Mentors make the difference between seeing things in a limited and typically self-indulgent way and seeing things in a larger perspective that inspires great work. Roger W. Birkman (February 1, 1919 – March 26, 2014) was a mentor who made that difference for me. I am one of hundreds of Birkman certified consultants trained in the Birkman Method personal assessments. I met Dr. Birkman briefly but even in that brief engagement I saw what others told me about him. He exuded curiosity, love for people, and appreciation for the work of others. So, just how does someone I only met in passing earn the title of mentor in my life? Another mentor of mine, J. Robert Clinton of Fuller Theological Seminary, describes this dynamic:
You can gain the advantages and empowerment of mentoring from indirect relationships with unavailable mentors. There are two kinds of passive mentors – the Contemporary Model, a living person who can mentor you even without a deliberate effort on his or her part, and the Historical Model, who has passed on yet can mentor you via input from biographical or autobiographical sources. These “model mentors” are always available, but mentorees must make an effort to find them.[i]
Dr. Birkman was a contemporary model in every way. The questions he asked about how people relate at work simply yet poignantly saw “the elephant in the room” that many tend to ignore. He wondered whether there was a way to understand behavioral patterns to give people a way to work more cohesively and with greater appreciation for each other’s unique perspectives. His work was…well it was healing. In every hospital, business, church, non-profit, and corporation I have used the Birkman Method leaders learn to see things differently. They understand the impact of their own behaviors on their teams in ways they did not before. Healing takes place as new appreciation unfurled and teams develop around new insight. I identify with this healing…Dr. Birkman’s work has indelibly altered the way I understand my own behavior and the behavior of others. I am (and those around me seem to agree) a better leader and a better friend as a result.
Thank you, Dr. Birkman for rising above group think, for exercising critical reflection, for putting your ideas out in front of people to be tested, shaped, confirmed, and improved upon. You made a difference in me and you became a model. Your passing doesn’t limit your influence in this mentee – it only moves you from a contemporary to a historical mentor whose influence, insight, and challenges continue to shape my thinking and improve the way I serve as a leader.
[i] Paul D. Stanley and J. Robert Clinton. Connecting: the Mentoring Relationship you Need to Succeed in Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1992), 132-33.