Wisdom and mentoring
Development mentoring’s focus on the acquisition of wisdom goes back to the original story of the mentoring relationship between Athena, the Geek Goddess of Wisdom and Odysseus, King of Ithaca and his son, Telemachus. In the guise of Mentor, and sometimes as herself, Athena helps the two men learn from their experiences, developing their insight and moral fortitude.
More than two millennia later, the French cleric, Fenelon, continued these dialogues as a form of essays aimed at developing the wisdom of the French king. In much the same way, Machiavelli attempted to guide the moral development of his Florentine rulers, although he is remembered more for his insights into political intrigue. Neither man’s efforts were greatly appreciated!
Mentoring is at least in part about using one’s own wisdom to stimulate wisdom in another person. In all the great tales of mentors, from Sir Thomas More to Yoda in Star Wars, the mentor draws upon their own inner calm and insight to help the mentee:
- Recognise and question the values that they and others are applying
- Develop greater insight into how they think and behave
- Learn to temper their baser instincts through compassion for others and for themselves
- Establish the habit of reflection upon and learning from experience
- Develop a more complex understanding of their own identity, aspirations and fears, so they can make wiser choices.
The story of Odysseus is one of the most powerful examples of Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development. Kegan describes three stages of adult development, relating to the complexity of our thinking (our cognitive development) and to how we see ourselves in relations to the world around us (our socio-emotional development). As teenagers, we seek to express our sense of identity through the social groups, with which we associate, adopting their values and ways of interpreting the world. Some people never get past this stage, but many go on to become “self-authoring”. In this stage, we seek to create an individual identity driven by our internal values, rather than those of others. A proportion of people, who reach this stage, also progress to a point, where they become aware that they and the world around them are constantly evolving, so their identity and the way they interact with the world needs to evolve, too.
It’s in this latter stage that wisdom blossoms. Which is not to say that mentors can’t help people at earlier stages of development become wiser – it’s simply a matter of degree.
So how can a mentor help a mentee become wiser? Here are some practical tools and approaches:
- Even if an issue the mentee brings has a simple solution, spend time helping them understand some of the complexities that surround it. For example: what does this tell us about other people’s instinctive behaviour and thought processes?
- Help them articulate their values and how these have changed over time; then to reflect upon how their values might change in the future. Where might their assumptions and values hold them back in pursuing their dreams?
- Listen to how they make sense of the world and draw tentative conclusions as to where they may be on the stages of adult development. Shape your questions to help them become aware of their thinking processes and to recognise that there are alternatives. So, for example:
- What would be the benefit of taking a different perspective on this?
- What has shaped your values and assumptions about this?
- How can you listen more fully to your inner voice?
- How can you find a balance between what matters for you and what matters for other people?
- What would your best self be thinking, saying and doing right now?
- Talk to them about the stages of adulthood and how we all have to pass through one stage to get to the next. If (as will frequently be the case) they are in transition between one stage and the next, invite them for time to time to consider, in which stage their responses to a situation might be based. Simply knowing that there are other ways of thinking and being allows people to make progress towards greater maturity.
- Work on your own wisdom and maturity, so you better understand the transitions your mentee will be going through. Spending quality time reflecting and learning from your experiences, deliberately seeking out views and perspectives that don’t align with your own. Try to release yourself from the constraints of your own areas of expertise, which reduce your openness to original ideas. Try to obtain a better balance between doing and being in your coaching and mentoring, in your work and in your life generally.
As a supervisor of coaches and mentors, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity this role provides me with to build my own wisdom by reflecting with another person on their experiences and their experiences of their coachees or mentees. Every session brings some insight that makes me reorient my own experience and modify my own understanding of myself and my environment. When I first began to supervise, I was concerned that the process would generate some kind of hierarchy of wisdom. In reality, I find it deeply humbling and for that I am grateful.
It’s easy to lose the emphasis of mentoring (and of transformational or transpersonal coaching, which cover similar territory) in the urgency to resolve short-term issues. When we measure the success of a mentoring relationship, it’s most common to look at what changed for the mentee in terms of their career or their job-related learning. In a really effective mentoring relationship, however, a critical outcome is “How much wiser is this person than before?”
© David Clutterbuck, 2016
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