What a 13-Year-Old Taught Me About Leadership

Sometimes you just need to be called out.

Flashback: It’s early 2015. I’m finishing business school in Austin, TX, getting started on what’s next and figuring out the job I’ll take when it’s over. Meanwhile, everything’s busy at home; my wife and I are thinking about starting a family, buying a house. You know, the usual.

Part of the curriculum that last semester of school was a class called “Life of Meaning,” encouraging students to reflect on their calling, purpose and priorities.  In one of these classes, a friend and classmate spotted something missing on my checklist.

“Find a local nonprofit, commit to it, put it on your calendar and get outside yourself.” he said. He was right, and I knew it. It was the kick in the pants I needed; and I already knew the perfect organization.

Explore Austin had been on my radar for some time. They’re an amazing organization that sets out to pair mentors with underserved youth for five years – starting the summer before 7th grade, ending the summer before their senior year of high school. Where other mentor programs might only take place on school grounds, this one took the kids and mentors outside to learn skills – one Saturday every month, and one week every June.

The best part is this summer trip. We’ll do one every year of the program. This year, they’ll do 10+ miles of backpacking and climb a 180-foot rock face, cooking, cleaning and sleeping in the wild – quite the leadership and commitment test for 15 young “Explorers,” all 12 and 13 years old.

So, this is an adventure story.

A mentor’s head-fake

Fast forward to last month. It’s a Sunday in June, 6 AM. We’ve got a van loaded with gear, food supplies, sunscreen, tents, and sleeping bags, and I’m talking to fifteen almost-eighth grade boys about goals. What do you want from this trip? What are you expecting? What’s your goal, your intention?

Of course, as 13-year-olds do, there’s some listening, some restlessness, some cut-ups and jokers. But we talk, and we get them to say a few things, and with that, we get on the road and head to the Wichita Mountains.

This trip is the longest time I’ll spend with these guys this year as part of the Explore Austin program. Until now, I’ve only seen them one Saturday a month after our first trip together last summer – an easier “intro” trip in West Texas with cabins instead of the tents we’ve brought this time.

It’s kind of a head-fake, really. We’re teaching them to climb, and canoe, and cook in the outdoors, but what we’re really teaching them is even bigger – leadership, integrity, teamwork. We want to set these kids on a path to be leaders, and we’re just getting started.

During the six-hour drive, I think about what I want to communicate to these boys, these young men. I think back to business school, where I noticed something about every successful person: when they’re interviewed, and asked how they got where they are, they always go back to “Somebody told me I could succeed.” Or a teacher, who said “I believe in you.”

That’s what I want to give these guys. It may sound trite, but you’d be surprised how few people in these boys’ lives tell them they have what it takes to succeed, that they have the tools to make it. I just want them to see themselves as world changers; to see their own strength, smarts, and drive.

The most humbling part of this, for me, has been realizing just how many positive influences I had growing up.  I had a stable house; next door neighbors, aunts and uncles, family friends. A cocoon of stability. I took that for granted. Most of these young men don’t have that.

So I just try to be an example. It’s motivating for me.

The ACES framework

I’m thinking about one kid, in particular. I can’t help but root for him.

We can call him Sam. Sam’s super playful, the class clown, the guy who gets everyone else riled up and laughing – and not always in a good way. Huge smile, dynamic, athletic, social, charming, clever and street smart, Sam wasn’t used to being still or doing things for a team. Throughout this last year, Sam had caused a lot of trouble. He’d pick on kids, stir up side convos, distract and divide people. Name calling, even.

He’d keep shooting his potential in the foot. I knew that Sam was acting out a lot of anger and restlessness. His father lives three hours away and isn’t really present; his mom is overwhelmed.

We have a mentoring framework we use with these guys called ACES. “Action oriented”, “Courageous,” “Excellent teammate”, ‘Strong communicator.” It’s a framework for leadership, but it’s also a way for us to channel energy and get them to stay accountable. Every night, around the campfire, we’re asking them: Who demonstrated ACES today? Which of your peers do you want to recognize?

I have to admit, ACES is good for me too. You either have to practice what you preach, or you’re a hypocrite – and I find myself applying ACES not just with these guys, but in my own work. I see them making progress, and it’s inspiring me to be a better, more courageous leader, communicator, and teammate.

Back on the trip, we make it to our campsite, a beautiful place in the Wichita Mountains. We set up camp, do a hike to the closest high point, cook dinner, have a big fire, and hang out. We talk about goals again. Sam, who volunteered to help cook, is the most engaged I’ve seen him in 18 months.

The next morning we split up into groups, nine each. Six young men stay with me and two other mentors and a guide. We do a big hike up to one of the tallest points in the Wichita Mountains, called Crab Eyes. A little scary, pretty vertical, big boulders – but there’s some swimming holes on the way, and we take full advantage.

explore austin backpacking hiking

Half the Explorers, after reaching the summit.

We have to bushwack down the trail with 60 pounds on our backs, and for 13-year-olds, this is pretty hard. It’s 100 degrees, and in addition to the heavy shrubbery, we’re avoiding tarantulas, rattlesnakes, and the countless ticks parachuting onto us.

I start to see them helping each other, sharing water, playing games. Sam and another kid help the slower ones, take a heavier share of the load. Sam makes up a game where we’re on an alien planet and the aliens were coming back, and we have to fight them with land mines and bazookas. If you ask me, it’s better than the movie “Independence Day.”

We get back, and because 13-year-olds have unlimited energy, a game of Capture the Flag breaks out. Sam’s idea, of course. It’s the perfect place for it – we have a big campsite with a firepit right in the middle, trees and a road on one side and deep forest on the other. Everybody gets into it – the adults, all the Explorers.

That night, we sit around the fire and discuss the lessons of Capture the Flag that apply to eighth grade – and life. We ask the boys to call each other out for ACES examples, and another kid says “Sam really stepped up. He was action oriented.” I catch a glimpse of Sam’s face as he receives the compliment, and it’s lit up like you wouldn’t believe. It’s a special little moment of awakening, hearing his peers compliment his leadership.

The next few days, we climb, putting down our hiking backpacks and exchanging them for climbing gear.

This was where it got real. This was a 180-foot vertical rock face. They’d been training, but nothing they’d climbed before was as high or as hard as this. Have you ever seen a 13-year-old get really focused? It’s something to see, especially when their friend is 100 feet up and they’re belaying. Their attentiveness was impressive, and their teamwork had never been better.

Back at camp, more Capture the Flag – and this time it had evolved to an even more serious game. Us mentors are coaching the Explorers – “you gotta get out wide! You’re relying too much on your own speed. You gotta wait til they have their back turned. Work together!”

On the final day of the trip, Capture the Flag strategy is all they’re talking about. Sam is taking charge, leading his team. It’s pretty neat to see.

Plus, it’s easy to sleep on the ground when you’ve spent the entire day climbing and another six hours playing Capture the Flag.

Is it enough?

I get more out of this than they do, I really do. When we went on this trip, I was in the midst of a really challenging time in my own life & work. I was stressed, worried about taking the time – and my boss Jason said “Go. We got your back.” Back at the office, my team picked up my work seamlessly.

This is a long commitment – five years, one Saturday a month during the school year – but at times like this it feels too small. The Explorers wish the program didn’t stop in the summer, and so do we; other than the trip, we won’t see them again until school starts in September. And for all the positive growth you can see in a guy like Sam, there’s another young man who’s acting out and doing stupid stuff because he’s got some hard stuff going on at home. Three steps forward, two steps back.

The best part is celebrating those steps forward, seeing Sam come into his own and be a leader and a go-to guy. But it still hurts to see the steps back. I never feel like we mentors are doing enough, especially during the school year. Is one Saturday a month enough? Will it make a difference in the long run?

I think it will. It certainly has for me. At Far West Capital, we talk a lot about our core values, and how we want to do more than just lend money – we want to impact the world around us, inspire more entrepreneurial heroes.

These guys need to hear that they can be the hero. That they can lead their team to a Capture the Flag victory and climb 180 feet on their own. For now, that’s enough.

I’ve got four more years with these young men, four more years of Saturdays and four more summer trips. I can’t wait to do it all over again next year. But right now, we have a more urgent task.

It’s time to get ready for high school.

David Philips is Far West Capital’s Vice President in the Central Texas region. Know a great company in need of capital to grow and unleash its potential? Shoot us a note here, or give David a call. 

Showing 2 comments
  • Janephillips7@gmail.com

    David you were born to lead. Thank you for sharing with me I believe this will make a difference. Sam does need you.
    All love all respect all care for always jp

  • Bonnie Miller

    David, I read your encouraging blog this morning. So happy for way you have discovered to reach out to these young men. I am reading a book which, I believe, will confirm what you are doing with Ssm and the others. Take a look: The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sass. I hope this message reaches your inbox. You fan and friend, Bonnie Miller

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