Some researchers now believe that in the U.S. adolescents become adults around age 27. This means that most traditional college students will be “adolescents” the entire time they are undergrads. This raises some interesting questions for those of us concerned about helping shape the next generation of leaders. With experience educating mainly experienced managers, I wonder how best to form adolescents as leaders?
I’m no longer sure that I now know a so-called “adult” when I see one. Many of my younger friends, (I must now suppose that they are adolescents), impress me a great deal more than some adults I know. And, every year our service academies and other officer commissioning channels deliver many adolescents into combat situations where they must lead other adolescents in extremely challenging environments. Most are successful and competent. (let us also recall that in Nelson’s navy, twelve-year old midshipmen led sailors and commanded gun mount crews in horrendous battles.)
As an educator, I like to think I should be paying attention to these things. But how?
First, I like to think about forming leaders rather than developing them. It seems more holistic and relational. It allows for a bigger answer to the question. Now let me add the quest and the odyssey to leadership formation by mentioning David Brooks who added the “odyssey years” to human life phases – that “decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood.”
The quest part is close to home as I think about the adolescents who used to live in my house. Some of you will recall those who lived in your house and their chief tasks as leaving moldy fast food and dirty underwear in hard-to-find places. I did not understand my 21 year-old son’s pilgrimage until I tripped over Brooks’ “odyssey years”. In and out of colleges around the Northwest, gone and back again from major adventures, and exploring dangerous and not-so-dangerous ideas on a wild ride … did not satisfy my idea – a nice quiet engineering degree somewhere, followed by a good job – of what the future should hold for him. I would immediately identify him as an individual with significant leadership potential, engaged in a daily practice of leading, with friends who literally follow him everywhere and anywhere. His life did not seem to make sense to me until he set off on a two-month backpacking expedition to the Sierras linked with a course on ecopsychology, sponsored by Humboldt State University. He had literally been on a quest-driven odyssey since age 15.
My daughter, a top liberal-arts college product with strong leadership capacities, plowed through a demanding curriculum in three years instead of four, but when questioned, speaks mostly of separate month-long internships in Bolivia and Brazil, and a faculty-led tour of WW2 concentration camps as her most memorable learning events. Her quest involved understanding culture and the Holocaust and her odysseys ranged far beyond her comfort zone.
My oldest son, a sampler of various educational venues along the West Coast, eventually joined the army and shipped off to Iraq for a year. Returning with less scars than most, we saw immediately that he had turned a corner. He became a leader and an adult in the crucible of midnight tours of Baghdad alleys and writing the obituaries of friends as an Army journalist.
Some common threads seem to run through their quests and odysseys and those of others I have watched. These catalytic factors seemed to be involved:
- A seamless experience – learning occurred all hours, through meals, constantly challenging.
- Intensive – distractions were removed by a remote location.
- Contextualized – daily activities folded into content and illustrated it.
- Physical – sweat and exhaustion tend to focus the mind wonderfully… endorphin-enhanced learning.
- Coaching & mentoring – faculty in relationship [drill sergeants?], operating in non or counter-intuitive, non-traditional environments; (co-generated research complements this).
- Reflection – processing knowledge in non-traditional frameworks reinforces learning. The scholarship of co-discovery connected with the requirement to teach is fundamental.
- Rigor & discipline – ongoing process of surviving and stretching to reach daunting goals tied to acquiring tools for self-management.
- Responsibility – actual roles leading followers.
- A crucible or defining experience – episodes that shake our beliefs and challenge our mortality, that embody significant risk, that serve as rites of passage, that lead to adulthood. Hanging off the side of a mountain, weathering a typhoon at sea, being shot at in Baghdad alleys, or confronting the overwhelming demands of another culture are crucible experiences. The Jesuits identify their month-long Spiritual Exercises experience as pivotal for their new recruits.
My own leadership education began in Boy Scouts. Whatever the current assessments of the scouting movement, in my day it was huge. At age 13 I had seven guys to boss around and learned quickly that no results were possible without relationships. I was [am] an Eagle Scout which had something to do with my appointment to the Naval Academy. I did not take the appointment, but nonetheless ended up as a 23 year-old naval officer on the bow of a destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf supervising sixty boatswain’s mates. I know I learned leadership as an “adolescent”, so I know it can be done.
Question for our time … if we are to take responsibility for forming leaders who will serve our grandchildren how will we shape our institutions to do this?