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Earl R Smith II, PhD

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We look in them every day – and use them as metaphors for achieving deeper self-knowledge. Every person we meet is one and what they show us can be far more valuable than any highly polished surface.


I won’t sugarcoat it – mentoring can bring some very aggravating experiences. Sometimes it takes forever to achieve just a small illumination. Then there are the times – backsliding – when months of work seems to be washed away by a recidivist tendency. But then there are the other kinds that make the occasional frustration fade into the background. Let me tell you about one of these experiences.

I was working with a senior team member – let’s call him X – in a one-on-one mentoring engagement. This person is very bright and mentally agile – used to dealing with and developing creative solutions to very complex problems. He is an important asset to every team he was called to. However, there was a downside to his participation – he had a strongly anti-humanist attitude towards other people.

A couple of examples of this behavior might help you better understand why this was so great a problem.

His attitude toward lesser experienced team members was often dismissive. He came on as imperious – often taken by the victims of his behavior as hubris. More than once I had seen him ‘cut the knees off’ of a junior member of the team who was – albeit hesitatingly – advancing a possible solution to the challenge before the team. And more than once the solution that this ‘underling’ had suggested turned out to be the right path forward.

We talked about this tendency. But I quickly realized that, for X, this was an intellectual exercise – a logical inquiry into an area that was virtual and did not relate to either him or the ‘real world’. Even when he was admitting that he behaved in such a manner, it was as if he was talking about someone else.

A second example – he tended to insist on exactly the same role in every team. His self image was heavily colored by seeing himself as the ‘idea generator’ – the person who could see the way forward well before others did. This behavior fed into the first area. But it also created problems of its own. This was particularly true when solutions called for multidisciplinary contributions. In X’s mind, there was only room for one ‘creative guy’ on any team.

The mentoring sessions had settled into a fairly repetitious pattern and I was getting ready to call the whole thing off – I have little appetite for kamikaze raids on vacant lots – when something most unexpected happened. As we began a session, I got the strong impression that something had happened – something that X really wanted to talk about but was having difficulty finding the right place to start. I figured that a bit of distraction would help him so I asked “how was your weekend?”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about”, came the reply. “Something happened that made me realize something about myself.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of this. All of our conversations had been about work related issues. I expected to hear about some family issue or argument. But that was not what X wanted to talk about.

“I had decided to take a drive out to the mountains – just to get away for an afternoon and relax”, he said. “I was going to a place that I really like to hike through. I left the main road and drove along a narrow one that eventually turned into a dirt road. About a mile into that road, I had a flat tire.”

I wasn’t sure where this was going but X really needed to tell me about it – so I went along for the ride.

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