What Kind of Leader Will You Be? The Minnehaha Leadership Institute (Pt. 1)

Amy Barnard

Above: Students taking part in the Minnehaha Leadership Institute prepare to serve a meal to MA facilities staff as part of the thank you party the students threw for facilities staff.

It's 8AM on a Friday morning. Classes don't start for another hour, but instead of sleeping late or hanging out with friends in the commons, twenty-four sophomores settle into the library. For the next hour, they alternate between taking bites of sausage biscuit and jotting down notes as Executive Director of Faith Formation David Hoffner throws ideas their way. At one point, they break into small groups for discussion, and then turn back toward Mr. Hoffner. Now a question:

"So, why does it sometimes seem easier to be God than to love God?"

A pause. A few students adjust their notes. This is one of the issues they discussed during group time, but a moment of silence hangs in the air; who will speak first? 

Three boys sit at a library table with books open, in conversation.

Three students in the Fellows Track discuss Henri Nouwen's In The Name Of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.

Collin Quinn, Director of the Minnehaha Leadership Institute, points to John Misa, sitting with three friends off to the side.

"We had something over here," he says.

"Misa, go," Mr. Hoffner says.

John leans in. "I think we have so many distractions...We're focused on other things instead of putting our full attention on God." He pauses, then: "and, also...power. It's such a tempting kind of thing that we're all trying to go towards."

"Yeah. I appreciate that," Mr. Hoffner replies. "David, did you have something?"

David John nods: "Just adding on to what John said, it's tempting: just being in control of things and to have that role that God plays...sometimes it's just hard to love God because we are focused on trying to be God."

"It's natural for us to want to make much of ourselves," Mr. Hoffner acknowledges. "We naturally wake up every day with that kind of inclination."

Another student raises her hand. 

"[It's] just wanting a level of control over your own life. It's scary to trust someone else, especially God—somebody you can't see," she points out. More students raise their hands and offer commentary or personal experience.

No, this isn't a morning Bible study. (Although scripture does play a significant role.) It's not one of the chapel discussion groups, either. This is the type of discussion that permeates the culture of the newly instituted Minnehaha Academy Leadership Institute. 

In particular, this is a meeting of the Fellows, the most time-intensive and in-depth track of the Minnehaha Leadership Institute. These twenty-four sophomores have committed to meet twice a month for three school years in order to deconstruct their concepts of leadership and build a leadership lifestyle that more closely resembles that of Christ: servant leadership.

A number of students sit at desks and listen to Leadership Institute Director, Collin Quinn, speak.

Every other Friday morning, students in the Leadership Institute Fellows Track meet in the library for breakfast, learning, and discussion time.

Bigger Than Your Resume 

"The Minnehaha Leadership Institute is a place where we take a systematic approach to challenge students to become servant leaders." Mr. Quinn says.

He explains that there are essentially two types of leadership development: the resume development that focuses on hard skills like time management and problem solving—which he acknowledges has a place—and then there is what can be called eulogy development.

"How will people remember you?" he asks. "It's much more about legacy, and who you are becoming."

How will your leadership be looked back on forty, fifty, or sixty years from today? Were you the type of leader people trusted? Could you balance power with the humility that welcomes feedback and correction? Did you help others succeed even as you advanced?

"Servant leadership is not just another model of leadership. We believe, ultimately, that it's the most effective type of leadership, and that there are specific ways that we can grow as servant leaders," Mr. Quinn explains.

Four girls surround a large sign they have created that says "Thank you Teachers"

Advancement interns prepare thank you boards during MA's "Thanks to the Max" week.

A Campus-Wide Impact 

The Fellows aren't the only students engaged in this discussion. In total, 115 students (almost a third of the Upper School) took part in one or more of the three Leadership Institute tracks this year.

The other two tracks include Athletic Leadership (captains and other athlete leaders) and Community Leadership (members of the ten intern departments). 

"[This is] really about stepping out and putting the team and others before you," says Coach Dante Britten, head of the Athletic Leadership Track. 

Mr. Britten wants to see his athletes take what they learn during the Leadership Institute beyond the playing field or courts and into the wider school community, impacting school culture.

Likewise, Upper School Dean Libby Burton, head of the Community Leadership Track, also sees the students she works with as culture creators:

"As Upper School students, these are the people shaping the culture of our school...So, how do we do that? How do we show humility in our academics, when we are tutoring someone? For Service Interns, how do we show integrity when we're planning a project or choosing an organization to partner with?"

A couple of dozen students listen in the cafeteria as Mr. Sauer speaks

Mr. Sauer speaks to those in the Athletic Track on the Parable of the Talents.

Never a Works-Based Gospel 

Ms. Burton emphasizes that working on these character issues is never about earning your salvation or getting brownie points with God.

"I think it's really natural for kids to want to do good things; to be good people. And I think that we have really good Biblical teaching in this school that isn't preaching that as gospel," she says.

For his part, Mr. Hoffner works to help students contrast the cycles of grace and grief: "The cycle of grace starts [here]: We don't have to work to earn our salvation, but because of what Jesus has done we are compelled to live a life of joy and service. In contrast, the cycle of grief is that place of constantly working for approval from God and others."

Three girls push large dollies filled with food for the food shelf.

Breaking Free from "Brand Jesus"

Grace-based servant leadership only happens when students encounter the Jesus of scripture, explains Mr. Hoffner, as opposed to the various versions of Jesus that culture peddles to us, or what he calls "Brand Jesus."

"There's so many our culture puts out there: 'You do You Jesus,' 'Prosperity Jesus,' 'Your Best Life Now Jesus'...but, do you see these in the Bible? Brand Jesus is all about selling you something that is probably partially true but also partially false."

The Jesus of scripture­—who overturned the tables of peddlers in the temple, who washed his disciples' feet, and who laid down his own life for his enemies­—is the one who leads us to grace.

"The single biggest piece of feedback we got from students [this year] was that their view of Jesus has been dramatically impacted," Mr. Hoffner reports.

Sophomore Molly DiNardo shares: "It's been challenging to see how sacrificial and humble you have to be to become the type of leader that Jesus is."

Classmate Eleanor Bailey agrees, adding that she's come to realize that this is about leading "with the greater objective of serving Christ and others, instead of being consumed solely by your own desires." 

Students share that this call to service comes tempered by the call to grace, and the realization that we must lean into Jesus' sufficiency for our weaknesses. 

A female student hands a gift bag to a facilities staff member who is eating dinner.

Fellows Track students pass gift bags out to facilities staff members at the thank you dinner they organized.

Sophomore Owen Hoffner says: "We talked about not putting yourself in Jesus' place when leading. We are still sinful and human beings are never going to be perfect...If you turn to Him you realize that you don't always have that pressure of being perfect."

Mr. Quinn feels this tension strongly, and sees it as both an opportunity and a challenge. "We are works in progress. It really is a daily learning how to serve, and every day is a new challenge...We are not trying to live up to Jesus, but in to Jesus."

This is a call that he hopes to see become the heartbeat of campus, hopefully bolstered through deeper partnerships with staff and coaches.

Senior Heiby Hidalgo-Blanco affirms that already, the impact is great. "You can see how much effort [leaders] have put in. Truly you can see that their prayers are being answered, because students are taking it seriously."

Curious to learn more about the nuts and bolts the Leadership Institute? Check out part 2 here.

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