Adam Ellsworth is currently loving his service as a Deacons Quorum Specialist in Alpine, Utah. He previously mentored youth as a bishopric member, quorum advisor, early-morning seminary teacher, and youth Sunday School teacher. Professionally, Adam has been practicing law as a patent attorney since 2006. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree at BYU, Adam graduated law school from Pepperdine University, after which he took a job in Washington D.C. Adam and his family recently moved to Alpine after living in Washington, D.C. for 13 years. He and his wife, Maricel, are enjoying the challenges that come with raising three boys, ages 13, 10, and 10. Hear his How I Lead interview, Achieving the Saviors Vision here.
I have participated in many leadership training meetings in which someone asks a variation of the question: “How can we give youth ownership over their organization?” Often, someone will respond with a comment such as: “We should stand back and let them run their program. If they aren’t prepared for an activity, don’t step in and save it. Let them fail.”
Based on decades of experience serving with youth, I have observed that when a youth organization is disorganized and “failing,” it is usually the adult leaders who have failed, not the youth. We have failed to teach. We have failed to model what we are trying to teach. And we have failed to persistently and patiently follow-up to ensure the youth understand and can apply on their own what we have taught them. While the focus of this article is on the youth, the same principles apply to any who are young in the faith – whether new converts, newly returning members, or long-time members with little experience in a new calling.
The General Young Men’s presidency teaches the following succinct principles for mentoring our youth:
Be with them. Connect them with heaven. Let them lead.
If we focus on “letting our youth fail,” then failure is what we will get. Don’t “let them fail.” Instead, let them lead.
“Let them fail” mentorship means when our youth presidencies have not prepared an agenda, adult advisors run an abbreviated meeting. “Let them lead” mentorship means when youth presidencies have not prepared an agenda, adult mentors walk them through the process of generating the agenda – even if for the hundredth time – and allow the youth to then conduct their meeting. “Let them lead” mentors utilize agendas effectively in their own meetings, and they model to the youth how an agenda helps focus meetings on what is most important.
“Let them fail” mentorship means when a youth fails to prepare for a week-day activity, adults allow the youth to have an impromptu sports or entertainment activity. “Let them lead” mentorship means when a youth fails to prepare for a week-day activity, an adult mentor helps a presidency reflect on their experience to identify why the activity did not occur and what steps are needed to achieve success.
“Let them fail” mentorship accepts failure itself as a teaching tool. The mentor believes that failure itself will teach our youth how to run an organization. “Let them lead” leadership uses inevitable failures as teaching opportunities to reflect on their experience, to provide feedback, and to model leadership principles that lead to success.
I’ll illustrate with an analogy.
Ninja Warrior Youth Leadership Training
My kids love watching “American Ninja Warrior.” I am always impressed by the skill, dedication, and focus of the competitors. In the competition, individuals make their way through a grueling obstacle course. Competitors run along steppingstones and spinning bridges. They traverse pools of water by swinging across ropes or gripping narrow finger-holds. They run up the sides of walls and climb rope ladders. Their strength and determination are inspiring.
Imagine your youth program as an obstacle course. Your youth are the competitors. You are a coach. For the sake of the analogy, imagine your youth are blindfolded, representing their inexperience. How do you help your youth navigate the obstacle course?
Scenario 1 – One and Done Mentorship
An adult stands with a youth at the beginning of the obstacle course. The adult tells the youth exactly what they need to do in each phase to make it through the obstacle course. If the youth follow their guidance, they will make it to the end of the obstacle course.
“Walk forward five steps. Then, you will jump quickly – three feet forward and to the right, then three feet forward and to the left, then three more feet to the right. Then, you’ll land on a platform. Walk forward ten paces. Then, jump forward three feet and grab the rope two feet above your head…”
Having taught the youth how to navigate the obstacle course, the adult stands back and lets the youth navigate the obstacle course alone. The youth inevitably fails to follow the adult’s directions exactly. The youth misjudges the distance of a jump and falls in the water. They climb out of the water onto a platform. They inch forward to the edge. They miss the rope and fall back into the water. They bump into obstacles. Since they can’t remember the instructions, they muddle through the obstacle course, splashing through water and bumping into obstacles.
This scenario represents an adult advisor who provides guidance once, and then lets their charges go and fail. Without continuing guidance, youth programs fall into unplanned, or under-prepared, weekly get-togethers. Youth, who lack any experience running an organization, feel discouraged, guilty, or resentful. Failure teaches the youth that they are not up to the task of running a quorum or class. Adults are not modeling leadership, so youth cannot learn how to lead. Youth have no vision of what is possible, and adults are doing nothing to help the youth seek for, or obtain, a vision. This is the most common result of the “let them fail” focus for youth leadership.
Case Study – Failure Leads to Discouragement
A young woman friend of ours was the president of her class. She was a responsible, diligent, and faithful young woman. However, week after week, young women in her class would fail to prepare for mid-week activities. Adult leaders allowed the young women to fail. However, they did not help the young woman to identify what was wrong, and they did not provide loving feedback that would help the young woman succeed. As a result, this young woman felt like she was failing as a class president. She felt inadequate, frustrated, resentful, and guilty. Over time, she lost the desire to participate in the Young Women’s organization. She continued to participate out of a sense of duty, but she was unhappy. Unlike this young woman, many of our youth, when faced with repeated failure and frustration, will just stop participating. We are losing youth to “let them fail” leadership.
Scenario 2 – Adult-Directed Mentorship
An adult stands at the finish line. As the youth makes their way through the obstacle course, the adult tells them what to do. The youth do not learn what an obstacle is or the different ways they can move through the obstacle course. Instead, the coach handles all the decision-making. The coach tells the youth how to handle each obstacle and shouts encouragement.
This scenario represents a leader who is directing a youth organization. The leader decides what the youth will do and helps them to do it. The youth may feel more supported than in the first scenario, but the youth are not leading. They are not gaining their own vision or learning how to rely on the Lord as they serve. In this scenario, adults are seeking to help the youth have fun and rewarding experiences. But the purpose of youth organizations is not to have amazing activities. It is to help youth to grow in faith in Christ. President Henry Eyring taught this principle when he said,
“Sometimes what seems like the most efficient solution is not the Lord’s preferred solution because it does not allow people to grow… Remember that God’s work and glory is not simply to run an effective organization; it is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man”. This is, after all, why He gives His priesthood authority to flawed mortals like you and me and invites us to participate in His work. Our progress is His work!” (“Walk With Me,” General Conference, April 2017).
Case Study – Adult Knows Best
I conducted a leadership training meeting once in which we gave youth presidencies and adult leaders time to think of the activities the youth wanted to plan and carry out in the upcoming year. At the end, I asked for feedback. One of the 12-year-old girls commented: “We told the adults what we wanted to do, and the adults kept suggesting we have a Book of Mormon challenge!” This young woman was ready to lead. Her adult leaders, with the best of intentions, were focusing on achievements -what they felt the girls should do – and not leadership -helping the girls obtain a vision and learn to implement it.
Scenario 3, Stage 1- Let Them Lead
As the youth makes their way through the obstacle course, a mentor walks alongside. The mentor describes for the youth potential paths through the obstacle course. The mentor asks what the youth wants to do and they give suggestions for how to achieve it. “You are at a water obstacle. There are ropes hanging above the obstacle, but the water is shallow. You could try to go over, or you can go through the water. How do you want to get to the other side?” With advice from a mentor, the youth decides what to do. The youth learns how to navigate the obstacles. If the youth falls off an obstacle, the mentor does not stand silently by. Instead, the mentor provides suggestions for how to improve or options for moving forward.
This scenario represents an adult leader who is allowing a youth to lead. They give options, hear decisions, and give recommendations for how to succeed. Might the youth “fail?” Of course! But the adult does not focus on “letting them fail.” Instead, the adult takes advantage of inevitable failures to reflect on an experience and give constructive and loving feedback. The adult focuses on giving the youth the tools to succeed next time. The focus is on leadership, not “letting them fail.”
Scenario 3, Stage 2 – Youth Obtain a Vision of the Possible
Remove the blindfold. The youth can now see all the obstacles in their way. The youth understands how the obstacles can be overcome. The mentor continues to move through the obstacle course with the youth. Without the blindfold, the youth may attempt more challenging obstacles. The mentor may model how to make it through an obstacle or bring in outside help. The mentor continues to provide advice and give encouragement. But the youth can see the obstacle course and decide for themselves how to move through it.
This scenario represents helping our youth obtain a vision of what is possible. As our youth gain more experience, they can come to see clearly what is possible and how to achieve what is possible. From experience, they can accomplish some challenges on their own. With the help of their leaders, they can tackle new challenges with confidence. With preparation and success comes the ability to move up the “hierarchy of needs” and teach higher principles- to turn perception to higher things.
For example, instead of trudging through a Sunday agenda on paper, a youth will understand the purpose of the meeting. Now they will sincerely hope God provides the spirit through an opening prayer. They will be interested in what their peer teacher and advisor put together for instruction and hope to insert their reflections from personal study.
“Let them lead” mentors help youth identify their objectives and learn the structures – meeting agenda templates, clear tasks, and milestones – that will help them obtain their objectives. Adults will help the youth learn the principles necessary for decision-making, providing and receiving feedback, and reflecting. Even when youth experience failure – such as an activity that falls through – a “let them lead” mentor can turn the failure into a success by teaching the youth how to reflect on the experience and receive loving feedback for how to succeed next time.
Case Study – Helping Youth Discover New Possibilities
A quorum specialist I know asked an inexperienced quorum presidency what activities they wanted to do. They listed a number of great activities – but they were all activities the boys were familiar with. The specialist went home and prepared a presentation showcasing ten great camping adventures nearby. At the next meeting, this specialist shared the presentation with the boys, and asked them which camping adventures they wanted to do. The boys were excited! They wanted to experience every adventure! A “let them fail ” leader would have been content with a brainstorming session in which youth offer up only familiar activities. This specialist opened the boys’ eyes to exciting possibilities they did not know existed. Over time, this specialist has helped the boys learn what it takes to plan and implement a successful camp-out.
Case Study – Patient and Persistent Mentoring
A young women’s adviser shared one of the church-provided training lessons with her class in each presidency meeting to help her young women understand Christ-centered principles of planning and carrying out meetings and activities. For the first few months, in each presidency meeting, the adviser prompted the class president what the next topic should be for the meeting. In addition, every week, the young women’s adviser sent her class secretary a reminder to send reminders to the other young women. Over time, the secretary began running her meetings and activities without prompting from her adult leaders, and sending her own reminders to the other young women. Since the young women were becoming familiar with how to effectively run meetings and activities, the young women’s adviser found she was able to spend a greater portion of her time helping the young women minister to one another.
Case Study – Turning a Failure into an Opportunity for Growth
An Aaronic Priesthood adviser organized an epic overnight hike in the mountains around a lake. After hiking a few miles, the group was nearing a climb to a ridgeline. Some of the boys wanted to stop. A few were out of water. A few mentioned that maybe they should turn back. The adult advisor was reluctant to turn back. He had planned an epic hike and he wanted the boys to have a challenging and rewarding experience. He said to the boys: “We can do this. There is water at the top of the ridge.” He was a little frustrated that the boys wanted to turn back from the amazing hike he had planned. One boy replied, “Can we pray about it?” The adult leader relented. The moment this young man started to address his Heavenly Father, the adult leader felt sure they should turn back. After the boy concluded the prayer, one boy said, “I had a feeling that we should turn back.” To which every boy quietly said “me too.” This adult leader could barely contain his emotions and replied, “I agree, let’s go.” So they turned back and returned to camp. That night, the adult leader and the young men had a fireside at which they reflected on their experience. The adult leader expressed to the boys that he did not want to turn around, but then he had the same confirmation in the prayer they had. They reflected on revelation and thanked God for that experience. Although they “failed” to complete the hike, the “let them lead” adult advisor allowed the youth to prayerfully decide on a course of action, reflected on the experience, and provided faith-promoting feedback that turned the “failure” into a “success.”
As we mentor our youth, do not “let them fail.” Instead, let them lead. As we let them lead, we will not be content with unfocused or non-existent presidency meetings, with unorganized mid-week activities, or with adult-driven achievements. Instead, we will turn each failure into an opportunity for success, by helping youth to reflect on their experience, by teaching correct principles to learn from the experiences, and by providing loving feedback for how to achieve success in the future.
- Stake leaders: Do not be the coach of Scenario 1, providing one training per year and thinking your job is done. Do what DeAnna Murphy did as Stake Relief Society President [here]. Regularly meet with the ward youth leaders in your stake and help them lead the youth. When you are with them, bring a spirit of support and love- lighten their burdens by asking for and doing things they need done. Reflect on their sacrifices and service with them- celebrate blessings and miracles. Bring love without judgment.
- Bishoprics: Disbanding Young Men Presidencies in 2020 was not just a formality. You are the presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood in the ward. You cannot delegate “presiding.” Be with your youth. Model what it looks like to lead, to delegate effectively, to efficiently run meetings and activities while focusing on Christ. Regularly interview and train your quorum presidents.
- Youth advisers and specialists: Be with the youth. Model for them how they can seek inspiration to lead their quorums and classes. Assist the bishopric by focusing your energy on two critical areas: Preparation and reflection. Train, and re-train, and re-train, until youth can confidently lead on their own. Be persistent. Be patient-with yourself, with the youth, and with parents.
Youth Leader Note: The object lesson above could be adapted for either an indoor or outdoor youth adviser training meeting. It’s interactive, it’s fun, and it teaches important leadership principles.