Lessons From the First Mentor

The word “mentor” comes from “The Odyssey,” written by the Greek poet Homer.

As Odysseus is preparing to go fight the Trojan War, he realizes he is leaving behind his only heir, Telemachus. Since Telemachus is still a child, and since wars tended to drag on for years, Odysseus recognizes that he needs to be coached on how to be king while Daddy is off fighting. He hires a trusted family friend named Mentor to be Telemachus’ tutor. Mentor is wise and sensitive — two important ingredients of world-class mentoring.

The history of the word “mentor” is instructive for several reasons. First, it underscores the legacy nature of mentoring. Like Odysseus, great leaders strive to leave behind added value. Second, Mentor (the old man) combined the wisdom of experience with sensitivity in his attempts to convey ruling skills to young Telemachus. We all know the challenge of conveying our hard-won wisdom to another without resistance.

Homer characterizes Mentor as a family friend. The symbolism contained in this relationship is apropos to contemporary mentors. Effective mentors are like friends in that their goal is to create a safe context for growth. They are also like family in that their focus is to offer an unconditional, faithful acceptance of the protege. Friends work to add and multiply, not subtract. Family members care, even in the face of mistakes and errors.

Superior mentors know how adults learn. Operating out of their intuition or on what they have learned from books, classes or other mentors, the best mentors recognize that they are first and foremost facilitators and catalysts in a process of discovery and insight. They know mentoring is not about smart comments, eloquent lectures or clever quips. Mentors practice their skills with a combination of never-ending compassion, crystal-clear communication and a sincere joy in the role of being a helper along a journey toward mastering.

Just like the first practitioner of their craft, mentors love learning, not teaching. They treasure sharing rather than showing off, giving rather than boasting. Great mentors are not only devoted fans of their proteges, they are loyal fans of the dream of what their proteges can become with their guidance.

There are countless traps along the path of mentordom. Mentoring can be a power trip for those seeking an admirer, a manifestation of greed for those who must have slaves. Mentoring can be a platform for proselytizing for a cause or crusade, a strong tale told to an innocent or unknowing listener. However, the traps of power, greed and crusading all pale when compared with the subtler “watch out fors” listed below. There are other traps, of course, but these are the ones that most frequently raise their ugly heads to sabotage healthy relationships.

You can learn to avoid traps to which you are most susceptible. For instance, the “I can help” trap. When is help helpful, and when is it harmful? People inclined to be charitable with their time, energy and expertise often attempt to help when what the learner actually needs is to struggle and find his or her own way. Here’s a test: If you ask the protege, “May I help?” and he or she says no, how do you feel? Be honest with yourself. If you react with even a trace of rejection and self-pity, this may be your trap to avoid.

“I know best” is also a trap. Some people become mentors because they enjoy being recognized as someone in the know. They relish the affirmations from proteges who brag to others about their helpful mentor. They especially like proteges who regularly compliment them on their contribution. This is a trap. You may get off-track and end up using the protege for your own recognition needs. The test? If your protege comes to you and says that he or she has found someone else who might be more helpful as a mentor, how do you react? If you feel more than mild and momentary disappointment, beware. This may be your special trap.