Managers as mentors
Managers as mentors

Managers as mentors

Someone once said, "Seek fruit that lasts" by seeking fruit in the lives of people. Seeking fruit in others by mentoring may bear fruit elsewhere . . .

December 1 st 2006
Appears in Winter 2006

Roped together in relationship

For over thirty years I have been part of a team of seven men who rope together to climb mountains and explore backcountry wilderness. During these three decades, this climbing experience parallelled my leadership responsibilities, and I came to see the mountain climbing rope as a powerful metaphor for the relationships that tie leaders and followers together—that connect mentors and mentorees. (So much so that I use the metaphor in the title of my recent book, Don't Step on the Rope! Reflections on Leadership, Relationship and Teamwork, Paternoster, 2005). Both management and mentoring are relationships—ropes that connect us as we journey through life and leadership.

Managers are roped to the members of their team

Leaders and followers are tied together. Managers are roped to their team. The leader goes nowhere unless followers choose to go. Managers accomplish nothing unless the team chooses to do it. The image of the mountaineering rope communicates this clearly. We are linked by fixed relationships. Each person's actions make impacts on every other person on the rope. We only move if everyone moves, and only as fast as our slowest member. For that reason, the primary responsibilities of management are always to keep the mission, objective or summit in focus, and to protect the rope that links us—the relationships that encourage, restrain, and assist the members of the team. The health and success of a team is determined by the strength of the rope-relationships that connect them. Managers are responsible for the rope.

Mentorees are roped to a mentor

Mentors and mentorees are also connected by relationship. Men and women choose to clip into a mentor's rope—to learn from a person's life and leadership experience—when they take responsibility for their own learning and development. Mentoring is a relationship of self-directed learning in which the mentoree seeks wisdom and guidance from a mentor who has travelled further on a particular trail, and when a mentor agrees to share his or her experience openly and vulnerably and with thoughtful questions helps mentorees mine the learning available in the mentor's life and experience. The relationships—the ropes—provide a "belay." A belay rope holds the climber secure when he or she falls, and creates space for the climber to regain their footing and opportunity for reflection and learning from the fall. Falling is a natural part of growing, and mentors turn that into a learning experience. The health and success of mentoring is determined by the strength of the rope-relationship that connects mentor to mentoree. Since mentoring is a self-directed learning relationship, mentorees are responsible for the rope.

Both involve relationship

Leadership and management are relationships of influence in which one person seeks to influence the vision, values, attitudes, or behaviours of another. There is no leadership, no management, and no influence unless a follower chooses to accept that influence and to act on it. It takes at least two people for leadership influence to be exercised. Initiative resides with the leader—the person seeking to influence others. However, in every relationship influence moves in both directions. Everyone exercises leadership when seeking to influence another, regardless of the position or title held. Similarly, mentoring is a relationship. While setting and context may vary (group, distant, engaged, or passive), mentoring is about one person's allowing another person's experience, wisdom, perspective, and care to influence belief and behavior. In an active, ongoing mentoring relationship both parties hold responsibility for the health of the relationship. As in every relationship, influence and learning flow both ways, but in the mentoring relationship the initiative resides with the mentoree.

Both involve choice

Leaders do not command leadership and mentors do not control mentoring. Leadership and mentoring happen only when someone chooses to follow, chooses to learn, and chooses to believe and act. Leadership and mentoring reside in the choice of the follower. This is captured well in a scene from the movie Take the Lead. Pierre Dulaine is attempting to teach ballroom dancing to two kids from the street. The rebellious young woman, however, has no intention of letting her male partner lead and dominate the dance. Dulaine points out that both parties must lead because the dance is only possible when the woman chooses to follow. Choice is an act of leadership that controls the influence being exercised. Relationships are sustained only by choice. Leadership is about choice. Mentoring is about choice.

Both involve following

Leadership ultimately rests in the hands of the follower; mentoring rests in the hands of the mentoree. Management and mentoring at heart are relationships of influence determined completely by following. Both relationships involve leadership—influence. Managers seek to influence vision, values, attitudes, and behaviors that move the team toward organizationally agreed upon objectives. Mentors seek to influence mentorees to reflect on their experience and to take responsibility for their own development. Both require choice to complete the relationship. Leadership and mentoring are much more about following than directing. Final control—final influence—rests with the follower, the mentoree.

The objective of each relationship is different

While both management and mentoring are relationships of influence—both involve influence, both require choice, and both are about following—the objective of each relationship is different. Managers rope up to others to accomplish a specific, shared outcome, usually within the context of an organizational mission. Mentors rope up to another to encourage that person's realizing potential. Management has an institutional purpose; mentoring, a personal objective. Management is instrumental; mentoring is philanthropic. They are different types of relationships because of their different intentions. This raises some question:

  • Can they be pursued simultaneously?
  • Can managers be mentors? Can mentors be managers?

The answer is "yes"—with a caveat.

Mentoring cannot be managed, but management can be mentored

From the perspective of the manager, mentoring cannot be managed. Mentoring, as self-directed learning, is a relationship of influence shaped by the initiative of the mentoree. Managers cannot control another's learning. They can contribute to it, provide resources for it, and encourage and reward it, but learning is the responsibility of the mentoree. Having said that, I argue that management can, indeed, be mentored. Managers can make themselves available as mentors who care deeply about a person's personal—in contrast to organizational—development, share their experience openly, and who reflect vulnerably on their own leadership journey as they encourage followers to learn from their present activities. In such a mentoring relationship, the manager is investing in the mentoree's growth as a person, encouraging the development of potential without necessary regard to institutional objectives or organizational agendas. Managers can be mentors if the follower chooses to be a mentoree. The follower decides whether or not the manager holds wisdom and experience from which a mentoree can learn. The follower decides if a mentoring relationship can exist alongside the managerial relationship. The different agenda of the two relationships means that manager and follower, mentor and mentoree, will need to clarify carefully the boundaries and expectations of each relationship. Cross purposes can lead to conflict, but the health-producing benefits of mentoring can enrich the management relationship.

Mentoring management is health producing

Recent research is suggesting that not only is mentoring good for the mentoree, it is good for the manager and, thus, for the organization. Mentoring management—relational leadership—is health-producing. For the mentoree, this is obvious. Mentoring is a valuable resource for self-directed learning and personal growth that encourages the mentoree toward full potential in life. It keeps us growing and developing. Healthy, growing employees, working and living into their potential, should be good for the organization. But new research is revealing that mentoring is critical to the health of the manager. Studies conducted by Richard Boyatzis at Case Western University have been integrating recent findings in affective neuroscience and biology with research on leadership and stress. (See Richard E. Boyatzis, Melvin L. Smith, Nancy Blaize, "Developing Sustainable Leaders Through Coaching and Compassion," Academy of Learning and Management Education, 2006, Vol 5, No. 1:8-24. See also, Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion, Harvard Business School Press, 2005.) They found that the managerial relationship, the instrumental use of leadership relationships to influence behavior toward organizational outcomes, creates power stress within the manager. Managers are responsible for outcomes and seek to influence behavior, but recognize that the choice to act rests with followers. Over time, this tension is internalized by the manager as power stress with negative neurological and physiological responses leading to burn out. This power stress syndrome is built into the fabric of the management responsibility. It goes with the job. Most of us already know this or at least have experienced the stress of management.

What is fascinating about the research is the finding that caring relationships—mentoring relationships in which the manager invests in another's potential as a person, not as an employee—provoke positive neurological and physiological responses in the manager. Engaging in a non-instrumental, philanthropic relationship of compassion and hope focused primarily on another offsets the effects of power stress and contributes to the survival of the manager. Mentoring is good for management health! That also is good for the organization.

Not all mentors are managers, but for their own health, all managers can be mentors—genuinely opening themselves, disclosing their journey, and offering learning and wisdom to invest in the growth of another. Managers who genuinely care make themselves available as mentors when a mentoree chooses to follow. Mentoring is good for the mentoree. It is good for the organization. It is critical to the health of the manager.

Walter C. Wright Jr.
Walter C. Wright Jr.

Walter C. Wright, Jr., PhD, is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where he served as executive director from 2000-2012. He came to this position after twelve years as president and professor of leadership at Regent College. He sits on the board of Cardus.


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