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Mike Breen: The Hidden Desire of Every Millennial Leader

I think I know a secret held in the heart of many Millennials …

Last week I was speaking at the Refresh Pastors and Leaders Conference in Regina, Canada. Flying through Toronto to get there, I was reminded of a time, a few years ago, when I was flying back from another conference in the middle of winter with my then teenage son, Sam. We hadn’t had much time together in the previous month, so I thought it would be fun for him to join me on the trip. We had a great time, but on the journey home the weather closed in and we found ourselves stuck in the Toronto airport. As we waited for the weather to clear, much to the consternation of the hosts of anxious travelers, the airport began closing down. Sam and I decided to settle in and enjoy the time together. As we whiled away the time, we turned to reminding each other of funny stories from our past. It was great fun.

After a while, Sam went to find a vending machine, and no sooner had he gone than a young man in his 20s took the opportunity to come over and talk to me. He said, “I’ve been watching you and your son and you seem to have a great relationship.” Somewhat shocked, and if I’m honest, a little embarrassed, I thanked him. He looked at me with real intensity and said quietly, “My wife and I are having our first child soon—it’s a boy—I would love to have a relationship with him like you have with your son. Could you give me any advice on how to raise him?” I looked at him more closely, he seemed to be very open and earnest and more than happy to wait for my reply. Clearly it was an important moment for him, so I began to share my wife’s and my philosophy of parenting that centers on Love, Discipline and Freedom. He was fascinated and continued to question and listen even after Sam returned. He was particularly interested in what discipline meant.

The time went by quickly, our flights got their clearances and we parted ways, but I’ve often thought about that young Millennial-father and wondered how he was doing with his little boy. I’m sure he’ll be fine—anyone humble enough to ask a complete stranger for advice is sure to learn everything necessary to raise a family.

But to me, that young man well represents his generation because he expresses what I’ve noticed about the Millennials in general: They all have a secret desire to be mentored.

Of course, this is the generation that has had a constant flow of mass media elevating the role of the mentor from Star Wars to Harry Potter, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Dumbledore. In our world, mentors—unlike parents—are presented as vital to anyone who would seek to do well.

Renowned anthropologist Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces), whom George Lucas famously consulted in the writing of Star Wars, would say that every culture has very similar heroic tales designed to help us understand the nature, purpose and responsibilities of life. Every heroic tale in every age involves an unlikely hero (Frodo) entering ‘another world’ (Mordor) to fulfill a great quest (destroying the Ring of Power) in which an older and wiser mentor (Gandalf) directs and aids. With the massive impact of movies, books, video games and other media, and the continuous propagation of this heroic ideal, the Millennials, perhaps beyond all other generations of the more new era, have this ‘heroic story’ in their drinking water, in the very atmosphere they breathe.

Cynics might say that Millennials are too quick to think of themselves as ‘special’—that their parents have not helped because they have too readily invested in the idea of their ‘specialness.’ They might even say, as some have recently suggested, that the whole generation has a tendency toward narcissism (Time: May 9, 2013). Personally, I don’t buy it and I think it’s wrong to rubbish the clearly expressed aspirations of so many. My sense is that we are seeing the emergence of a generation that longs to reach beyond the limitations of individualism and self-assertiveness of past generations, believing we are all here to make a difference.

We are in a time when many in the emerging generation want to embrace the ‘Hero’s Journey,’ a journey that is most perfectly expressed in the life of Jesus. But of course this requires that they find mentors who will guide, encourage and cajole them along the way.

I wonder whether you long for a mentor? Or perhaps you feel the call to function as a living example to another, becoming their mentor? My guess is that as you look around, your mentor or mentee is right there in front of you.

Next week I thought I would complete this informal series on the Millennials and share some other anthropological observations that might show us more of what the emerging generation is looking for as they navigate their passage toward leadership in the world.  

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Mike leads 3DM, the global home for an organic movement of biblical discipleship and missional church. He and his wife, Sally, have three children.