A few years ago, a university invited me to come and speak at their annual leadership lecture series. This is an endowed event every year, but that particular year—they decided to really make it big. The staff wanted to see life-change in the students who attended. We spent hours on the phone preparing for those two days, brainstorming creative elements, interviews to be done, videos we could show, etc. It was certain to be the highlight of the school year and a surefire life-transforming event.
We pulled off the event spectacularly. Everything came off without a hitch or a glitch. Sadly, however, the administration told me that within a month, nothing really changed. Within four to six weeks, life on the campus returned to normal. The routines continued and all the great ideas evaporated.
I wish this was an isolated incident. But too many life-changing events don’t actually change any lives.
As a kid, before I became a type one diabetic, I loved cotton candy. It was the snack of choice when our family visited a theme park or local carnival. For me, there was nothing like eating a huge swirl of blue or pink cotton candy on a summer day—walking between Tomorrowland and the Matterhorn at Disneyland. One afternoon, my sister couldn’t finish her cotton candy. Naturally, I offered to finish it for her. I had just downed mine, and I had no idea how a second helping would impact my stomach. I soon found out. I got sicker than a dog. It was an awful way to spend an afternoon.
I have since come to understand the true value of cotton candy. It is a tasty treat in small doses. It’s delicious, but it was never intended to replace a nutritious meal. It’s pure sugar, for Pete’s sake. It’s a dessert. You don’t eat it until you’re full. In fact, it disintegrates when it hits your tongue or fingers.
I could say the same things about leadership training events, hosted by organizations or schools across the U.S. Administrators make the mistake I did with cotton candy. We overdose on events that can never actually nourish us. They motivate, but they can’t mature someone in their leadership skills. And even the motivation vanishes quickly. I bet that annual conference you just attended is nothing but a great memory in the minds of your students. No lasting change took place—except for a notebook that now collects dust on your shelf. Like cotton candy, we all love events—but they’re sugar. They energize us, but don’t last.
Events and Process
It’s not a new thought. People enjoy events because they stimulate and motivate—but we all know we need a growth process following the event, if we hope to make it last. In other words, after attending a training event, most people require an on-going journey; a community of relationships where the discussion expands. In the process, people continue to talk about and apply the principles that were introduced at the event. This is how good habits begin. This is how life change occurs. Every one of us needs a process that follows the event to seal what was learned. Look at the value of both:
|1. Encourage decisions||1. Encourages development|
|2. Motivate people||2. Matures people|
|3. Create a calendar issue||3. Creates a consistency issue|
|4. Challenge people||4. Changes people|
|5. Become a catalyst||5. Becomes a culture|
|6. Usually influence a big group||6. Usually influences a small group|
|7. Typically are easy||7. Typically is difficult|
There is nothing wrong with events. I believe, however, that both students and adults require the combination of events and process in order to grow. They often need a catalyst (at an event) to spark a decision. Then they need a week by week process to follow through and implement that decision into their life. The younger an audience is, the more they need a process to be in place to foster growth. Further, the younger an audience is, the more concrete this process must be. It cannot be abstract or conceptual. The process must be specific and intentional. Sadly, for most students—this is a luxury. We whisk them off to the next concert, retreat, conference or convention. We’re on to a new subject. This is why so few lasting changes happen after summer youth camp. It was a great event—but no process followed
The Non-Negotiables: What Does a Student Development Process Look Like?
So just what is required to do a leader-development process? No doubt the process can take on many forms. No two may look alike. I believe, however, the essential elements are listed below.
- Community Interaction
People need to interact. They learn as much through uploading as they do receiving a download of information from a leader. They learn best in social contexts. Engagement and ownership of the issue increases as students have the opportunity to push back and think out loud with a handful of others.
- Relevant Resources
To insure the interaction doesn’t get hijacked into a black hole, resources are helpful to furnish direction and discovery. They are not a “god” but a guide. A resource could be a book, a podcast, MP3 download, article, CD or DVD to stimulate thoughtful reflection and discussion on the topic.
- Facilitated Exercise
This element stimulates members of the community by involving them in more than discussion. It invites other senses through role-playing, case studies, activities, or hypothetical situations. By engaging their imagination, these exercises awake the creative right brain.
- Real-Time Modeling
A good process always includes a leader within the community who incarnates the principle being discussed. Because people do what people see, the conversation gains traction because a leader is providing a living example—not merely words. As the saying goes, actions always speak louder.
- Action Steps
At some point in the process, a leader should challenge the community with a real-life assignment. People must have the opportunity to practice the truth they are learning. Many students today are primarily kinesthetic learners, and they require activity in their growth process.
- Measured Assessment
It has been said that experience is the best teacher. I believe evaluated experience is the best teacher, because folks can easily have a bad experience and draw the wrong conclusion. Students need adults to help them process successes and failures in order to draw the right life application. A process should include a time of evaluation of each student’s growth.
- Time Elapse
A process cannot take place overnight, any more than a mom or dad can parent a child overnight. Learning requires time to pass for ideas to be digested. Most plants and animals do not grow up in a day or two. Neither do leaders. They are grown in crockpots—not microwave ovens.
I suggest that you never plan an event unless you also plan a process to follow that event. When I visit a campus and teach leadership, our team works with the host to plan that follow-up process. When students are placed in mentoring groups for a semester, they begin to apply leadership principles to their life. The event gains traction. The groups provide accountability, support and a laboratory to practice leadership skills with one another. Someone once said: “You can usually do less than you think you can in one week, but more than you think you can in one year.” I believe the same is true about events and process. Never underestimate the power of the process—it leads to healthy growth. You might say that process is like eating several good meals…along with your cotton candy.