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Mentorship is More Important Than Leadership

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

This article comes from our co-founder and Executive Director, Chevy Cook. He's certainly striking a chord with many leaders with the title but read on to understand his argument.

Mentorship is more important than leadership.

There… I said it.

I am not refuting the significance of leaders and their incredible effect on the organization. When looking at the NY Times Bestseller lists for “nonfiction” or “advice”, there are regularly a few books in the top ten that have something to do with leadership. Bluntly, none of them are about mentorship. In fact, the only book that I’ve found to be a NY Times Bestseller that was about mentoring was Timothy Ferriss, “Tribe of Mentors”, which was the #1 book on the January 2018 NYT Bestseller list for “Advice, How-To, & Miscellaneous.” And it was just a collection of advice, tips, and tidbits from the famous or elite – which is not really a book about mentorship.

To wit, there is no shortage of books across history that are filled with characterizations of good kings and bad kings, strong presidents and weak presidents, and rulers of great empires and evil empires among the myriad examples. We are warned about toxic leaders, counterproductive behaviors, and corporate misconduct, as well as how to deal with these workplace challenges. And there continues to be a debate about leadership potentially being overrated or at least overemphasized.

You know what I can’t find? Whereas there certainly are studies and articles about the advantages and disadvantages of mentoring, the effects of negative mentoring experiences, and reasons for why mentoring programs fail, I can’t find a comparable number of books, articles, or literature about mentoring creating negative outcomes. In fact, most of the research and literature about any negativity surrounding mentoring are focused on detrimental impact and adverse effects of a lack of mentoring in the workplace, school, or community.

Much of today’s research around organizational or workplace mentoring started with its pioneer, Daniel Levinson, who once said that not having a mentor, or having a bad one, is equivalent to not having a parent. Since then, mentoring has been shown to be one of the key components to a successful career and that it can generate synergy to inspire and to empower, with a view to fostering greater innovation and productivity. More contemporary experts on corporate culture and management development like Gordon Shea tell us that mentoring also facilitates increased individual performance, productivity, and achievement. There could be an argument made that leadership does these same things, but I’d argue that there is a slight wrinkle in that claim.

Mentorship requires leadership, whereas we request that leaders mentor… and as such, it ends up as a background feature of our offices and organizations. Work by the Center for Mentoring Excellence, the Center for Evidenced-Based Mentoring, and shows that most organizations don’t measure, evaluate, or reward a leader’s ability to mentor others. There is also several definitions and ideas surrounding what mentoring is, and it is often confused with teaching and coaching (though there is some overlap). So let us make a distinction.

Being a good mentor requires leadership by virtue of the ability to not only lead someone else down a path to success, but also to lead yourself first. The self-awareness, authenticity, and intentionality required for effective mentoring leads mentors to wrestle with, figure out, and embody the necessary attributes that positively impact mentor and mentee self-efficacy. Processes for the development of another inevitably are rooted in the self, so mentorship begins with better understanding of yourself.

The individual context matters, but the organizational context is certainly just as important as the two areas can’t be extricated from each other. In the military, a leader is only in an organization for 2-3 years, no matter how good they are. That’s it. Even in the civilian sector, gone are the days of staying in companies for 40-50 years, made even more fully evident by “The Great Resignation”. As such, a good leader will inevitably be replaceable. However, if you are a good mentor, you are irreplaceable. And if you are truly connected with and impactful to your mentee, the improved satisfaction, achievement, sponsorship, access to resources, will ensure that you both will be connected for life. And there are myriad benefits to mentors from these relationships over time as well.

They say numbers don’t lie. 84% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs and those programs boosted minority representation at the management level from 9% to 24%. 94% of employees would stay in the organizations if they had more opportunities for development. Of businesses, 67% report increases in productivity due to mentoring and 55% felt that mentoring had positively impacted their profits. These mentoring stats matter. To succeed in 2022 and beyond, we need to ensure that mentoring is a priority and not an afterthought. Bringing a tailor-made focus on the whole person, not just the person in our workplace, will answer the supply-demand imbalance between available leaders and mentors we need for our teams.

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