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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.
"When I got to the trunk, I found the jack, spare tire but no lug wrench. It was then that I remembered that I had taken it out of the trunk and forgot to put it back. So I had to walk along the road until I came to a farm. It took me a while to find the farmer - a nice guy - who listened to my dilemma - went into the barn - and came out with one of those four-way lug wrenches. We walked back to my car and the farmer proceeded to jack the car up and replace the flat tire with the spare."
At this point, X hesitated - I knew we were coming to the 'crunchy' part of the story.
"Well, to make a long story short, I kept on telling this guy that he was going about it all wrong. I thought that I was trying to help him get it right. But that is not how it worked out. After a couple of comments, the farmer stood up and said, "I have work to do and my cows are pleasanter company". At that, he walked down the road towards his farm."
"So", I asked, "you met your enemy and you are he?"
He looked at me sheepishly and smiled. "Yeah, that's what occurred to me. As I stood there in the middle of this dirt road with the person who had the tools and knowledge to solve my problem heading away, I said to myself 'OK, wise ass - nice job - now what?' But then all of those times I had acted just like the farmer had came flooding back.
To say it was confusing is an understatement. So I sat down on a rock at the side of the road to think about what had just happened. I was sitting there about half an hour when the farmer came back. Without saying a work, he set to changing the tire. When he finally finished and had put the tools and flat tire back into the trunk, he turned to me and said, "even dumb animals deserve our help - yeah, particularly dumb animals." Then he walked back towards his farm.
"I stood there for a minute or two absolutely speechless and then broke out in a loud belly-laugh. At hearing me, the farmer turned half-way towards me, flashed a big smile, waved and continued back to his farm."
Epiphanies come in the strangest wrappers sometimes. A couple of hours on a dirt road had accomplished more than a dozen mentoring sessions.
© Earl R. Smith II, PhD
PJ, Mentoring Client,
Mentoring Client, CEO and Serial Entrepreneur,
Mentoring Client, Deloitte,
CEO of Croix Connect and Host of ABC Radio’s ‘Taking Care of Business’,
Partner, IT & Telecom, Defense Solutions,