10 Things Leaders Learn When They Mentor

by Rob Cizek

Everywhere you turn someone is encouraging mentoring in leadership. The value to the mentee is obvious. What isn’t so apparent is the value received by the mentor.

This week is a milestone for our family. Our daughter just received her driver license. For the past year I’ve had the privilege of teaching her to operate a car. It was memorable father-daughter time. But is was also surprisingly educational… for me. If you’ve ever taught someone to drive you know it’s a classic mentoring situation, from which we can learn much as leaders:

1. If you wait until you are perfect you will never be able to teach. I have a clean driving record, but I’m not a perfect driver. If I waited to mentor until my driving was 100% correct, I would never mentor. I have to humbly admit to my protege that I am far from perfect. I will even disclose areas where I am weak. This builds my credibility and shows the student that they don’t need to be perfect to be successful. That being said, I have a lot of great driving experiences to share. I most certainly can take a novice driver from “knowing nothing” to “driver-license-ready“. If the student wants more detailed instruction (in an area where I am weak) I can connect them with others who can help.

2. It’s challenging to teach something that you have been doing automatically for years. Like many people, I’ve been driving long enough to be comfortable behind the wheel. Many of the complex processes involved in operating a car have become second nature. It’s a different story for the mentee. Even the brightest student finds driving challenging at first. As leaders we have to put ourselves in the student’s shoes. We need to be empathetic and patient. We need to remember what it was like when we first drove. We need to be the teacher we wish we had when we were learning.

3. We improve our skills when we mentor. Prior to being a mentor I regarded my driving as excellent. However, as my daughter became more knowledgeable about the rules of the road she began to challenge me. She would say things like, “Gee, Dad, was that REALLY a full and complete stop?” I guess years of driving had left me unaware of some skills I could improve upon. I’ve worked on them and am now a better driver because of my mentee.

4. The classic mentoring model really does work. Here is a great strategy no matter what you are teaching:
> I do it, they watch.
> We do it together.
> They do it, I watch.

5. Classroom teaching is no substitute for field experience. Student drivers can learn the rules of the road in the classroom. However, it’s amazing how things change when they actually get behind the wheel. Don’t just give your protege head knowledge, let them experience and actually get their hands on things.

6. At some point you have to give up control. This is hard. It’s unnatural to give responsibility to a novice when an expert is around. What’s worse is that a permitted driver’s mistakes go against your record, just like employee mistakes can go against the boss’ record. However, the student can’t learn if you are always in control. It takes courage and maturity to do this. Leaders have to accept some risk so that others may learn.

7. Let your mentee make (non-fatal) mistakes. Our culture has become incredibly risk-adverse. We go to great lengths to beat the risk out of everything. While this is generally a good thing, it has the unintended consequence of never allowing people to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

My daughter was recently driving our car. It has low ground clearance in front. She pulled forward into a parking place when suddenly there was a loud CRUNCH. She had smashed the front of the car into the curb. I’m a car guy. Every ounce of my being shudders when I hear that sound. My fleshly nature wanted to yell at my daughter for her disrespect of our car. Fortunately I was able to dismiss my petty reaction. When I looked at her I could see that she felt terrible about the mistake. There wasn’t anything I could say that would teach her any better than the loud CRUNCH that had already happened. I am confident that she will be more mindful in the future. As for me, I’ll pull out some touch up paint, fix the damage and celebrate the lesson learned. Mistakes are seldom fatal and always instructive.

8. At some point a mentee’s confidence exceeds their skills. After several months of successful student driving, my daughter’s confidence was high. She was being more aggressive with lane changes and speed. She was at the “knows enough to be dangerous” stage. This is a common learning stage no matter what the subject. As the teacher you may worry about the student’s lack of humility or if they’ll get in trouble with the knowledge you’ve imparted. Leaders can coach through this by asking the student questions. For example, “If a police officer saw you going over the speed limit, what would they do?” Link risky behavior with natural consequences.

9. Students do things differently than the mentor. The natural outcome of mentoring is that the student will become like the teacher. However many times the protege will build on the ideas of the mentor. They may do things differently than the mentor. That’s okay. There is more than one way to achieve great results. We should celebrate students who improve on our ideas. We should accept different means to the desired end.

 10. Mentoring maximizes a leader’s influence. Our goal as leaders is to create a mentor who can create other mentors. When we teach, don’t simply impart knowledge. Demonstrate, by your example, how your protege can teach others. This is how great leaders ensure their influence will live on in future generations.

If you aren’t mentoring, I encourage you to do so. You’ll learn just as much as your mentee. . . if not more!

Who was the most influential mentor in your life? Leave a comment below. 

Rob Cizek is Executive Pastor at Northshore Christian Church, a non-denominational church of 1,500 and Christian academy of 1000 in the Seattle area. He oversees daily operation of the organization and its ministries. He also organizes a networking group for executive pastors in the Puget Sound area. Rob, his wife, Janice, and two children live in Everett, WA. Rob regularly posts resources for church leaders on RobCizek.com and Twitter at: twitter.com/robcizek.

This post originally appeared here September 5, 2013. Used with permission from the author.

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