Why Young Leaders Need Mentors

You’ve got leadership gifts, and you’re in a position to use them. You’re educated, creative, savvy, and influential. You have everything you need for world-changing ministry, right?

Not so fast.

You need to slow down and get a mentor.

Mentoring may feel like a recent fad, but it’s actually a very old concept. The word “mentor” finds its origin in the ancient literature of Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus went away to the Trojan War, he placed a man named Mentor in charge of his son, Telemachus. Their relationship became the nominal foundation of what we know as the mentoring relationship today.

The Bible itself contains many examples of mentoring relationships. Moses and Joshua. Elijah and Elisha. Naomi and Ruth. Mordecai and Esther. Elizabeth and Mary. Barnabas and Paul. Paul and Timothy. And Titus 2 famously encourages older people in the church to teach younger ones to live as Christians.

This well-traveled model holds more value than ever today in a strikingly fragmented society like ours that lacks many genuine intergenerational connections.

I once watched a leader with great potential fail because he misunderstood the relationship between his own potential and his need for mentoring. When he received new opportunities, he mistakenly interpreted them as indicators that his own abilities were more valuable than the wisdom he could receive from others.

This young man rose quickly through the ranks of his company, caught the eye of senior-level leaders, and found himself in a high-profile leadership position. Unfortunately, at this point he embraced the hype about himself and disregarded the advice and feedback of people who wanted to see him succeed and were willing to serve as mentors.

His personality was attractive, and people initially wanted to follow him. But he was low on experience and his leadership skills were undeveloped, so he couldn’t take his team very far on his own. Because he had the favor of senior leaders, he continued his ascent through the corporate ranks and got in way over his head when he was appointed to an executive role.

By this time, he had already lost the respect of most of the people who reported to him, so he was forced to attempt the impossible: effectively lead people who had long since figured out he wasn’t going anywhere they wanted to go. He relied on his title to command the respect he should have earned with his character and performance, and he failed. Eventually his leaders realized he was ineffective and asked him to leave. His promising start had fizzled because he had refused to seek and heed the wisdom of mentors.

Leaders need mentors more than anyone because they find themselves so often in situations calling for wisdom beyond their experience. And because they’re faced with responsibility for others. And because the consequences of their choices reverberate. And because “from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

Here are several more reasons you should consider finding a mentor.

Investment. Securing a mentor means you’ve found someone willing to make an investment in you. The vote of confidence and support you receive from them will help you grow far more than you would without them.

Challenge. Especially when joined in a mentoring relationship with someone far different from you, you will be asked to think differently than you normally do–which creates a great exercise for your brain and will stretch your leadership skills.

Unique relationship. A mentor is not a substitute for a parent or a friend. He or she will relate to you differently than your peers and parents. A mentor will ask questions and make observations others won’t. You definitely need someone willing to step beyond those comfortable bounds in your life.

Objectivity. A mentor has personal distance from the issues you wrestle with and can look at your life with a more composed and long-term perspective than you can. That vantage point will be invaluable to you.

Navigation. The mentoring experience is like traveling with someone who has a map. As much as you may feel like a pioneer in your leadership context, many people have been where you’re going, just with different scenery. A mentor can help you find your way from having traversed the path before you.

Interpretation. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone who can help you interpret the world and your thoughts and experiences? A good mentor can do this, and can provide sometimes surprising revelations.

Learned memory. A mentor can pass along historical spiritual stories you wouldn’t otherwise know, just from journeying within the long legacy of leadership and wisdom passed down through the ages. As God instructed his people in Deuteronomy 8, we must remember what has happened before us and what God has done in the past.

Example. This doesn’t always happen, but in a mentor you might find an example to emulate.

Wisdom. Wisdom truly does come with experience. Cliché? Yes. True? Also yes. Our culture idolizes energy, innovation, and fresh ideas–but these are all useless without wisdom.

Give back. Mentors benefit from the mentoring relationship, too. You’ll help him or her think differently and understand your culture. You might even teach a thing or two. And as you ask questions, you’ll help your mentor make sense of his or her own personal experiences.

Be yourself. Mentoring is not about learning to be like someone else. It’s about growing toward your best self. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

Mentoring relationships come in different shapes and sizes, so don’t worry about trying to fit a particular mold. You might choose a formal program (check with your employer or church) or an informal relationship with someone you already know. You might commit to the long haul or join up for a short-term sojourn–or perhaps check in spontaneously, without a formal agreement or plan. You may even meet only once. Identify someone you admire–perhaps very different from you–and just ask!

Take a step toward mentoring. It’s a great way to multiply the effectiveness of your leadership and provide much-needed support for what can often be a hard and lonely road. It’s also a great way to bless someone else who would love to walk alongside you.

© 2016 Amy Simpson.