helping people to get to what he calls the Element. The Element, for Robinson, is essentially what he argues to be that innate (I say God-given) thing that a person is naturally inclined towards and passionate about. He claims that “Without a knowledgeable guide to aid us in identifying our passions, to encourage our interests, to smooth our paths, and to push us to make the most of our capacities, the journey is considerably harder” (p.184). In retrospect, I would concur with this assertion – it would have been much more difficult to have the foresight and courage to seek out leadership opportunities had I not had that person willing to push me in that direction.
There are specific aspects of mentorship that are recognizable as well. Good mentors provide four important things: recognition, encouragement, facilitation, and stretching. Mentors, says Robinson, “recognize the spark of interest or delight and can help an individual drill down to the specific components of the discipline that match that individual’s capacity and passion” (p.179). Good leaders will be able to identify other leaders and what their passions and gifts are. As John C. Maxwell points out about leaders: “It takes one to know one, show one, and grow one” (p.151). My volleyball coach must have had his eyes wide open to recognize leadership capabilities in me during high school, they were well beneath the surface, I can assure you.
Mentors encourage those in their flock. They “lead us to believe that we can achieve something that seemed improbable or impossible to us before we met them. They stand by to remind us of the skills we already possess and what we can achieve if we continue to work hard” (p.181-182). I remember asking my principal prior to taking over the principalship in his stead if I could actually do this. He responded that there was no doubt in his mind.
In addition to recognizing and encouraging, good mentors facilitate opportunities for growth. It is poignant that Robinson maintains that this means not only providing positive opportunities for growth, but also “allowing us to falter a bit while standing by to help us recover and learn from our mistakes” (p.182). It may seem harsh, but failure is as good a teacher, if not better, than success. During the year prior to my first principalship, the principal allowed me to lead staff meetings and PD sessions with staff. In this was both the opportunity to succeed, but more importantly the opportunity to engage in and wrestle with what did not work.
Finally, Robinson complements the stages of mentorship with stretching. He claims that “Effective mentors push us past what we see as our limits” (p.183). This is probably not done by building major hurdles, but by gently stepping aside and providing a guiding hand to lead us on to the next meaningful challenge. The mentors in my life didn’t push me into situations that I couldn’t handle, instead, they supplied new circumstances and then walked with me into them.
John C. Maxwell points out the obvious and the profound when he reminds us that “Mentorship is of course a two-way street. As important as it is to have a mentor in your life, it is equally important to fulfill these roles for other people” (p.184). In this way, mentorship is a cyclical process – we leaders needed mentors to push and guide us to come into the positions that we’ve been entrusted with. Future leaders are depending on us to do the same for them. “Empowerment is powerful”, says Maxwell, “not only for the person being developed, but also for the mentor.”
“Enlarging others makes you larger” (p.141).
Maxwell, J. C. (2002). Ultimate leadership: maximize your potential and empower your team. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.
Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2009). The element: how finding your passion changes everything. New York: Viking.