Mentoring the new faces of leadership
17 September 2004
by Mary Merrill

Mentors have long been recognized for their ability to serve as counselors or guides.

In Greek mythology the word mentor appears as the name of a trusted friend enlisted by Odysseus to look after his son when he set off on a long journey. Merlin mentored the young prince who became King Author about the subtleties of leadership.

Mentoring relationships typically are between and older mentor who shares his/her life’s wisdom with a younger person. The wonderful thing about a good mentoring relationship is that it is always a reciprocal relationship. Knowledge transfers both ways across the generations. Annie Sullivan was a gifted teacher who opened the world to a young, blind and deaf Helen Keller. Later Helen Keller taught Braille to Annie when she lost her sight.

Mentoring relationships can support and nurture four characteristics of effective leadership: adaptability, shared vision, integrity, and youthfulness.

Leaders are adaptable

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, said: “Experience is not what happens to a man. It is what a man does with what happens to him.” Leaders learn from every experience they have, especially the challenging and difficult experiences. They grab the lessons to be learned and they adapt so that they are better prepared to handle the next difficult situation.

Adaptability helps leaders become flexible, resilient people who are able to tackle problems, take chances, make choices and find solutions. Mentors can help young people draw the lessons from their experiences so that they can develop their adaptive capacity.

At the same time mentors can learn from the young people they work with about adapting to the change. Young people live in a world of constant change and are much more able to accept and adapt to change. They are not stuck in old ways or old patterns. Life is full of possibilities and they have technical skills and knowledge that can change the way we have done so many things.

Young people are drawn to progressive, forward thinking ideas. They remind us that people who can adapt quickly spend less time fretting over what they can’t control and more time enjoying life. We older folks need to tap into the mind-set of a generation that can think, adapt, and embrace change before it happens.

Leaders have the ability to create a shared vision

Mentors can help those they work with see the big picture and work toward common goals. They can help young people learn to express ideas in ways that invite others to the process. Experience has taught most mentors that you can’t impose your vision on others. Instead you learn to recruit others to a shared vision. In the midst of rapid change it is good to remind young people that sometimes it is better is slow down a little to help others join in the vision.

Young people can help mentors remember that in our digital age, power coalesces around ideas, not positions.

In school young people work on team projects and they know that in our complex, technically sophisticated world solving problems requires the contributions of many talented people working together. They can help remind us that leadership is a partnership (with equal partners), and that shared vision requires shared action.

Leaders have integrity

Young people look for mentors with integrity. The dictionary defines this as a state of moral soundness. It is a combination of competence and moral compass. Young people admire competence in those they work with, but a good mentoring relationship is also built on trust and honesty.

As a mentor we don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to know everything. But we do have an obligation to be honest if we want to create a bond of trust. Remember, young people don’t respect mentors or leaders because they are older, or in a position of authority.

They do respect people with integrity. Much of the research on the younger generations reports that when they find something to believe in, and someone who believes in them they will connect and work tirelessly toward the pursuit of a common goal. They are looking for people who will trust them and give them the encouragement and freedom to do things.

Leaders have youthfulness

Neoteny is a zoological term that means the retentions of youthful qualities by adults. We all know people who never seem to get old. They have a curiosity, warmth and eagerness that draws you to them. They are focused on the future, not the past. Young people are drawn to mentors who are energized by life, as they are. Young people are open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, eager to see what the new day will bring. They want to relate with people who aren’t stuck in the past or longing for the way things used to be. They don’t want pessimism; they want optimism. They don’t want barriers; they want challenges. They are looking for people like themselves. That is the metaphor of neoteny – the retention of youthful qualities. We might also call it young at heart, charisma, or zest for life. The wonderful thing about a mentoring relationship is that the youthful energy and enthusiasm of the mentored can breath new life into us also. Mentoring is a great way to stay young at heart.

I realize that many of us don't have the time or opportunity to develop formal mentoring relationships with young people, but the great thing about working with volunteers and service participants is that we can have moments in time when we can create transforming experiences and serve as mentors of the moment. Studies of leaders from various generations revealed that leadership is often the result of a transformational experience. Yet these defining moments don't have to be big monumental events.

Consider the story of Tara Church. Tara is the 19-year-old founder and past president of Tree Musketeers, the only nonprofit completely run by children and dedicated to changing the environment through personal action.

They have planted over a million trees since 1987. Tara’s transformation happened on a Girl Scout camping trip when the troop had to decide if they would use paper plates. They had a discussion about the pros and cons and the troop leader began to talk about reforestation and the loss of the rain forests and how trees help to clean pollutants from the air. Tara became concerned about the prospects of a world without trees and she suggested they plant a tree.

That was a moment of transformation for Tara. She could plant a tree could change the world.

How often do we grasp the chance to plant seeds of opportunity and create defining moments for young people through volunteerism and service?

Mentorship, like volunteerism, is about reciprocity. Mentoring the face of leadership is a two way street. We can offer trust and respect to young people to help them learn from situations and develop their leadership abilities. We will enrich our own leadership skills by partnering with a younger generation who will challenge, stimulate and change us. We can learn from each other and truly shape the faces of leadership across the generations.

For lifetime leaders, learning is as natural as breathing. . . Building and maintaining networks across generations, organizations and cultures is a way to learn continuously and to leverage the insights of people who have a genuine interest in your growth and success. ( Bennis & Thomas, 2002)


Bennis, W. & Thomas, R. (2002). Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press

Chester, E. (2002). Employing Generation Why? Colorado: Tucker House Books.

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