WeLEAD Editorial: Are the Most Effective Mentors Oddballs?

WeLEAD Editorial: Are the Most Effective Mentors Oddballs?

3.6 min read

Greg L. Thomas

Peter Senge, MIT professor and author of The Fifth Discipline, said:

 “No one in the past 30 years has had a more profound impact on thinking about leadership than Robert Greenleaf.” 

Robert Greenleaf, author of the classic series of essays on the theme “the servant as leader,” was a powerful advocate of mentoring.  In The Power of Servant Leadership, edited by Larry Spears, Robert Greenleaf proposed that there are psychic rewards to be gained by oldsters who take the time and trouble to mentor the young to become servant-leaders.

He stated, “What could bring more satisfaction to oldsters than helping some of the young to become servant-leaders?” (page 54)

As an oldster himself at the time of his writing, he saw the need for a more caring society, but had little confidence that many of the leaders of his generation would actually meet the challenge.  He was definitely not persuaded that much progress toward a caring society would “be initiated by those who are now established as leaders.”  He stated that he did “not expect much” from his contemporaries. (page 53)

Robert Greenleaf saw that once an individual rose to a position of power and influence with a nonservant mindset, it would probably take a metanoia (a profound transformation or conversion) to change such a leader into a true servant-leader.  He stated:

“For the older ones among us who are ‘in charge,’ nothing short of a ‘peak’ experience, like religious conversion…seems to have much chance of converting a confirmed nonservant into an affirmative servant.” (page 23)

Although many influential leaders consider themselves effective mentors and servant-leaders, the fruits often do not bear this out.  Often the person who is energized and inspired to be an able mentor of the young is not a person of great formal power and influence.  In fact, a very successful mentor is likely to be one who has not risen to the top within his or her organization, but has remained in a lower level position in order to have greater access to young people.

Superiors may consider these effective mentors as oddballs.  This is because such persons may not want to conform to the organization’s culture and rise to a position of prominence.  Many organizational cultures place little value on truly growing people and helping young people internalize a lifestyle of service.  You can see this in academia, where senior faculty may pay lip service to mentoring junior faculty and students, but in reality there is a spirit of competition and a “scarcity mentality” driven by self-interest.  Institutional rewards often go to those most driven by such self-interest, rather than recognizing and rewarding those who are highly effective mentors.

Able mentors often prefer to spend their time and energy preparing and inspiring the next generation to become effective mentors and servant-leaders.  They see their mentees as those who will become the builders of more serving institutions in the future.  These visionary mentors are often very talented at growing people.  They are driven by a vision of the future.  They believe that there is tremendous psychic reward in giving themselves to make a difference in the lives of others.

Robert Greenleaf provided this striking example in an address he made to a gathering of university students: (page 102– The Power of Servant Leadership)

“Thomas Jefferson had such a mentor in George Wythe, the Williamsburg lawyer under whom Jefferson apprenticed.  Without the influence of George Wythe, there might not have been a Jefferson to write The Declaration of Independence or draft the statutes in Virginia that shaped the Constitution.  He might have settled for the role of eccentric Virginia scholar.  Find such a mentor if you can.”

Comments tohbaker@32john.com

 About the author:

 Dr. Howard Baker is Director of Education for INSPIRE! Learning Systems.  He holds a B.S. in Management from Samford University, a Master of Accounting (MAcc) from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from the University of Texas at Arlington.  He has been a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) since 1989.  He is an adjunct professor in both Business Administration and Public Administration at the University of Texas at Tyler.  Dr. Baker is a lifetime charter member of weLEAD and the founding editor of the weLEADInLearning web site’s E-Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership located atwww.weleadinlearning.org.  His weLEAD email address is hbaker@32john.com.

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