Several years ago I spoke on mentoring at a conference for professors in higher education.

After the conference was over, I sat at a large round table in the empty hotel ballroom with two colleagues/friends who were helping me debrief my presentation. In the course of the conversation one friend asked, “Steve who mentors you”?

I’m often asked the question of who mentored me, but this was the first time it was asked in the present tense – who mentors me!

The question sent my mind reeling.

I replied, “I had great mentors throughout my life but now all my mentors are dead”. I was suddenly gripped with the realization that I was the old guy!!! But my realization didn’t stop there. In the days that followed I continued to ponder the question – and it reshaped my entire paradigm on mentoring.

Let me walk you through some of my conclusions:

Mentoring isnt a Hierarchy.

Like many people, I used to believe that mentoring could be charted in an employment chart with the mentor at the top and all the mentees and protégées underneath.

I was wrong.

Mentoring is not a top-down, hierarchy where a guru imparts wisdom to peons who aspire to someday have his status. Effective mentoring is actually a network or web that keeps us giving and taking, teaching and learning, pouring into and being filled.

When asked the same question today I answer that the men and women who I mentor, mentor me. I am a better man because they bring out the best in me. They challenge me to fire on all cylinders. They give me fresh perspective and insight. They bring all that they are to the table and I’m enriched by them. In an effective mentoring relationship both individuals are mentor and mentee.

“We don’t accomplish anything in the world alone . . . and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one life to another that create something.”

– Justice Sandra Day O’Conner

Mentoring Relationships are Sharpening.

The second realization that the question provoked centered in the purpose of mentoring.

I have always said that mentoring is helping another live into all that they are. However, I suddenly saw this as a two-way street. Both the mentor and the mentee come away from the relationship sharper.

King Solomon penned, “As iron sharpens iron, so one individual sharpens the other”. It’s one of my very favorite quotes. If a mentor is intent on sharpening others, then that mentor will quickly come to an understanding that the sharper the protégée becomes the sharper the mentor becomes. It takes two people in an inter-dependent relationship, with a strong desire toward growth, that allows them to walk away from the relationship better than when they both stepped into it.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality”.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mentoring is a Tapestry that Creates Legacy.

The third realization I had referred back to my first gut instinct when I was asked the question… “I’m the old guy now”.

I began to understand that the people I mentor are part of a great tapestry or interweaving of our individual stories into a grand narrative. My story is enhanced, becomes more vivid and colorful, and has deeper meaning because of the great people who I engage in this rich relationship called mentoring.

I came to realize that in this two-way relationship, the only thing that I bring to the table is the wisdom of age and experience. Our combined stories keep me growing and, although I’m the elder, I certainly don’t feel like I am (I just accept it graciously).

Being in this iron-sharpens-iron relationship with younger people has made me acutely aware that the measure of an individual is not what he tangibly leaves behind but in his investments in the lives of others.

My legacy is not going to be found in a book, painting, portfolio, diploma or accomplishment. It will be found in the tapestry of lives I invested in, who invested in me, and who paid it forward to invest in others.


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