The Leader Gardener

Mike ChapmanLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership® Questionnaire, Student Leadership

by Mike Chapman, Cadet Corps Leadership Program Instructor at St. John’s College High School, (Washington, D.C.)

Managing an effective high school student leadership development program, in many ways, is like managing a good vegetable garden. Even the most novice gardener can understand the basics: prepare the soil, infrastructure, and spacing plan prior to planting; conduct both collective and individual maintenance once the plants begin to grow; and host a celebratory, communal harvest when ideal ripeness is achieved.

Like a good garden, a quality student leadership development program requires a methodical, annual cycle of planning, preparation, maintenance, and harvest in order to create the environment in which student leaders of all varieties can individually and collectively thrive.

Long before the excitement of spring planting, an experienced gardener will determine the success or failure of her plot through her ability to establish the conditions in which a wide variety of plants can grow. Likewise, an experienced high school student leadership program coordinator will ensure his students have the opportunity to grow as leaders by creating the conditions in which they can safely and confidently succeed, fail, and test a variety of leadership styles with as many groups, tasks, and contexts as possible. The program coordinator achieves these goals through curriculum development, organizational structure, and the creation of peer leader support resources.

Prepare the Soil
Too often, student leaders are thrust into their roles as captains of teams or presidents of student organizations and clubs without receiving any education on corresponding academic leadership theory. Just as young plants should be planted in soft, nutrient-rich soil to develop the strong root systems required for growth, student leaders deserve an initial and ongoing curriculum in leadership theories and styles.

In addition to determining the focus of the curriculum (such as servant leadership, entrepreneurship, or collaborative leadership) as well as the core leadership skills it is intended to address (such as emotional intelligence, peer mentorship, or design thinking), program coordinators must ensure the curriculum progresses sequentially with associated student leadership roles/responsibilities as they advance in age and grade to enable consistent growth. Doing so ensures students receive additional, relevant content each year. For example, our four-year leadership curriculum focuses on leading yourself, leading others, leading teams, and leading organizations from freshman to senior year, reviewing and building on one another as the students progress.

Develop a Spacing Plan
One of the most common mistakes for a novice gardener is overcrowding. More often than not, this results from a failure to plan ahead and anticipate just how much growth will occur, and how much space is needed for the growing plants to individually and collectively thrive.
Student leaders also need space to breathe. A good student leadership development program should distribute peer leadership responsibilities in accordance with past performance, future potential, and age/grade with a deliberate, thoughtful spacing plan, or organizational structure, to ensure all upper-class members have enduring, increasingly complex leadership roles and responsibilities – both structured and unstructured – to lead their peers and apply the leadership principles they are learning in class.

Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs and private military academies nationwide achieve this with their “chain of command,” a cross-grade, unit-based organizational structure in which student leaders ascend in rank and responsibility as they ascend in grade. Vertical House Systems achieve this with their houses and associated cross-grade sub-units. Boarding schools often achieve this with their dorm prefects.

Though tedious and time-consuming, this annual organizational effort separates the good programs from the great ones. Good programs provide episodic seminars, retreats, and guest speakers throughout the year and market these initiatives as leadership development, yet never actually create an environment in which students are required (and empowered) to lead themselves and their peers in both structured and unstructured contexts. Great ones combine all of the above with a classroom-based leadership curriculum while also providing recurring, enduring, and experiential learning opportunities for student leaders to actually apply what they’ve learned in a variety of leadership roles. These programs also ensure student leaders have regular opportunities to both reflect on their experiences and receive feedback from peer and faculty mentors alike.

Build a Support System
Another common mistake for a novice gardener is a failure to plan for and emplace the necessary support structures needed to alleviate the burden of a healthy growing season. Much like the humble, dormant grapevine will eventually require a robust trellis to channel and distribute the weight of its late-summer crop, student leaders will require a variety of support mechanisms to both guide and alleviate the burden of their peer leadership responsibilities throughout the year. The key is to ensure these support systems are in place well before the start of the “growing season.”

First, program coordinators should ensure students have embedded, recurring opportunities to reflect on their experiences as peer leaders. Reflection is a key component of any experiential learning model and is especially important to ones focused on student leadership development. This allows students to support themselves as they grow.

Second, like any successful peer mentorship program, students must know that they aren’t expected to have an answer to every problem nor the experience to deal with every situation. Effective peer mentorship programs commonly provide a menu of resources for support, offering fellow peer leaders as a resource on one end of the support spectrum and school counselors, administration, and staff on the other. In between is any combination of available resources or personnel, including teachers/instructors, upper-class mentors, or even external resources such as siblings and parents.

Explaining the purpose of these resources upfront is essential to ensure they are used properly throughout the year. Otherwise, you may find your peer leaders crumbling under the metaphorical weight of the individual responsibility and growth they experience when empowered to mentor and lead their peers.

Planting and Maintenance
With nutritious, soft soil, adequate spacing, and an established support system, the gardener is prepared for spring planting. Similarly, with a comprehensive leadership curriculum, a deliberate peer leadership organizational structure, and a variety of resources available to support student leader growth, a cross-age peer leadership program is ready for school to begin. At this point, experienced gardeners will focus on nurturing young seedlings and creating a schedule for required, recurring maintenance. The program coordinator will prioritize easing young student leaders into their new roles while scheduling recurring individual and collective check-ins to maintain both the health and direction of the program.

Nurture the Seedlings
Transitioning a young, vulnerable seedling from a controlled, indoor or greenhouse environment to the unpredictable elements of the outdoors is a process called “hardening off.” The goal is to slowly transition the young plants as they develop the “thick skin” they’ll need to survive and thrive. Student leaders, in reality, should be offered a similar transitional experience. Though many elected student leaders succeed and were chosen specifically because of their demonstrated ability to perform in these roles, a student leadership program that develops all students into leaders will require far more planning with regards to transitions and maintenance.

Freshman year of a four-year program, for example, could focus entirely on the personal readiness required to effectively lead others. Then, with fundamentals such as emotional intelligence, active listening, and authenticity thoroughly covered, freshmen can be challenged to lead themselves and their classmates through a curriculum anchored on project-based learning, service learning, and group work. With this sort of foundational knowledge and experience absorbed and applied internally as a class, they can transition to introductory cross-grade peer leadership positions as sophomores, such as in peer mentorship roles to the newest class of freshmen. Junior year can then focus on leading larger teams, whereas senior year might focus on skills associated with leading entire organizations.

When it comes to program maintenance and check-ins, collective, program-wide efforts are the easy part. It is relatively simple and effective to develop quarterly, grade-level surveys, host roundtable brainstorming sessions with grade-level representatives, or develop a culture that embraces the “after-action review” process touted at successful organizations worldwide.

More difficult, however, is individualized consideration, one of the four components of “transformational leadership,” and defined by J.M. Burns as “the degree to which the leader attends to each follower’s needs, acts as a mentor or coach to the follower, and listens to the follower’s concerns.” Much like thirty minutes of weeding, watering, pruning, and protecting a garden twice a day will add up when compounded over an entire growing season, mentoring, coaching, and advising each and every student within a leadership development program can quickly erase any “white space” in an educator’s schedule. Yet this is one of the most essential tasks in any program coordinator’s toolkit for a variety of reasons.

First, it demonstrates to the student leaders “what right looks like.” How can they be expected to provide individualized consideration and mentorship to the underclassmen within their units, teams, houses, or prefects if the adults neither practice nor role model this very same behavior? Demonstrating this leadership technique and actively highlighting how it makes them feel as a follower is far more effective than simply telling them about it.

Second, personal attention enables the detailed, one-on-one conversations, observations, and feedback required for a broader understanding of the health of the program as a whole. Though a dozen 30-minute conversations with student leaders in one week may feel repetitive in the moment, it is on Friday afternoon when reviewing notes that the program coordinator may realize big picture trends, such as a collective need for a program retreat or a shift required in the sophomore year curriculum.

Lastly, this individualized consideration creates the conditions necessary to facilitate a student-run organization. For example, mentoring, coaching, and advising a teenager on how to develop, plan, coordinate, and execute a freshmen orientation is not easy. It would be far easier and less time consuming to simply do all the planning oneself and then hand the plan to the student on a platter. This is exactly why most programs (and teachers) avoid the student-run aspect of programming altogether.

Unfortunately, this robs the students of the opportunity to practically apply what they learn in class and prevents them from developing critical leadership skills in planning, communication, delegation, and supervision, among others. Only by holding recurring, individual, and small group meetings will a coordinator be able to provide the necessary guidance and feedback to keep student-led initiatives on track.

Similar to spring planting, the harvest is another opportunity to garner the energy and support of the community. An experienced program coordinator will anticipate and utilize the end-of-school energy in support of broader programmatic goals and to ensure that culminating student leader projects, competitions, and events are as inclusive, communal, and public as possible.

This is extremely important for two reasons. First, an essential component of project-based learning is the public presentation. When forced to produce a “public” product, students will generally produce work that is genuinely good. When asked to produce a product just for the classroom, however, it will often be just good enough. And “public” doesn’t mean a packed auditorium – it could simply mean something posted/streamed online for others to access, or just a handful of external observers. Empowering student leaders to create, coordinate, and execute end-of-year projects, events, or presentations that are as communal and public as possible will elevate their work far more than simply adding numerical weight to the grade.

Second, much like food will always taste better to friends and family who helped harvest the raw ingredients, culminating student-led presentations, events, and projects will have profoundly more meaning to the school community when this very same community is involved in the overall planning and implementation process.

In his book Team of Teams, St. John’s alumnus ‘72 General Stanley McChrystal notes, “The gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash, or beans, she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.”

We owe it to our students to create this environment – an environment in which all students are able to succeed, fail, and test a variety of leadership styles with as many groups, tasks, and contexts as possible. Our nation’s future harvest will depend on it.

Mike Chapman is an instructor with the Cadet Corps Leadership Program at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. Since graduating from Davidson College, he’s worked in a variety of roles, including as a Crew Chief with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana/Office of Disaster Response, an English Education Volunteer in the United States Peace Corps, an infantry officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, and various positions at the Department of State, Department of Defense and non-profit world. An avid hobbyist, he maintains a garden at his home in Washington, D.C. and a small family vineyard in Maryland with his father-in-law. He plans to attend gcLi this summer and can be reached at