John R. Patterson - Facilitator, Consultant, Speaker
John R. Patterson



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What Is Mentoring?

The Story….

The word "mentor" comes from The Odyssey, written by the Greek poet Homer. As Odysseus ("Ulysses," in the Latin translation) is preparing to go fight the Trojan War, he realizes he is leaving behind his only son and heir, Telemachus. Since wars tended to drag on for years (the Trojan War lasted ten), Odysseus recognizes his son needs to be coached on how to "king" while Daddy is off fighting. He hires a trusted family friend named Mentor to be his son’s tutor. Mentor is both 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 a benefaction of added value. Second, Mentor (the old man) combined the wisdom of experience with the sensitivity of a fawn in his attempts to convey kingly skills to young Telemachus. We all know the challenge of conveying our hard-won wisdom to another without resistance. The successful mentor is able to circumvent 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 protégé. Friends work to add and multiply, not subtract. Family members care, even in the face of mistakes and errors.


Mentoring Is…

The mentor is a teacher, a guide, a sage, and foremost a person acting to the best of her ability in a whole and compassionate way in plain view of the protégé. Mentoring is about being real, being a catalyst, and being sometimes a kind of prophet. It is therefore far more art than science. It is about personal power, not expert or role power. The most powerful and most difficult part of mentoring is being who you are.

This is not to imply that a mentor must be some kind of superhero without flaws, doubts, or mistakes. Fundamentally, mentoring is about growing — mentors growing protégés, protégés growing with mentors. The core of a mentoring relationship is more about a mutual search than about passing down wisdom. As a collective pursuit, mentoring works best when mentors are focused on building, not boasting.

Mentoring is also about power-free facilitation of learning. It is about teaching through consultation and affirmation rather than constriction and assessment. It views learning as an expansive, unfolding process rather than an evaluative, narrowing effort. Finally, mentoring is a tool for a critical component of the leader’s responsibility — helping another learn and grow.


How is it Different From Leadership and Coaching?

    • Leadership means influencing people to achieve important goals. To effectively influence, leaders coach.
    • Coaching refers to the actions leaders take to nurture and sustain performance. To nurture performance requires learning.
    • Mentoring is when you seek to help a performer increase his or her skill, knowledge or wisdom through a one-to-one relationship.


What Is Mentoring? - From Managers as Mentors Participant Workbook