Effective Mentorship: Why The Best Leaders Don’t Create Followers

I’m not a big fan of the word leader. It intrinsically implies that whoever you lead is a follower. Creating fans and followers by the minute has become the norm, but it’s not even remotely related to leadership.

I prefer the word mentor more than leader. Thereby you mentor an apprentice. Apprenticeship is about growth and maturation. The best mentors imprint their good qualities onto others thereby making them better versions of themselves.

It’s very likely that you yourself are a mentor. You may not be aware of it, but if you are a parent, you are a mentor to your kids. If you are an elder sibling, you are a mentor to your younger brothers and sisters. If you are a teacher or a coach, your sole job is mentorship. If you are a team lead, a CEO, a senior member of a team, mentorship is a crucial part of the job. If you are the founder of a club, a movement, or a study group, you are a mentor.

Unfortunately, none of us are trained to be mentors. In the name of mentorship we either (narcissistically) showoff our accomplishments, or get busy turning others into fans and followers. As much as we would love to impress others, mentorship is a lot more than that. Effective Mentorship is a lot like teaching. Like any good teacher, a mentor puts a lot of effort into making others succeed. This starts by building a strong bond with others.

Unless we have a good relationship with them, there can be no measurable difference between mentored apprentices and those without mentors. Rapport plays a strong role in mentorship. Rapport propels people to break from the formal roles and titles of boss and employee, teacher and student, senior and junior. Rapport helps people find common ground. Common ground is necessary to enable exchange of knowledge, dialogue, and ideas.

A startup is one such place where bosses and employees are (almost) equals. A startup is a fast-moving volatile environment, and if an employee doesn’t have the freedom to speak their mind, growth cannot happen. Similarly, if mentors don’t treat apprentices as equals, growth doesn’t happen.

Treating others as equals means not throwing away their ideas without giving enough thought. A good apprentice is hungry for exploration and experimentation. They are brimming with energy, and would often come up with off-the-wall and (seemingly) unrealistically ambitious ideas; and the mentors, in good faith, would often be tempted to ask them to think more realistically.

But as a mentor, we need to be a giver of energy, not a taker of it. Each time you hear a new idea, spend some time thinking about all the reasons why the idea is good before you criticise any aspect of it. It’s better to be an optimist than a cynic while hearing out ideas. Start with the assumption that the proposed idea is good. Play with it in your head. Think about all the possibilities it may provide. Ask questions, and have a discussion around it. Engage with genuine enthusiasm.

Pixar is known for their brilliantly crafted storytelling in their movies. But as Ed Catmull writes, none of the stories start off by being awesome from the very beginning. All of them suck, and the job of the team at Pixar is to take the stories “from suck to not-suck”. To achieve that, they have to be open to all sorts of ideas—no matter how unrealistic, impractical, absurd, or crazy they sound. This free flow of ideas is extremely important to get to a good idea that works. You just need one good idea, and they best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Good mentors are optimists. The people who are bringing new ideas to them are definitely optimistic about them. The capacity to not only be a natural recipient of ideas but also engage with other peoples’ optimism is what makes for an effective mentor.

This is not saying in any way not to be a healthy critic—it is absolutely essential in mentorship to be a critic. But there will be plenty of time and opportunity for that. Discussing high-level concepts while bouncing ideas is a good way to start off. Criticism comes later—while detailing out concepts.

Having said that, mentorship isn’t just about developing others’ skillsets and competencies. An effective mentor focuses on character development as well. They go beyond competency—shaping others’ values, thinking, personality, self-awareness, and empathy. In the long run, these attributes matter more than skill enhancement, and therefore effective mentors focus on all-round development in others.

Like a devoted primary-school maths teacher, who not only cares about their students’ grades but also their happiness, a devoted mentor not only focusses on improving others’ capabilities, but goes as far as to help them realise their true potential.

As much as a boss would want to retain their best people, the best mentors recognise that mentorship, in its most noble and powerful form, is a duty and service toward others. Hence they selflessly commit to the best interests of others. They don’t just seek to uncover others’ strengths, but also look for their underlying passions. Effective mentors help others find their calling.

At its highest level, mentorship is the practice of a form of leadership that is less about creating followers, and more about creating other leaders.

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