Great Mentors Don’t Wear Rank

Combat troops are generally better behaved in the field (where battle is likely to occur) than in the relative safety of the rear area. As an infantry unit commander in Viet Nam, I often wondered if it was related to the fact that military leaders remove all markings of rank while in the field. Enemy snipers seek to get battlefield leaders in their cross-hairs to strip their adversary of command. This left the concept of “leadership” less related to obvious authority and more with subtle influence. It also took the focus off of “whom” and placed it squarely on “what.” Those officers who resorted to barking orders in a desperate attempt to signal rank often found their edicts sabotaged or circumvented by adroit foot soldiers skilled at deception.

I invited a fellow consultant to assist with a group of senior executives of a long term client. She had heard me repeatedly rave about the CEO of this high-tech company. Her flight was delayed and the meeting was underway when she arrived, preventing me from introducing her to the audience. After listening to the group in a lengthy, spirited dialogue over a strategic challenge, she whispered to one of us, “Which one is the CEO?” It was the highest compliment I could have bestowed on a leader fond of saying, “Never add any more leadership than is needed.”

Great mentors, like leaders without rank, busy themselves with the business of mission and course, not might and conceit. They are more interested in the by-product of their influence not the puffery of their “wisdom.” They know that learning is a door that must be opened from the inside. So, their task is to nurture learning through invitation, not directive; encouragement, not commandment. Great mentors evoke power with, not power over. How can you create a power-free relationship with your protégé?

P.S.: If you’re wondering whether or not you should become a mentor, you might enjoy Julie Winkle Giulioni’s recent post for Smart Blog on Leadership: “Why mentorship is the gift that keeps on giving.”




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