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A leader’s mentors

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Miami Dolphins interim head coach Dan Campbell speaks during a press conference on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, at the Dolphins training center in Davie, Fla. Campbell was announced as interim head coach after the Dolphins fired head coach Joe Philbin (Credit: Icon Sportswire/Hector Gabino)

Things have to go poorly for an NFL team to fire their coach mid-season. Things have to be even worse when they fire the coach only 4 games into the season. Such was the case with the Miami Dolphins, as they recently fired head coach Joe Philbin after a dismal 1-3 start. Tapped to replace Philbin is Dan Campbell, former tight end of several NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys. Campbell becomes the youngest head coach in the league, and faces an uphill struggle to get the team to perform up to expectations.

In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, Campbell spoke about how energized he was with the task of reinvigorating a seemingly lost team:

“I think I understand the NFL,” he said. “I understand players. I relate to ’em. Not in a buddy-buddy way. Without sounding conceited, I think I can pull the best out of people. It’s not fake; it’s from the heart. I have been around some phenomenal coaches, and I know what works. A lot of people say that. But the guys I’ve learned from—Bill Parcells, Sean Payton, Mike Martz, Rod Marinelli, Mike Pope—my position coach with the Giants, a great teacher—and Tony Sparano … I think I’ve taken something from all of them. It’s a different path to this job, for sure. But I am confident about my ability.”

I thought it was fascinating that Campbell mentioned the successful coaches that he has learned from. At 39 he is younger than several NFL players, including Peyton Manning and Matt Hasselbeck, and will undoubtedly struggle with credibility until his team starts to win. He has never coached beyond the positional level in the NFL, skipping past the usual stop as an offensive or defensive coordinator to one of the most difficult jobs in existence. He will need to channel every bit of the lessons he learned from Parcels, Payton, and Marinelli if he is to succeed as a coach with the Dolphins.

You may not be facing quite the challenge that Campbell is up against today, but every leader faces difficulties and problems that require more than just rote treatment. Think back to the mentor that took an interest in you early in your life or career. What did you learn from them? Of the myriad of things you pick up when following someone who is wiser and has more experience than you, perhaps the most important is how to approach the unique difficulties of that profession.

Elizabeth Corey, in a 2014 article for First Things, describes this important phenomenon of learning by example:

“What is acquired in this kind of apprenticeship is not the bare technique of solving a problem but rather a way of approaching it. One cultivates a habit of mind, a style of thinking about the particular problem and problems like it. The most important knowledge comes from a master’s interaction with you, not from the principles he might choose to distill into a set of instructions that could be distributed to anyone. We often learn as much (or more) from watching the manner in which a practiced teacher responds to a question as we do from the content of what is said.”

Dan Campbell won’t be able to just duplicate the playbook that his old coaches used, but he can channel the passion, intensity and preparation those coaches took to game-planning, and he can apply the way those coaches dealt well with difficult player situations.

When it comes to leadership, having mentors is essential. We need them so that we can learn the “old roads” of faithfulness and integrity (Jeremiah 18:15) and how to apply ourselves to obedience to God above all else. We also need mentors for encouragement, wisdom, and advice with specific decisions. Their presence is invaluable. The most important thing they can offer us is access into their day-to-day lives.

As you reflect on those who have mentored you, take the opportunity to let them know how much you appreciate their presence and impact in your life. We need to honor those who have helped us on our journey. Also, think about who God may be asking you to mentor. Paul’s investment in Timothy, Titus, and others provides a roadmap for how we should approach mentoring: “I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day.” (2 Timothy 1:3)