The Spirit of Mentoring

“What you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say.”   – African proverb

Becoming a mentor is not for everyone.  It takes an investment of time, a commitment to help others, and a gift.  This is key, so I repeat it – a gift.  Mentors inspire us by being who they are.  As they say, “What you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say.”

The Mentors Gift?
As with good parenting or teaching, the mentor’s task is to ease themselves out of a job.  In other words, good mentoring emboldens us to grow up and to grow out of our role.  While some mentors might mobilize us toward shared goals, those with the “mentor’s gift” uplift us.

The secret to profoundly influencing others as a mentor lies in transparency – opening our own lives to inspection, warts, and all.  Those mentors who merely preach, we tend to ignore.  Or, we study them for the “what-not-to-be” lesson.

The mentor’s gift animates our lives.  It moves us toward becoming our authentic selves.  Mentoring is a process of opening our lives to others.

Every wise mentor must do two things: make a connection and use that connection to create a transparent relationship of mind, heart, and spirit.  Not canned advice.  Not cliché-driven blueprints.  The mentor’s gift is to mirror and support the voice within each person, their interior truth.

What Does a Mentor Do?

Mentoring is a timeless art.  Its essential elements reside in the heart.  The word “mentoring” has mythic roots.  It means “wise guide.”  Guide as in the mythological character Mentor of Homer’s Odyssey.   Odysseus asks Mentor to guide the growth of his son, Telemachus.  But, we need mentors and teachers at every stage of life.

At its core, becoming an effective mentor requires becoming a “wise guide” – one who inspires growth in self and others.  Mentors inspire growth when they’re being who they are.  Their gift is to ignite our gifts, passions, and values.  They help us to hear our voice and to heed our own distinct calling.  When mentors succeed, it’s because they fully experience us – as we are.

Isolation is Fatal
A block to anyone’s growth is isolation, having no one in whom to confide.  Those with the drive to grow, to become their best selves can easily feel estranged.  The drive to venture forth to one’s growth edge can create a feeling of isolation.  And, isolation can be fatal.

Every seeker of growth needs at least one wise guide – a truly committed listener.  But, sadly many people routinely shoulder their burdens, hopes, and dreams alone.

Even proven leaders need mentors.  Mentoring and being mentored – both are good for us.  Take a minute to think about the best mentor you’ve ever had – anyone who’s been a particularly wise guide at some point in your life.  Now think of what made them stand out to you.

  • What is the single most important quality this person added to your life?
  • If you had a serious challenge, today, how do you think this person would respond?
  • Can you recall a time when you had a “courageous conversation” (deep truth telling) with this person? What shifted in you?

When we look beneath the surface of success for whatever’s real and lasting in ourselves and others, we can become capable mentors to others.  Healthy mentoring relationships grow out of committed listening first to ourselves, then to others.  We can’t give away what we don’t own.  Mentoring, first and foremost, is an inside job.  The ultimate leadership challenge is self-leadership.

Wise leaders are congruent.  They’re actually who they purport to be and that transparency encourages our own congruency.

At some point (and probably many times), we’re going to find ourselves in the role of mentor to someone, somewhere.  How can we really stand out in that role?  What might keep us from standing out?

Some people shy away from mentoring because they, themselves, have not had a positive mentoring experience.  They’ve learned to go it alone.  Some fear transparency, imagining that it entails “touchy-feely” intrusions or unproductive “psychobabble.”

Becoming a mentor is not for everyone.  At its best, mentoring does require a substantial emotional investment by the mentor.  Wise guides share five traits in common:

The Spirit of Mentoring

  • They care (versus trying to “cure” you). They are not interested in fixing you, but care about you as you are.
  • They are interested (versus trying to be interesting). They are genuinely curious about you and want you to succeed on your own terms.
  • They listen deeply (versus telling you what to do). They are focused on hearing your story and are not distracted by their own story; they slow things down and know when to “pause” during a conversation to let things settle.
  • They ask good growth questions (versus having a prescriptive blueprint for you). They don’t prescribe their solutions but help you answer your own questions.
  • They engage in courageous conversation (versus superficial chatter and small talk). They are alert to “teachable moments”; they teach versus tell.

Mentors are imperfect.  If we romanticize their lives or careers, or give them too much authority, we shortchange ourselves.  People on pedestals, after all, tend to fall off.

Throughout their lives and careers wise mentors increasingly become more of themselves.  They relax into who they are.  They embody the spirit and traits of great mentoring.  There is ample, scientific evidence showing that having somebody to talk to is fundamental to our health, healing, happiness, and longevity.

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Richard Leider, founder of Inventure – The Purpose Company, is one of America’s preeminent executive-life coaches. He is ranked by Forbes as one of the “Top 5” most respected executive coaches, and by the Conference Board as a “legend in coaching.” Richard has written ten books, including three best sellers, which have sold over one million copies and have been translated into 20 languages.  Repacking Your Bags and The Power of Purpose are considered classics in the personal development field.  Richard’s PBS Special – The Power of Purpose – was viewed by millions of people across the U.S.


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