THE BLOG
05/30/2013 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2013

Developing Leaders on a Moving Train

How do you develop leaders on a moving train?

This is actually not a metaphorical question. As the Leadership Development Partner of the Millennial Trains Project, City Year has agreed to help the remarkable social entrepreneurs behind this exciting initiative turn a ten-day cross-country train trip into a transformational leadership development experience. Here's a brief introduction to this innovative idea:

The Millennial Trains Project (MTP) will bring together 100 Millennials (ages 18-34) and take them on a crowd-funded trans-continental train journey. According to Patrick Dowd, MTP's Founder and CEO, the initiative is "built on the belief that Millennials--as individuals and as a generation--have the power to implement the ideas and innovations that will carry our nation forward." In order to participate, individuals need to propose a social change initiative of their own design, and then raise $5,000 in support of the project through crowd funding. The first applicants to reach that financial goal will earn a spot on the train, which will travel from California to DC stopping in a different city every day. At each of the ten stops, participants will meet local leaders and innovators, and will have opportunities to advance their own projects. The first train departs this August; applications are still being accepted.

The initiative was inspired by a similar trip occurs in India, which Dowd experienced while on a Fulbright. It is grounded in the reality--both timelessly ancient and utterly modern--that journeys build leaders. When we leave our familiar, comfortable homes and embark upon a journey through the frontiers of our outer world, we not only learn important truths about the world around us, but inevitably emerge with deeper insights into the world within us. From Gandhi's yatras to MLK's marches, from 20th century whistle-stop campaigns to the moon shot, travel with a purpose has served as a crucible experience capable of transforming ordinary citizens into committed civic leaders. There is no doubt that the Millennial generation must rise to face a myriad of complex and pressing public challenges, and MTP aspires to unleash the full potential of this generation through the timeless, mythic undertaking of a transformational journey.

From the moment they arrive to start the journey, MTP participants will be immersed in a remarkable community of innovators, makers, activists, and entrepreneurs. Together, this community will encounter a new city, new ideas, new information, and new insights every single day. This is sure to be an engaging, exciting, eye-opening, and thought provoking experience for every participant. They will be immersed in an ambitious, large-scale social change initiative designed to inspire them to take on big challenges of their own in the months and years ahead. They will all gain an invaluable new social network, and will emerge with a remarkable trans-regional perspective on current trends in innovation and social entrepreneurship. From a leadership development perspective, however, the challenge is obvious: How do we ensure that participants are ultimately energized and empowered--and not overwhelmed, distracted, and derailed (metaphorically speaking)-- by the sheer volume, complexity, and velocity of new experiences they will confront on the train?

This is where the partnership with City Year comes into play. MTP and City Year have collaborated on the creation of a leadership development curriculum called The Pioneer's Journey, which is an adapted version of the Idealist's Journey curriculum that City Year uses with all 2,500 of our corps members. The curriculum invites every MTP participant to view the train trip as a dual journey: It is simultaneously a journey through the outer world (10 cities in ten days), as well as a journey through the inner world of personal purpose and meaning. Even as they are immersed in this encounter with new cities and new ideas--and are working hard to make their own social change initiatives a reality--participants will be invited to consistently practice the art of staying present to their own deepest sense of purpose and mission, and awake to the uniquely personal meaning of their own journeys. For one hour every evening on the train, the Pioneer's Journey curriculum will invite participants to give their attention to this inner journey even as they are still engaged in the outer journey across the nation.

City Year and MTP agree that if we are to powerfully develop leaders on a moving train, then we must systematically strengthen participants' capacities to pause, turn their attention inwards, and intentionally cultivate and sustain connection with their own inner sources of motivation and meaning. We must deliberately keep them connected to their own mission and values, and develop their skills at "problem-finding"--identifying the most personally meaningful challenged embedded in the remarkable complexity of their daily experiences. In these ways, we develop inner strengths and skills that allow each participant to find a uniquely personal path forward in the face of potentially overwhelming complexity.

This is an approach that we've refined over the course of the last six years at City Year, with exciting results. Participants in this type of leadership development experience report feeling more connected to their own personal sense of purpose, more able to sustain their efforts to confront pressing public problems, more able "get to the root" of personally meaningful challenges, more aware of what is going on around AND within themselves, and more able to not get "lost in the weeds" by maintaining a healthy, broad perspective on their daily challenges. As a result, they report being more focused, productive and effective when pursuing goals related to outer world change.

City Year is honored to partner with the Millennial Trains Project around this approach to leadership development, and we look forward to learning together with the MTP staff about how to refine this experience for future MTP train journeys. After all, we recognize that this real-life challenge is a powerful metaphor for leadership development writ large in the 21st century. Given the velocity of change and the complexity of the challenges we encounter daily, we are all seeking to develop ourselves and others on the moving train that is our present-day global reality. In partnership with the MTP staff and participants on this first train journey, we are eager to pioneer this exciting approach that is pushing the edge of current frontiers related to 21st century leadership development.