Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Mentoring Project

In Portland, Oregon there is an author and teacher named Donald Miller who founded The Belmont Foundation, “a not-for-profit foundation working to recruit ten-thousand mentors through one-thousand churches as an answer to the crisis of fatherlessness in America.” The Mentoring Project (TMP), The Belmont Foundation’s main project, seeks to accomplish this endeavor “by inspiring and equipping faith communities to mentor fatherless boys” by providing mentor training and resources, and consultation to the volunteers as well as financial assistance to the mothers of the mentored children.
After reading his biography and part of his memoir, Blue Like Jazz, it’s clear that Don founded TMP, and serves on President Obama’s task force of Fatherhood and Healthy Families, so that young boys in America can live healthier, more-fulfilling lives than he lived while growing up without a father. His personal experience is a key motivating factor for his service to the fatherless youth in America.

Regarding TMP alone, and leaving out his writings, book tours, lectures, etc., I see Don as having some aspects of a few key leadership theories, but does not fit perfectly into any one of these alone: servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1991), visionary leadership (Sashkin, 1989), transformational leadership (Burns, 1978), and leadership as relationship (Burns, 1978, McGregor, 1966, Stogdill 1948).

Nowhere in Don’s biography or websites is he referred to as a leader, but instead, as one who serves a greater need in our nation. Is Don a servant leader because he is the founder of TMP or is he the founder of TMP because he is a servant leader? (Sendjaya and Sarros, 2002). Or do neither one of these premises hold true for Don? It is my opinion that Don is a servant leader, and then founder of TMP, because he is visionary and wants to make a positive change in the lives of fatherless boys and more broadly, in America. He became the founder after he first made the decision to serve in this ‘crisis’. With that, can Don change the world through his servant leadership? In the lives of the boys who are mentored, yes, the foundation changes their world. Mentors help the fatherless boys by fulfilling their lower level needs and moving them toward self-actualization, which Smith defines as the success of servant leadership (2004). In conjunction with this, mentors also serve as role models to the boys; supporting optimism and utilizing two-way personalized communication, which Smith defines as elements of transformational leadership (2004).

The mission and goals of TMP, to inspire and equip…to answer to the crises, etc., is also visionary in that the founder not only communicates the vision though numerous outlets, but acts on it himself, and makes the vision possible in several ways and places, such as through the giving of time by mentoring, financially supporting the program, or volunteering consultation skill and time to improving the mentorship process (Sashkin, 1989).
I’m not sure that Don would go as far as calling himself a leader because he founded TMP, and if he did call himself a leader, it would probably be in sarcasm because he is a bit of a comedian, which, on a side note, is one small element of why I also think of him as a charismatic leader. Despite his awareness of being a leader or not, Don aligns with Greenleaf’s philosophy of servant-leadership because The Belmont Foundation emerged through his searching, listening, and expecting that a better life for these fatherless boys was possible, and this expectation for a ‘better life’ is now in the making (1991). When he started this foundation, Don was not seeking to help himself, but instead, was devoted toward the needs of fatherless boys. At the same time, Don’s motivation and passion to serve others in this capacity emerged largely because of his personal experience of being a fatherless boy. Does this direct personal interest make his endeavor through TMP any less servant-minded? I don’t think so. The leader’s values help form the leader’s vision.

Don’s vision is bigger than just helping the fatherless through reliable quality time and mentorship. He is attempting to raise our value of mentorship through this project by explaining it as a step toward positively transforming the communities of our nation. Burns would likely refer to Don as a transformational leader because TMP has already mobilized hundreds of people toward the vision and changed the lives of several fatherless boys and single mothers, thus passing the test of leadership (1978).

Lastly, regarding leadership as relationship, Don seeks to develop the relationship between the TMP mentors, the children and mothers, the communities in which they live, and the churches of America that Don challenges to meet the needs of the foundation’s causes. Essentially, as Burns, McGregor, and Stogdill would agree, the leadership relationship is complex and is not about the individual, but about the situation at large.

In considering all the ways that Don fits partially into a few leadership frameworks, is it possible that he is not a leader, but simply a determined role model on a mission?

References and photo:


  1. Excellent post, Alanna. Your analysis of Don in conjunction with several different leadership theories raises some good points.

    I agree with your argument that Don is a servant leader who founded The Belmont Foundation and started TMP because he wanted to help mentor fatherless boys. You raised the question of whether or not the fact that Don was a fatherless boy himself as a child makes him less of a leader? I would argue that this personal experience actually makes him a stronger leader not only because it helps him form his vision but also because he can empathize with those he is trying to mentor.

    As for your last question about whether Don is a leader or simply a determined role model on a mission, I would argue that a role model on a mission is a form of leadership in itself. The very nature of being a role model in the community indicates that people look up to him and respect him as an individual. Thus, if he is a role model on a mission (i.e. with a vision towards which he is striving), I would argue that as long as he is actively pursuing this mission and making progress towards it, he is a leader.

  2. I agree with you Alison in your assessment of Don's leadership. Furthermore, I think about all the times we've discussed the idea of empowering or enabling followers to do more. Many of the theorists we've read have often times discussed this idea that a leader helps his or her own followers grow or develop. I'd say Don's mentorships are perhaps the epitome of this model of leadership.

    Also, thinking about the ever used "to meet the needs of a social situation", Don pretty much knocks this out of the park.

    And maybe the fact that he doesn't call himself a "leader" is one of the reasons he is. Not because he wouldn't identify himself as such, but probably more because he doesn't think about it. He just does his work because he likes it, not to inflate his own ego or status.

    Neat post.

  3. Alison - I agree that his personal experience really does make him a better leaders in this situation, because he knows the heart of the matter. Empathy is an important aspect of Don's leadership that I'm glad you mentioned. Don is able to influence more citizens to join this project through real-life stories and statistics that draw out their empathy toward the children. For a minute, I considered if this might be manipulative, but it is not. He doesn't use influence tactics, per say, but intends to reveal the truth of this crisis to mobilize more mentors.
    Your point about the role model as a form of leadership is right on. My question there was basically due to the idea that we can call almost anyone a 'leader' these days b/c it's all based on how we define the word.

  4. Chris - I'm not surprised that you summarized exactly what I meant regarding Don not referring to himself as a leader. You could call it whatever you want, leadership, blahblahship (sorry), and he would still be pursuing the cause. It's not the title he is seeking, but a real change that makes life better for these people. If he really cared about making sure he was termed a leader, then he would be more about the power of leadership. However, I wonder if you can fully, 100%, separate a leader from any feelings of power. Through servant leadership, I think the answer is yes, well, most of the time.

  5. And Alanna, to add to your last 2 sentences...Perhaps a servant leader feels more responsibility to a call than to power. If this is true, then the orientation toward followers and the mission are inherently different.

  6. I agree completely with Alison and Chris' ideas of Don's leadership and how his emphasis on role modeling and followers growth effect his style.

    I wanted to address your question of "Is Don a servant leader because he is the founder of TMP or is he the founder of TMP because he is a servant leader?" I do not see why these two options should be mutually exclusive at all. I think servant leadership goes much deeper into the person, shaping who they are privately and not just as public leaders. With servant leadership I do not think it is appropriate to look at what a person has done and label it as such. It is more of a continuous process.

  7. Jayme - Your comment about the options not being mutually exclusive is insightful and I agree that servant leadership is a continuous process. Leadership in any form is as a continuous process - you never truly arrive. Just like learning... there is never a point where you have learned it all. And on that note, I believe leadership is learning and teaching, whether we are doing these things consciously or not.


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