Choosing a Mentor

Personal growth should be the number one priority of all believers who are serious about following Jesus and reaching their divine purpose in life. Since I began my walk with the Lord over 43 years ago I have had a series of mentors.
At first, I simply grabbed hold or anyone who was willing to impart information into my life. This was good as I was a young believer and gained a great deal from other more mature believers and leaders. But this was a scattershot approach. Although I learned a lot I did not achieve the traction that I had hoped for. Then I figured out that I needed to focus my growth on my areas of personal strength: relationships, communications, teaching, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When I did that, my effectiveness in growth started to increase. Most of my early mentors were authors whose books I devoured.
Through one of my mentors I started to learn to glean from what I was studying. Resources have little value unless you can pull from them the essentials that you need. That meant learning that I didn’t have to finish a book simply because I started it. I could read only the portions that I needed and deemed important at the time. I learned how to take useful notes, gather quotes, and, most importantly, reflect on what I was learning. I often summarized what I learned and wrote follow-up points inside the front and back covers of a book that was significant and life-changing for me. And, I learned to collect, categorize, and file stories and quotes every day. I also put into practice anything I learned at my earliest opportunity.

Of course, all of that is so much easier now with a good laptop computer or a tablet. And, even today, these disciplines are still part of my daily routine. I read several books a week, I listen to podcasts and watch You Tube videos of good preaching or interviews with people I admire and can learn from. However, I also learned early in my professional life and ministry that personal growth without the benefit of personal mentors could take me only so far. If I wanted to become the leader and teacher that I desired to be – and believed that God had created and called me to become – I needed to find models who were ahead of me to learn from. Why? Because it is hard to improve when you have no one but yourself to follow.
I have learned a lot from people I have never met or met briefly. Reading helps you to grow and gain from the experience and wisdom of others who have written books and shared their hard earned lessons with the reader. Most people who decide to grow personally find their first motors in the pages of books. That is a great place to start. For that matter, it’s a great place to continue. I am still learning from dozens of people every year that I will never meet. But at some point, you must find personal, in-person, models too. If you follow only yourself, you will find yourself going in circles.
When choosing mentors and models, you must be careful and be selective. There were these two derelicts sunning themselves on a park bench. The first guy said, “The reason I’m here is because I refused to listen to anyone.” The second guy responded, “The reason I’m here is because I listened to everyone.”
Neither course of action is helpful. You must be selective in who you choose as a mentor. From both the positive and negative experiences I haver had with mentors, I went looking for direction as to how to properly choose a mentor who would be a real benefit to me. One of my early mentors developed the following criteria to determine the ‘worthiness’ of a model for me to follow.
1> A good mentor is a worthy example
We become like the people we admire and the models we follow. For that reason, we should take great care when determining which people we ask to mentor us. They must not only display professional excellence and possess skill sets from which we can learn, they must also demonstrate character worthy of emulating.
Many athletes, celebrities, politicians, and business leaders today try to disavow being any kind of role model when others are already following them and mimicking their behaviour. They want people to separate their personal behaviour from their professional life, but such a division cannot really be made. Religious leader and author Gordon B. Hinckley advised,
“It is not wise, or even possible, to divorce private behaviour from public leadership – though there are those who have gone to great lengths to suggest that this is the only possible view of ‘enlightened’ individuals. They are wrong. They are deceived. By its very nature, true leadership carries with it the burden of being an example. Is it asking too much of any public officer, elected by his or her constituents, to stand tall and be a model before the people – not only in the ordinary aspects of leadership but in his or her behaviour? If values aren’t established and adhered to at the top, behaviour down the ranks is seriously jeopardized and undermined. Indeed, in any organization where such is the case – be it a family, a corporation, a society, or a nation – the values being neglected will in time disappear.”
As you look for role models and mentors, scrutinize their personal lives as carefully as their public performance. Your values will be influenced by theirs, so you shouldn’t be too casual who you choose to follow.
2> A good mentor is available
Andrew Carnegie stated, “As I grow older I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” As I grow older I too am doing just that. For us to be able to observe models (mentors) up close and see what they do, we must have some contact with them. That requires access and availability. For us to be actively mentored, we must have time with people to ask questions and learn from their answers all the time watching how they live and work.
When I mentor people, we usually meet once a month at the most. However, I am available by email and text at other times should they have a question or a concern between in-person meetings. Many of their mentoring questions are stimulated by my actions, not my words. That, of course, is a humbling thought. I know at times I fall short of the ideals and values that I teach and that we see in Scripture. Often the greatest leadership challenge I have is leading me! Teaching people what to do is easy. Showing them is much more difficult.
The greatest piece of advice that I ever received from my mentors is in the area of availability. When you are looking for a mentor, don’t shoot too high too soon. If you are considering going into politics for the first time, you don’t need the advice of the president or prime minister of your nation. If you are a high school student starting work at MacDonalds, you don’t need to relate directly to the manager or owner of your local hamburger joint. If you are fresh out of school and just starting your career, don’t expect to get extensive mentoring from the CEO of your organization.
Why shouldn’t I? You may be thinking. Why not start with the best? First of all, if you’re just starting out, nearly all your questions can be answered by someone two or three levels ahead of you – not ten. And their answers will be fresh because they will have recently dealt with the issues you are dealing with. Second, CEOs need to be spending their time answering questions of the people who are on the verge of leading at their level. I’m not saying you should never go to the top. I’m saying spend the majority of your time being mentored by people who are available, willing, and suited for the current stage of your career. And as you progress in your development, find new mentors for your new level of growth.
3> A good mentor has proven experience
The farther you go in pursuit of your potential, the more new ground you will have to break. How do you figure out how to proceed? Benefit from others’ experiences. As the Chinese proverb says, “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.”
Ever time I have entered into a new venture, I’ve sought the advice of people with proven experience. When I planted my first church; when I formed a network of churches; when I began to travel overseas on a regular basis; when I started ministering apostolically; when I left full-time pastoring; and now as I devote quality time daily to the writing and publishing of books. Hearing about their bad experiences makes me aware of potential problems I will be facing up the road. Hearing about their good experiences gives me an anticipation of potential opportunities up ahead of me.
I don’t know of a successful person who hasn’t learned from more experienced people. Sometimes they follow in their footsteps. Other times they use their advice to help them break new ground. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani says, “All leaders are influenced by those they admire. Reading about them and studying their traits inevitably allows an inspiring leader to develop his own leadership traits.”
I personally read at least one biography or autobiography every month. Recently I read Michele Obama’s book “Becoming.” I am currently reading “Born With Teeth” by Kate Mulgrew who played Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek Voyager. You can always learn by reading the life story and adventures of others.
We are looking at how to be wise when looking for and choosing a mentor. So far we have examined…
1> A good mentor is a worthy example
2> A good mentor is available
3> A good mentor has proven experience
4> A good mentor possesses wisdom
There’s a well-known story of an expert who was called by a company to look at their manufacturing system. It had broken and everything was at a standstill. When the expert arrived, he carried nothing but a little black bag.
Silently he walked around the equipment for a few minutes and then stopped. As he focused on one specific area of the equipment, he pulled a small hammer out of his bag and he tapped it gently. Suddenly everything began running again, and he quietly left.
The next day he send a bill that made the manager go ballistic. It was for $1000! Quickly the manager e-mailed the expert and wrote, “I will not pay this outrageous bill without it being itemized and explained.” Soon he received an invoice with the following words:
For the tapping on equipment with hammer – $1
For knowing where to tap – $999
That is the value of wisdom. Mentors with wisdom often show us where to tap. Their understanding, experience, and knowledge help us to solve problems that we would have a hard time handling on our own.
One of my mentors (I read everything he ever wrote) when asked why highly successful people often sabotaged their lives and hurt their careers said, “Never confuse the giftedness of a person with the person. Their gifts allow them to do amazing things but the person may be flawed, which will eventually cause harm.” That bit of wisdom about a person’s character has helped me immeasurably. First, it helped me to better understand how to work with talented people and to help them develop. Second, it has been a caution to me personally. I know that having talent in a given area never exempts me from neglecting discipline or character issues. We’re all just one step away from stupid.
Wise people often use just a few words to help us learn and develop. They open our eyes to worlds we might not have otherwise seen without their help. They help us navigate difficult situations. They help us to see opportunities we would otherwise miss. They make us wiser than our years and experience.
5> A good mentor provides friendship and support
The first question most followers ask of a mentor is, “Do you care for me?” The reason for this question is obvious. Who wants to be guided by a person who isn’t interested in them? Selfish people will assist you only insofar as it advances their own agenda. Good mentors provide friendship and support, unselfishly working to help you reach your potential. Their mind-set is well expressed by business coach and author James Vuocolo, who says, “Great things happen whenever we stop seeing ourselves as God’s gift to others, and begin seeing others as God’s gift to us.”
If the person who offers to mentor you doesn’t really support you and offer you friendship, then the relationship will always fall short of your expectations. Knowledge without support is sterile. Advice without friendship feels cold. Candour without care is harsh. However, when you are being helped by someone who cares for you it is emotionally satisfying. Growth comes from both the head and the heart. Only supportive people are willing to share both with you.
We are looking at how to be wise when looking for and choosing a mentor. So far we have examined…
1> A good mentor is a worthy example
2> A good mentor is available
3> A good mentor has proven experience
4> A good mentor possesses wisdom
5> A good mentor provides friendship and support
6> A good mentor is a coach who makes a difference in people’s lives
A major theme in my life is the desire to add value to people and make a difference in their lives. One of the ways this happens is in a mentoring relationship (see yesterday’s blog – “Christians Can’t Be Passive). A mentor can be a great encourager when the person they are mentoring is wanting to grow and develop in the Christian faith and in their calling. In other words, they are not passive but are willing to invest time, effort, and even money to move forward in their knowledge, understanding, and application of biblical principles. To mature as a believer and minister.
In our world today we often substitute other words for “mentor.” The most familiar and common is the word “coach.” A coach is someone who carries a valued person from where they are to where they want to be. The key is ‘they want to be.” Otherwise, as I mentioned yesterday it just ends up in frustration… like pushing a parked car with the brakes on uphill by yourself. Not interested.
In an article called, “A Coach By Any Other Namer” Kevin Hall describes what it means to be a coach. He writes,
In other cultures and languages, coaches are known by many different names and titles.
In Japan, a “sensei” is one who has gone further down the path. In martial arts, it is the designation for master.
In Sanskrit, a “guru” is one with great knowledge and wisdom. “Gu” means darkness, and “ru” means light – a guru takes someone from darkness into the light.
In Tibet, a “lama” is one with spirituality and authority to teach. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is the highest ranking leader.
In Italy, a “maestro” is a master teacher of music. It is short for “maestro de cappella,” meaning master of the chapel.
In France, a “tutor” is a private teacher. The term dates back to the fourteenth century and refers to one who served as a watchman.
In England, a “guide” is one who know and shows the way. It denotes the ability to see and point out the better course.
In Greece,. A “mentor” is a wise and trusted advisor. In The Odyssey, Homer’s Mentor was a protective and supportive counsellor.
All these words describe the same role: One who goes before and shows the way. No matter what word you use to describe them, coaches make a difference in others’  lives. They help them grow. They improve their potential. They increase their productivity. They are essential to helping people effect positive change.
Andy Stanley in “The Next Generation Leader” states, “You will never maximize your potential in any area without coaching. It is impossible. You may be good. You may even be better than everyone else. But without outside input you will never be as good as you could be. We all do better when someone is watching and evaluating … Self-evaluation is helpful, but evaluation from someone else is essential.”
In my opinion, good mentors share five common characteristics. They…
Care for the people they coach
Observe their attitudes, behaviour, and performance
Align them with their strengths for peak performance
Communicate and give feedback about their performance
Help them to improve their lives and performance
Please note that the first letter of each characteristic spells “coach”
The process of growing with the help of a mentor usually follows this pattern: It begins with awareness. You realize that you need help and that following yourself is not a viable option for effective personal growth. When a person comes to that realization, one of two things can happen. The first is that the person’s pride swells up and he cannot bring himself to ask another person for advice. This is a common reaction. However, to keep from looking ignorant, they almost always ensure their own ignorance.
The other reaction to awareness is to humble yourself and say, “I need your help.” That decision not only leads to greater knowledge, but it also often develops maturity. It reinforces that people need one another [- not just when they are young and starting out, but their entire lives.
Chuck Swindoll in “The Finishing Touch” states…
“Nobody is a whole chain. Each one is a link. But take away one link and the chain is broken.
Nobody is a whole team. Each one is a player. But take away one player and the game is forfeited.
Nobody is a whole orchestra. Each one is a musician. But take away one musician and the symphony is incomplete…
You guessed it. We need each other. You need someone and someone needs you. Isolated islands we’re not.
To make this thing called life work, we gotta lean and support. And relate and respond. And give and take. And confess and forgive. And reach out and embrace. And release and rely…
Since none of us is a whole, independent, self-sufficient, super-capable, all-powerful hotshot, let’s quit acting like we are. Life’s lonely enough without our playing that silly role.
The game’s over. Let’s link up.”