The Leadership Challenge – Why Mentors are Needed
Is it better to improve what exists or create what isn’t yet? Today’s context requires that a leader do both. Leaders face the tension of living in the present and the future simultaneously. In today’s world the rate of change often exceeds a leader’s ability to define change. As one author points out change has changed.
Leaders today must own two important factors of success. First is faith. Faith summons us to live in the present as though the future were here now. Without faith leaders tend to show the mediocrity that leads their organizations to live as though they were bound to the past than the future. Even once great organizations find themselves irrelevant, powerless and more connected to the past than the future. Their best people seem muddled and their leaders hamstrung.
Second, effective leaders all have mentors. If any leader in history seems to be exempt from the need of having a mentor it was Moses. Moses had a face to face and daily relationship with God according to the scriptures. Who needs a mentor when one can check in with the Almighty? The lesson seems to be that connection with God does not make independent super hero as much as it shapes authentic humanity that recognizes the interdependence of relationship that plays such a significant role in human development.
Moses and the children of Israel had experienced one of the greatest miracles of history in the Exodus from Egypt but when they landed in the wilderness they faced a problem, the success of the past would not carry them into the future unless they connected to the future than the past as their point of reference. Moses ran smack into the limitations of leadership capacity on the one hand and the necessity for expanding his capacity as a leader on the other.
Mentors Play a Critical Role in Leadership Development
When entering a harbor ship Captains often use experienced “pilots” to guide their vessels safely to dock. A pilot is familiar with the channel, hazards, currents and traffic the ship will face. As great a leader Moses was he needed a pilot at one point – a mentor to help him understand his own blind spots and develop an appropriate strategy for moving forward. Jethro served as Moses’ pilot or mentor. Jethro “piloted” Moses through new leadership terrain (cf. Exodus 18). Jethro modeled the tone as well as the content of an effective mentor. The encounter between Jethro and Moses offer seven insights into an effective mentoring relationship. Consider the following insights. How do these observations reflect the approach you take with mentees? What insights can you glean to improve the effectiveness of your own mentoring? I extracted the observations below from Exodus 18:1-27. What tools did Jethro use to enhance Moses’ leadership capacity?
Jethro journeyed to the wilderness to meet Moses and Israel. Principle: Effective mentoring occurs out of relationship. Mentoring or consultations of any type do not take place or give help if engaged in as a backseat driver or detached prognosticator. Mentors are often incarnations of divine assistance. The bottom line is a mentor knows you, initiates contact and identifies with your unique situational challenges and strengths.
Jethro heard of all that God had done. Principle: Effective mentors are attentive to the needs of their mentees. They act on what they hear or see. Mentors have the ability to see the wider perspective of purpose and meaning. Mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all approach but an approach that seeks exposure to the leader’s context, a larger frame of reference and sensitivity to the direction of the Holy Spirit. It is a personal and at times nearly an intimate interaction that identifies with the leader and empathize with their situation and personal victories and challenges.
“I your father-in-law Jethro; am coming to you.” Principle: Effective mentoring possesses and expresses a passion for leaders. Jethro’s relationship to Moses resulted from the marriage of Moses to Jethro’s daughter. If a mentor does his or her job well they will foremost act out of care and respect for leaders. Benevolence as a motivation helps reduce barriers to advice and understands that a foundation of honest communication and respect is an essential ingredient to building trust.
“Jethro said, ‘blessed be the Lord, who delivered you…’” Principle: A mentor must not only see things to improve they must start with things to celebrate. Note that up to this point Jethro had done nothing but see and understand the context, goals, past and present work Moses was involved in. A significant part of any mentoring engagement or consultation takes place in celebrating the accomplishments and the passion from which the leader draws both courage and vision. It reinforces the leader, demonstrates respect for what the leader has accomplished and sets the stage for the leader to express or recognize any boundaries to the development of their capacity as a leader as demanded by their situation.
“You will surely wear out; both yourself and these people…Now listen to me. I will give you counsel.” Principle: The benefit of mentoring is introduced – Jethro’s observations based on his wider perspective and appreciation for the great work God was doing in Israel had two primary goals; that Moses successfully engage his task with energy and endurance and that the people embrace their changing destiny and situation with peace. Jethro diagnosed and prescribed with sensitivity to the context and the insight of experience and intuition. Warning: a double jeopardy exists in an overburdened leader – the leader and the people wear out. This one-two punch guarantees that an organization will eventually suffer a collapse and if left untreated die.
Moses listened. Principle: The best mentors in the world are worthless if a leader or leadership team is unwilling to listen to questions, direction and carry out a plan that applies the advice. Mentoring and consultation is a partnership that culminates in new implementation and immediate follow-through.
Punctuated Time Frame
“Then Moses bade farewell to his father-in-law, and did all he said.” Principle: Effective mentors know when to disengage from directive communication. When the mentee owns the implementation of a new concept mentoring is a success. This is sometimes called “freezing change” – mentors know when change must be frozen and consolidated in action. When Moses and Israel accepted the need for altering their leadership and followership behaviors they experienced a revitalized perspective. This observation reinforces the reality that effective mentors own a clear sense of their own identity and do not engage leaders as trying to shore up their own sense of importance, value or influence. This is not to say that mentoring is not rewarding but that mentors who work out of their own need for recognition ultimately attempt to suppress the important step toward differentiation and interdependence the mentee most make to be a healthy leader.
Jethro’s approach to Moses illustrates a mentoring framework that mentors today would do well to use. Notice that Jethro’s approach builds a foundation and then leverages Moses’ capabilities forward. See Figure 1.
Figure 1: A Model Mentoring Approach
Figure 1 represents a model approach to mentoring that provides guidance to emerging and experienced mentors alike. Try working through these steps in your next mentoring conversation and see how it impacts the readiness of the mentee to listen to advice.
Who are your mentors? Are you listening? In what ways have you altered your behaviors as a leader? Who do you mentor? Do you know when to engage and when to disengage? Do you exercise the discipline and skill of honest feedback? Do you celebrate your mentee’s successes with them in front of their followers?
In the next article I will offer a synthesis of this approach to mentoring and organizational development cycles. I invite your comments – share your experience.
 Ken Blanchard and Terry Waghorn. Mission Possible (San Francisco, CA: McGraw Hill, 1997), xxi.