Leaders need mentors. Those who lead can be the loneliest people. We need mentors who can share our challenges and struggles, yet accepting us as we are.
PETER Drucker, Max De Pree and Walter C. Wright, Jr – what do these leaders have in common? Well, Drucker mentored De Pree, who in turn mentored Wright.
I had the unique privilege of attending a conference on mentoring relationships, featuring internationally acclaimed management guru Drucker; De Pree who is the former CEO and chairman of Herman Miller, as well as a recipient of the Business Enterprise Trust’s Lifetime Achievement Award and Fortune’s National Business Hall of Fame; and Wright, the Executive Director of the De Pree Leadership Center.
Although Drucker could not be present at the conference as he was recuperating at home, we were treated to a day of great insights on the subject of mentoring relationships. De Pree shared about the impact
Drucker had made on his life and in turn how he had influenced Wright as well as a host of other leaders who were his mentees.
At the conference, I discovered the power of mentoring.
In my own life, there have been two mentors who have influenced me most profoundly – Em Griffin and Peter Chao. They have kept me focused and sharpened my leadership capacity.
Em Griffin, a professor of communication at Wheaton College, Illinois, USA, and internationally acclaimed author of the book, A First Look at Communication, a standard text for tertiary education in that field, had been a mentor since my days at Northwestern University, where I got my PhD.
It was Em who recommended and endorsed my application to that prestigious university. At that time, I had little credibility and my education was in another discipline. Em had always been a good friend. I am sure it was his credentials that got me a place at Northwestern. I was not exactly sure what he saw in me then to give me such a high recommendation to the university.
But Em believed in me. He encouraged me to apply for the best university and backed me up. A good mentor is one who sees the potential in another and is willing to risk his reputation and resources for that person.
During my first year of the PhD programme, I was appointed teaching assistant at the university in the area of interpersonal communication. As a young upstart in that field and having to teach American students for the first time, I felt intimidated, to say the least. Yes, you guess rightly! I sought help from Em, the authority and teacher of that subject for many years.
He not only made time to see me, he brought along a whole box of resources, consisting of all his lessons, creative exercises and extra notes. He explained each lesson and shared his pedagogy.
He then plonked all the materials into the trunk of the car, which he had given me and said, “This is yours. I am sure you will do a great job.” He literally shared everything with me. I was overwhelmed by his generosity. This is so unlike the proverbial kung-fu master who would always keep 10 per cent of his secrets from his disciples. If each generation of kung-fu masters followed this pattern, we would be left with the rubbish of kung-fu skills today!
Em and I met every month for the three years I was at Northwestern. Our monthly meeting was a time of exchanging ideas and challenging my perspectives. He always treated me as an equal. He was a great listener. It was a partnership of trust.
Even after my return to Singapore, we have continued to keep in touch through e-mails, convention meetings, or over a meal whenever I visited the US. Each time, he would enquire about my family, especially my relationship with my wife, Alison.
Once, when I sent him my article on R.E.S.T., he thanked me for the principle and then shot back a tough question, “Does Alison (my wife) really think you practice these principles as well?” It was typical Em, always unafraid to ask the tough question. That is why I like Em. He keeps me accountable.
Peter Chao is my partner. He has often quipped about our relationship, “We have known each other for 40 years. There is nothing John would not do for me and there is nothing I would not do for him. So for the past 40 years, we have done nothing for each other!” Not only is he a great friend but also a mentor extraordinaire.
Peter shows me the beauty of truth and excellence. He is one who never stops pushing me to reach my potential, always challenging me to raise the bar. His standard of excellence is not only of performance but also of courtesy, kindness and generosity. He embodies all that he preaches. He cares deeply for people. You can never outgive him. He is an exemplary role model.
A mentor provides a safe sanctuary to gain perspectives. Peter and I have spent countless hours discussing life’s concerns: business, family, world views and ministry. We share many dreams together. We challenge each other. Over time, we have many shared values:
- People are like rainbows – a mystery of potential and the leader’s job is to unleash the potential.
- Leaders are fallible and they need a community of accountability.
- Be generous. All you lose is money.
- Leaders need to develop emotional, intellectual and spiritual hinterlands to survive the long haul.
That is the beauty of mentorship – iron sharpening iron. It is a partnership of learning, sharing and caring.
Leaders need mentors. Those who lead can be the loneliest people. We need mentors who can share our challenges and struggles, yet accepting us as we are. The need of leaders for mentors has become even more acute after all these corporate crises, like the Bear Stearns collapse, where the CEO’s integrity was put under severe test. We need mentors to keep us accountable. Wright describes mentoring as “an intentional, inclusive, and voluntary shared relationship of learning together.” We bring our complete selves to the relationship – warts and all. It is a relationship between two vulnerable human beings committed to growth, not cloning.
When De Pree was asked, “Why mentoring?” his answer, “There is an enormous need for it. People need mentors. And all of us have something to give.”
If you don’t have a mentor, go find one.
Or, be a mentor to someone.
Either way, you will not regret it.
This is an adapted excerpt from John’s book “Dim Sum Leadership”. His latest book “Dim Sum Leadership: Your Second Serving” continues the powerful and insightful series on leadership for busy executives.