Leader Mentoring: the Magic that
Builds True Leaders

by Michael Shenkman and Bonnie Gorbaty

The importance of mentors in our lives cannot be overstated. If we have mentors, we can find and develop new capabilities in ourselves. Without mentors, we still may be able to do so, but it will likely take longer, and we may not go as far as our potential promise.

A particular form of mentoring, called "leader mentoring," offers young leaders no shortcuts to success. In fact, mentors often take pride in finding just the right situation - that is the most difficult and challenging situation - in which to put the aspiring leader. This assures that the most learning and the right kind of learning occurs. For young leaders, that often means learning the hard way.

At most, leader mentors are willing to offer a soft landing, but they are not willing to spare their charges the pain that comes with the territory of leading.

In some cases someone might have a mentor and not even know it. One mentor explained to us that, as he himself was being mentored, he actually thought his boss had it in for him - and not in a positive way. He thought the boss was systematically trying to have this young manager fail. Years later, when in a position to mentor someone else, it dawned on him that his rise through the corporate ranks into executive positions in very interesting fields was the result of this mentor's invisible yet steady hand.

Leader mentors aren't coaches that help leaders "perform" better, have better managerial skills, or even give better speeches. The one big difference is this: leader mentors are willing to let their charges fail at those tasks. Coaches, often the leader's direct supervisor, cannot afford failure and so coach their protégés to succeed at a process or function.

Leader mentors have the luxury of allowing failure. What they don't want as a result of such failures is for their charges to lose heart, or to forget the big picture, or to be too timid about risks of leadership. So, a big difference between coaches and mentors is that mentors are not judges about the tasks of managerial proficiency. Instead they are guides in the experience of the life of leading.

The important thing for a mentor is not success or failure, but that their Mentee stepped into the experience. Any real leader challenge is almost guaranteed to succeed only partially. The mentor's job is to see that learning takes place, not just brute measurement or up/down judgment. "What did you learn?" …that's the mentor's question.

As a result of working at this deeply emotional level of life, mentors in our company's program have observed how often they found themselves unable to explain to a new leader what it will be like to see peoples' eyes light up as the challenge before them unfolds. A mentor can't express the awesome sense of responsibility one feels in that situation. A mentor can't explain the terrible pain at seeing a venture sputter or fail, or how unsatisfying merely winning is, in comparison to the thrill of continuing to lead ever greater challenges. The leader mentor simply puts people in the right situations, with the right frame of mind. Then it's up to the leader.

After placing the budding leader into the situation, the mentor lets her experience the full force of leading, guiding the young leader's perceptions and responses and perhaps smiling as a way to acknowledge the budding leader for being on the right course. Or the leader mentor might just provide the occasion for a charge to keep talking about what is going on so that this new leader can think things through. The mentor might only say, "Well, give it a try." But the smile, or the look of concern tells him/her charge that an experience is about to unfold.

"I know that look," a Mentee once told us during a mentoring session. "This is going to hurt, but you're not going to bail me out, are you?" That look makes a challenge into a growing and learning experience within a relationship. That's mentoring.

All the leader mentors that we know acknowledge there is "magic" in the mentoring relationship. So much is unspoken. Not much is done in terms of direct exchange, yet attitudes, values, and hopes are conveyed throughout the encounter. Not much is assured by the mentor, but the new leader experiences a rising sense of possibility, by having an affirming voice and expression offered to that leader alone.


Michael Shenkman, Ph.D., and Bonnie Gorbaty are principals at the Arch of Leadership (www.archofleadership.com), a nationwide leader mentoring firm based in Albuquerque and Boston. Shenkman is author of The Arch and The Path, the Life of Leading Greatly (Sandia Heights Media).

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Copyright 2007 by Michael Shenkman and Bonnie Gorbaty. All rights reserved.

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