Over the years I have discovered that good mentors have had really good mentors. I’ve been lucky in that sense as life has brought me into contact with a number of them. I’ve also come to understand that good mentors are generally not specialists. By that I mean that they have had a very wide range of life experiences that cover a significant number of decades. Life offers diversity and individuals who have sampled a wide range of it tend to be better mentors than those who have focused in a narrow area.
Another thing that I’ve come to realize is that mentors do not specialize in mentoring. I’ve never met a “professional mentor” was anything but a consultant looking for another engagement. Mentors seem to see the process as helping the next generation avoid the pitfalls that they encountered and had to overcome in less elegant fashion than might be.
A third characteristic of good mentors is that they are very careful in selecting the people that they are going to work with. Unlike coaching, mentoring involves very heavy lifting and tends to focus on substantial changes in the patterns and direction of a life. A mentor tends to need a much more substantial commitment to the process and fearlessness on the part of a person than does a coach. After all, most mentoring seriously challenges the self-image and received understanding that has, for very long periods, supported a person’s life direction.
Many years back I spent some of my time in what I call “parachute reviews”. I would be asked, mostly by an outside investor, to do a “quick-and-dirty” assessment of a company and its senior management team. I would “parachute in”, spend a week or so poking around and then tell the investor what I thought, what I recommended and what the prospects were. It was a very enjoyable experience and I saved a number of investors very substantial sums in the process. I remember one particular company. One of my tasks was to meet with and evaluate the senior management team. A mentor of mine, who was intensely curious about anything I did, volunteered to come along during the interviews. I enthusiastically accepted his offer. I remember interviewing the CEO for well over an hour and at the end of the interview my friend asked me, “well, what do you think”? I started down my list and got interrupted.
“Leaders have a vision; managers have to do lists. You’ve just spent an hour with the manager who thinks he’s a CEO and leader. There is nothing wrong with being either but, in these cases, confusion can be very expensive.”
So, in addition to providing the investor with important information that did end up saving him a significant amount of money, I came face-to-face with a very productive way of looking at things. That single event set me on the road to mentoring rather than coaching.
As I’ve said before, I consider the work that good coaches do very important to the success of their clients. But my friend and mentor raised the question that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. The direction of any given life is, at least in part, determined by random circumstance and the influences of adults before we completely form an understanding of who we are. In ancient cultures, it was put this way:
“A person is born twice. Once of a woman and then reborn as they discover who they are and what path their life should follow.”
This is a summary of part of what Joseph Campbell called the “Mono-myth”. Ancient societies supported this rebirth through a process called initiation. During this process a child was taken from his parents and taught what it meant to be an adult in the society. The rebirthing process was generally managed by the elders in the community. Afterwards, the individual was welcomed into the society as an adult and expected to fulfill the role which that required.
The problem in modern society is that there is no longer any initiation process. There is no organized group of elders who pass on received wisdom. An individual finds themselves needing to “make it up as they go along”. It should be no surprise that many of them get it wrong and find that, well down the path which they have chosen, they are on the wrong one.
The world has plenty of room for leaders and managers. In fact, it simply could not function without an ample supply of both. But what happens when presumption inadequately reflects things as they are? What happens when somebody who is a manager presumes to be a leader? What happens when a leader presumes to be a manager? What happens when an individual who has no business trying to be either tries to be one of the other or both?
Mentoring deals with the difference between what an individual and their life has become and what it should be becoming. It focuses on the difference between the vision that an individual has of their life (I often describe this as their avatar) and the reality of their life as they are experiencing it. The greater the distance between the two, the more dissatisfaction. The more dissatisfaction, the more frequently desperate grasping becomes the dominating characteristic of a life. More desperate grasping leads to a desperation and a feeling that life is simply not what it is supposed to be.
Over the years, I have encountered individuals experiencing precisely what I have described above. Some of them have resolved to do whatever is necessary to make the changes and find a new path. That tends to be when they seek me out. As the old Zen saying goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.
Good mentoring is a serious undertaking which requires a serious commitment on the part of the person being mentored. To put an end to “making it up as you go along” you have to stop and say “no more. I am going to find a better way”. As a mentor, I am the person who helps find that better way.
© Earl R Smith II, PhD