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The Importance of Peer Leadership

By Ben Garfield

When I think of mentorship, I think of a teacher-student relationship, almost in the Confucian sense: An older, wiser person takes a younger, naïve student under their wing, guiding them to a better future and imparting wisdom along the way. I’ve benefited from many of these relationships throughout my life, but the mentorship that stands out to me most is the mentorship of a peer.

In high school, a classmate and I were appointed to lead a district-wide program to improve an aspect of our school. We were responsible for coming up with an idea for improvement, recruiting our peers to join the team, and executing the project. My co-leader, Flor, and I decided to raise money to update the water fountains in the building. We recruited a team and began. As the project wore on, our team seemed less engaged, and I felt a greater burden of work. Finally, the project wrapped up, the water fountains were installed and, surprisingly, almost none of the team came to the celebration unveiling the new fountains.

As excited as I was to have the new fountains, I seemed to feel more of a release of a burden than happiness. What I came to realize with Flor’s help was I had become such an overbearing leader on the team, demanding my team members all put in the same amount of time and energy as me, that they felt alienated and wanted nothing to do with the project anymore. As they became less engaged, more work had landed on me, leading me to believe the team just wasn’t doing its job.

At the beginning of the next year, Flor sat me down as we started the planning process for a new project. She wanted to discuss not how to engage the team, but rather how we wanted to work on delegating tasks. Rather than tell me directly I had been damaging our work environment, she simply guided us to a better structure of co-leadership. Using Flor’s strategies, we brought back our team from the previous year, grew the team and created a structure to transition to new leaders once Flor and I graduated.

Sometimes, it’s easy to dismiss the possibility of peers to provide the wise, levelheaded guidance we might expect from a boss or a teacher. As I embark on El Pomar’s Fellowship, I carry with me the change in work style that Flor helped me develop and remain open and ready for the guidance from my Fellowship cohort and the rest of the El Pomar family. I value the knowledge that the mentorship that helps us grow as individuals, professionals, and citizens of our communities doesn’t have to come from our superiors or elders; sometimes it can come from peers, teammates and co-workers.

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