Thank you, Phil Gerhart. I’ll see you over the next ridge.

Mr. Gerhart and Crew on top of Tooth of TIme 1994I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the influence of Mr. Gerhart.* As my Scoutmaster, he invested his time and energy into young men like me. He showed us how to be servant leaders. If you look at the numbers, they speak for themselves. During his tenure as Scoutmaster of two different troops (Troop 412 and Troop 322), he saw 87 different young men achieve the rank of Eagle Scout (my brother and I are just two of those 87).  When you consider that only a small percentage of Scouts ever reach this rank, it is clear that he influenced several hundred young men over the years.

He saw something in me that many did not. For a variety of reasons, I did not reach my academic potential in middle school and high school. So I was not considered a good candidate for many leadership positions or leadership-related scholarships.**  But Mr. Gerhart saw something in me. He took me under his wing and showed me the true nature of a servant leader. Here are few examples of when he challenged me to grow as a leader and celebrated my successes…

“Matt, Jarod, remember this when you’re working here.”

Philmont Crew, 1990

During my first trek at Philmont Scout Ranch, we were met on the trail by one of our Troop’s graduates. He was on staff at Philmont that year, and we thought that was pretty cool. We’d spent a few days on the trail and we had grown tired of the re-hydrated dehydrated trail food that served as breakfast and dinner. All of a sudden, a watermelon appeared, courtesy of our friend the Phil-staffer.

Now, I’m not much of a watermelon fan, but this was the best tasting watermelon I’d ever had. It was like it had been picked from Heaven’s garden itself. It was a perfect setting. We were hot, sweaty, and dirty. And we were sprawled out in a small meadow in the middle of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in New Mexico, sharing slices of watermelon.

It really doesn’t get much better than that, friends.

Out of the bue, Mr. Gerhart looks my way and instructs me and my friend Jarod: “Don’t forget this when you’re working here.”

I was but a lowly underclassman in high school at the time. The thought of even attempting to get a job at Philmont was the furthest from my mind. But Mr. Gerhart planted a seed. And that was the first time I ever thought about spending a summer out at Philmont. At that point, it was nothing more than a pie in the sky pipe dream. But he planted the seed.

Fast forward…

Years later when I was working at Beaubien Camp at Philmont in 1995, I made a concerted effort to get my hands on a watermelon. My home crew, including my Dad and Mr. Gerhart, was due to arrive at my camp in a few days. I was almost frantic. I had to have a watermelon.

Alas, it was not meant to be. There was no watermelon available from the camp commissary. So I did the next best thing I could think of: I baked a chocolate cake for them. And I completed the challenge that I had accepted in that meadow several years prior.

As a mentor, you challenge. You inspire. And you might even plant seeds of a dream that won’t come true for several years. You keep the big picture in mind and play the long game.

He grew leaders

In our Scouting experience, Mr. Gerhart helped create an atmosphere where young leaders could celebrate their successes and learn from their failures in a safe environment. He equipped us with the tools necessary to become strong servant leaders. Then he challenged us by expecting us to follow-through.

Here’s what I mean…

Our Scouting calendar basically followed the school calendar. It began in September and ended in July/August, with Summer Camp and the subsequent Court of Honor serving as a transition time from one set of leaders to the next. Sometime during this transition (I don’t remember when – probably in June), the new leadership team, consisting of the Patrol Leader, Senior Patrol Leader, and Leadership Corps (older Scouts who were mentors without official leadership titles) would gather together to plan out the next year’s monthly themes and campouts.

Mr. Gerhart would set some parameters, like some non negotiable event dates. Then he would leave the room. The Senior Patrol Leader, as the youth leader of the Troop, was left to run the brainstorming session and the actual planning. An hour or so later, Mr. Gerhart would come back into the room, fully expecting a cogent plan for the rest of the Scouting year.

He could do this because he had equipped us. He empowered us. And he released us to do exactly what was expected. That’s what leaders do. They don’t manage. And they certainly don’t micromanage. They lead. Sometimes, that means they get out of the way.

And that requires trust.

Don’t get me wrong. There were times when I did some pretty boneheaded things. Like my “ax-ident.” But Mr. Gerhart expected me to learn from my experiences. And that helped us trust each other even more.

Mr. Gerhart showed me he trusted my leadership abilities during a time of crisis. It was during the Summer Camp when I served as Senior Patrol Leader. It was my last hurrah in that position, as the Senior Patrol Leader passes the baton in a peaceful transfer of power to the upcoming Senior Patrol Leader during the final moments of Camp.

Before that happened, we had to deal with a crisis.

A young Scout had mistreated an animal in front of the rest of the patrol. It was cruel and uncalled for and a clear violation of Scout rules – including the parts of the Scout Law that say a Scout is kind and a Scout is reverent.

In my Scouting experience, no one had ever done anything like this before. We were in uncharted territory. But Mr. Gerhart had faith in us. He told me to gather up the Leadership Corps and come up with a proper punishment. And he would help us carry out whatever punishment we deemed fit.

It was much like the planning meetings we had, except this had a much more heavy feel to it. Mr. Gerhart showed us that he trusted us by leaving in the cabin to brainstorm, deliberate, and come up with a plan. It was kind of like a final exam. And our teacher had prepared us in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

When we reached an agreement, we shared our conclusion with Mr. Gerhart. He agreed with our decision. And in what was probably the second-most difficult leadership moments of my life up to that point (the first was when I was called out on a mountainside in New Mexico), Mr. Gerhart sat behind me in support as I issued our team’s decision to the Young Scout.

Our decision was bold, but fair. I think it included a loss of rank and maybe a certain amount of probation. It was a devastating punishment, but it could have been worse. I think we showed a measured amount of grace. We could have kicked him out. But we didn’t. Because we knew how transformative the Scouting experience could be as part of our Troop. That, of course, is another testament to Mr. Gerhart’s guidance and leadership.

We could issue such a bold, fair, and graceful punishment because we knew Mr. Gerhart had our back. He trusted us. And we trusted him.

A servant leader has to trust AND be trusted. Mr. Gerhart did both.

Pointing the spotlight.

Mr. Gerhart lived out his faith every day that I saw him. He encouraged us to study creation as we were on our monthly campouts. Because he knew that as we studied creation, we would see the hand of the Creator at work. He encouraged us to take our faith seriously and live it with boldness. And he showed us that faith and scholarship are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they work together hand in hand.

He saw Scouting as an arm of our sponsoring church, reaching out to new families and encouraging young men in their faith. He took this role seriously. And I guess it was pretty effective. I mean, it got me and my brother to become active members of that church.

In addition to introducing me to Cullen Avenue Christian Church, Mr. Gerhart has another prominent place in my faith story. Shortly after mom and I had a discussion about how it was time for me to finally take ownership of my faith through the act of baptism, she set up a time for me to talk with Todd, my Youth Minister. Mr. Gerhart asked if he could sit in on our conversation.

I still have a few mental “snapshots” of this meeting. I don’t remember most of the words that were said. But I do remember knowing from that meeting that Mr. Gerhart took his faith very seriously and he was happy to know that I wanted to take my faith seriously, too.

The Apostle Paul instructed the believers in the church at Corinth to “Follow my example, as I follow the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:1). That was Mr. Gerhart. He urged us to follow him as he pointed to Jesus. That’s what servant leaders do. They don’t point the spotlight on themselves.

They point it beyond themselves.

“It’s just over the next ridge.”

When hiking at Philmont, Mr. Gerhart and his friend, Mr. Dawes, would have a saying to encourage each other. The rigorous terrain was a struggle for them, but they insisted on pushing on. They would encourage each other by saying that our destination was “Just over the next ridge.”

Of course, the end of the day’s hike usually wasn’t “over the next ridge.” It was usually five or six ridges away. But this was a good way to break up the hike into manageable legs. And since good leaders know that words matter matter and that you don’t climb a mountain in just one step, this was a fitting saying for them to share.

During long drives while my kids were younger, I found myself saying similar things. “Let’s get past this curve.” Or, “Let’s wait five minutes and see.” And, of course, “It’s just over the next ridge.” It helped break the monotony of some long trips. And it certainly helped me keep my sanity.

That’s not a bad way to approach life. Yes, we live in the present. And it’s healthy to have goals. But in order to achieve those goals, we have to break things up into manageable pieces. Each mini goal that leads to the big goal is a ridge that we must conquer.

This is one of the many leadership lessons I learned from Mr. Gerhart. It is not uncommon that find myself using many of the lessons that he lived out. He was a great leader, teacher, and friend. I will miss him. Dearly. In fact, I already do.

“Happy trails, Mr. Gerhart. Thank you for the impact you made on my life and the lives of countless others. We’ll see you over the next ridge.”

 

Endnotes

* Phil Gerhart was a highly-respected professor of engineering at the University of Evansville. Because of his PhD, it was altogether fitting that we call him Dr. Gerhart. In Scouts, he had us call him Mr. Gerhart. I don’t know why he did that, but that’s what we called him. That’s what I will always call him. I saw him at the end of 2016 when he and his wife came to the Viewing before my Grandma’s funeral. I suppose I could have gotten away with calling him “Phil.” But I didn’t. He always was and always will be Mr. Gerhart to me.

** By the time I was a Junior in high school, I had leadership roles in Band. I know my band director had something to do with that. But I credit the preparation for those leadership opportunities to Mr. Gerhart. He certainly paved the way.

Thoughts about leadership

Leadership Quotes

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“Getting by”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that political season is in full swing as we are hurtling towards November’s General Election at breakneck speed. The two parties’ national conventions are behind us and I although I only listened to a few speeches during those two weeks, the fear-mongering was in full display. And now we’re about to be bombarded with even more negative ads after negative ads, accusing politician’s opponents of doing everything from willfully watching corporations send good-paying jobs overseas to secretly kicking puppies and taking candy from sweet, innocent children.

I fully expect a whole lot of arguments about why I should vote against candidates and not very many arguments about why I should vote for their opponents. Such is the nature of contemporary politics, unfortunately. But, hey, it works. Or so they say, anyway. I disagree. Shouting down your opponent isn’t winning. It’s bullying. Turning your opponent into a straw man caricature you can easily convince 51% of the people to vote against doesn’t give you a mandate. It’s just getting by.

Just “getting by” is not acceptable. It isn’t acceptable for my kids when they do their homework. It’s not acceptable at most jobs, either. So why is just “getting by” acceptable when it comes to our elected leaders?

Servanthood and leadership

As I was contemplating making a run at the governorship, I thought a lot about leadership and what I believe a public leader should be like. I thought back to one of my favorite classes from my seminary days. It gave me a lot of leadership concept to chew on. That was ten years ago. I’m still chewing on them.

I even went back to my notes from Dr. Wasem’s class. As I perused those notes, it strengthened my belief that true leadership isn’t displayed by those who shout the loudest or generate the most fear. Leadership is about servanthood. That’s the heartbeat of a leader. With that in mind, I wonder what our local, state and Federal governments would look like if leaders truly approached their positions as service opportunities – chances to get their hands dirty – instead of stepping stools and ways to grab more power. That’s what Hans Finzel says in
The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make
:

A servant leader must be willing to get ‘down and dirty’ with his [or her] troops in the implementation of his [or her] objectives.

Don’t get me wrong. I know some people who approach their leadership positions with true servants’ hearts. They are heroes. I wish politicians would emulate them more.

I also found a few quotes about leadership while I was reading. I think they’re worth sharing here:

Changes

Change is inevitable; not to change is a sure sign of imminent extinction. Hans Finzel

This is true in almost every area of life. Look at a teenager. Holy cow, things are changing every single day, and sometimes multiple times a day. There’s also regular change in Church life, family life, society in general, world affairs, government, politics…you get the point?

Things change. It happens. So we look to leaders – servants who have gotten their hands dirty with us, who lead from the trenches – to help us navigate change. That’s how we move beyond merely surviving to thriving. And that’s what I want to do.

Change is inevitable. So why not make the most of it? Why not use it to expect our leaders to stop shooting for “just getting by” into the realm of dynamic, challenging, and inspirational leadership. That’s what our country needs.

Changing laws and changing hearts

And then there’s this quote. I like it. A lot. I’ve tried saying something similar. I even did it in one of the first posts I ever wrote. Mr. Greenleaf was just more succinct and eloquent.

we in the United States are more naive than most about what can be done with law, especially with the labyrinth of laws with which business is surrounded. It comes out better if one persuades rather than compels. Robert K. Greenleaf

I could easily write several posts that disagree with this quote. I could also write just as many posts supporting it. With that being said, I’d like for this quote to remind us that we cannot put all of our eggs in one basket if we want real, lasting change. And since change is going to happen anyway (see above), let’s pursue lasting change that makes a difference.

A change in leadership

Meaningful change can happen, folks. It can even happen in the midst of our national parties doing nothing but puffing themselves up while tearing their opponents down. We need real leadership. Servant leadership. And I imagine this happens from the ground up. It doesn’t require a top-level position. It does require dirty hands. And a servant’s heart.

I’m tired of putting people into power who are simply aiming to “get by,” aiming for the common denominator that gets them just enough votes to slip them into power. Aren’t you? Let’s do something about it.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab a towel. Let’s get started. Let’s navigate change together and make the world a better place. Together. If we do that, maybe our politicians will follow our lead. If not, maybe we need some new leadership.

Who’s with me?