Mentoring – The Hard Lessons

Mentoring – The Hard Lessons

The hard lessons are the ones we learn through our mistakes and failures.  I want to share with you some of mine, so that you can possibly avoid making the same mistakes.

Choose Mentorees Carefully 

The best mentoring relationships are often initiated by the mentoree.  We may not know this person, or know much about this person.  Be sure to observe your potential mentoree prior to beginning the mentoring relationship.  Talk to his or her peers and supervisors.  Is this person a self starter?  Is this person a hard worker?  Is the person a learner?  Does this person have good relationships with supervisors, peers, and subordinates?  Are there any serious problems in this person’s background?   (We may still choose to work with someone even if there are serious problems in their background.)  Have you been in their home and met their family?  (Staying with someone for several days in their home lets you get a glimpse of the real person.)  And even when you do everything right, you may still run into serious problems.

I once choose a mentoree who had a sexual addiction.  I did not know of this problem as the relationship began.  But over the next few years I found myself dragged into investigations of sexual misconduct.  Mentors are judged by the conduct and productivity of their mentorees.  When we choose to invest in people who will not change, we will find ourselves in no-win situations that suck all our time and energy, and cause a bad reputation for our work.  Know your mentorees!  You may choose to still invest in them even in the face of problems, but the choice should be an informed one.

Know Mentorees Well

Particularly in ministry, we need to know all dimensions of the people we mentor.  Someone who looks good on the job, but has poor marital or other family relationships, can wreck havoc on ministry.

A man roughly my age approached me and asked to join our ministry.  He had a good track record in previous ministries, so I brought him onboard.  Over the next couple of years he was constantly embroiled in conflict with his children, in-laws, and spouse.  This stress led to poor ministry decisions than impacted our organization negatively.  Many of my headaches could have been avoided if I had taken the time to get to know him in the context of his family.

It is not being nosey to know those you are mentoring in all life situations.  Mentors don’t just focus on the job.  Coaches focus on the job.  Mentors focus on the person, and help them to develop in all areas of life.  If we avoid one area, it may be to the detriment of the mentoree, your team, your ministry, and the people you serve.

Release Mentorees Quickly

There comes a point when the Mentor becomes the competition, if we are not careful.  Jesus was aware of this, and after 3 short years trusted the future of the church to 11 doubting men. (See Matthew 28:16ff)  Leadership does not develop in the presence of leaders.  They learn in the presence of leaders, but they develop as leaders when they are on their own.

I had one young man join our team.  He sought me out and asked if I would mentor him.  He was bright and articulate, an able trainer and leader.  As the years pasted he developed the knowledge and skill sets that put him on par with me.  After a while I realized he was in competition with me, and it was stressing our relationship.   I encouraged him to move into his own ministry, which he did, and our relationship began to mature again.

Knowing when to leave is an important skill for a mentor.

Let Mentorees See Your Mistakes

One of the unique characteristics of humans is that we can learn from others’ mistakes.  More importantly, we learn by watching others face their mistakes and solve their problems.  One of the greatest mentoring responsibilities is with our children.  If they do not see us make mistakes and recover from those mistakes appropriately, then they do not learn how to solve problems.

One of my sons was talking to me after school one day.  He made the comment that all his friends’ parents had lots of problems in their marriage, and he was glad that wasn’t the case with his parents.  I asked what he meant, and he told me he had never seen his mother and me fight.

My wife and I had made a conscious decision to take our differences out of sight.  Little did we realize that by doing so our children were not learning how to deal with conflict in a loving Christian manner.  We decided to not be so private with our disagreements.  The first time we openly disagreed with one another, our son thought we were going to get a divorce.  But as we dealt with the issues he saw our love, and learned that disagreement is a part of all relationships; but how we disagree and how we come to resolution are also a part of all relationships.

Mentorees need to see us handle our problems and learn from us as we do so.

Let Mentorees Make Mistakes

All of us believe that we can and should learn from mistakes.  At the same time, we are intolerant of mistakes and jump into projects to save our teams from mistakes.  This robs the teams of learning problem solving, and having the joy of overcoming significant obstacles.  In other words, it keeps them from learning and becoming better leaders.

Our team was planning a major event.  I had delegated the leadership of the event to a senior team member.  He wasn’t doing things the way I was comfortable with, but I was determined to keep hands off.  There came a point in the planning that some critical areas were overlooked, and I jumped in and rescued the situation.  I felt I did what was necessary, but I later learned I harmed the team.

The emerging leader lost confidence.  If I had let him make the mistake, he would have solved it and his confidence would have soared.  By taking away that opportunity, I kept him from realizing how good a leader he really was.  It took more than a year to get him back to the place of confidence in himself and the team.  It killed productivity, and I caused it by not letting the team make a mistake that they could have recovered from more easily than they recovered from my interference.

Mentors are Servants, Not Masters

The mentor’s job is to make the mentoree successful as a leader.  Our job is to make emerging leaders look good.

In my early days as a leader I was a boss instead of a leader.  My attitude was that my team worked for me to accomplish my goals.  I knew how to manipulate buy-in to the projects we were doing, but really did not understand leadership.  I took the credit for success, with a nod to the team.  I did not understand that my job was to make leader-makers, not simply to be the boss.

Leader-making requires us to become the servants of those we are training.  When we delegate to them we put ourselves under their authority for that particular project.  Mentors must always have the attitude – “What do you need from me in order to do a better job, be a better leader, and become a leader-maker.”

Mentors Sacrifice

A life of sacrifice is one of the most significant traits of a mentor.  It is never convenient to have people constantly in your life, demanding your time and attention.

Those of you who know me know that I am an extreme introvert.  I don’t require a lot of input (OK, I don’t require any input.) to make decisions.  I am happy working by myself and being on my own.  It is easy for me to become annoyed with people who, from my perspective, are pestering me.  You know, showing up a odd times, asking questions that have obvious answers, bugging me to do the work they should be able to do on their own, and …  You get the picture.

This personality trait and character flaw kept me from having significant influence in the lives of others. I did not involve myself in the lives of others and did not allow them to intrude in my life.  The Lord dealt with me about this, pointing out that Jesus was available 24/7.  I used to have fixed office hours, and was not kind to people who interrupted me outside of office hours.  As I began to study the leadership of Jesus, I realized that life doesn’t happen on a schedule.  Leadership is not a job, but a lifestyle that is available any time any day.

Good mentors have to give up both strengths and weaknesses if they are going to be successful leader-makers.  Our strengths can prevent new leaders from emerging.  Our weaknesses keep us from interacting with new leaders in such a way that they can learn from us.

 Mentors Celebrate the Success of Mentorees

As I said earlier, I used to be the boss and accept credit for what the team had done.  I thought I was accepting the credit on behalf of the team, but later realized I was not doing a good job of sharing the credit, though I was pretty good at sharing the blame for failures.

When we live the life of a mentor, we learn that in leadership our responsibility is preparing and coaching others to accomplish tasks.  Mentors stay in the background, and credit for the successful completion of the task must go to the team.  One the other hand, mentors must also accept blame when a team fails. Celebrate success!  Recognize the team publically.  Give out rewards and kudos to individual team members who perform well.

What do we do with failures?  We analyzed and learn from them.  We do it quietly and make sure we don’t repeat mistakes.

Mentors Maintain the Mentoring Relationship

Mentors push, but they also pull.  If we are too passive, the relationship will go dormant or die.  If we are too aggressive, we may drive the person away.

One young man who joined our team was particularly promising.  I wanted to make sure he was successful and would have a long tenure with the team.  I became so focused on this young man that I neglected the rest of the teams.  Eventually the young man resigned.  There were several reasons for the resignation that came out in the exit interview.  I was smothering him.  I kept him under such tight observation he felt like he couldn’t make mistakes.  Other team members felt he was my pet, and resented him and the time I spent with him.  I lost a potentially great leader, and stressed the relationships with other teams because I did not maintain a proper mentoring relationship with all involved. 

Mentors have to keep watch on themselves.  It’s good to have other senior mentors in your life that help you see your own flaws and mistakes.

Mentors Are Responsible to Keep Communications Open

It’s easy for mentors to get really busy.  When we have a lot of people in our lives 24/7, we are busy.  If we are not careful, we will project our busy-ness to others. They will not want to add to our load, and will back out of important relationship conversations and life events.

Mentors must be careful to project openness to mentorees regardless of how busy we are.  If we don’t, we will begin to see communication falter.  When this happens mistakes are made, teams lose confidence in leadership, and we fail to accomplish our main purpose of being leader-makers.

Mentors must learn how to communicate openness in the midst of chaos.  We need to be focused; yet aware of what is going on around us.  We have to make every effort to keep personal contact with each mentoree or we send the message that they are not important.

Out mentorees are the most important people to us after God and family.  They are part of our community.  They are part of our call.  They are part of our job.  And in some cases they become part of our families.

I hope you can learn from my hard lessons.  I hope you can be smarter than I am about making leaders.


David Watson
Irving, Texas

3 Replies to “Mentoring – The Hard Lessons”

  1. Dear David,

    There is so much wisdom and good stuff in this article! Thanks for your openness and vulnerability!! I find it so helpful that you talk about the good and not to good – this way we can really benefit from your experiences. Juerg

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