The Next Level

Fred Smith explores what mentoring is – and what it is not.

By Fred Smith

Mentoring normally is done to improve skills and the art of performance. Role-model and lifestyle mentoring are specialized forms, but generally used less frequently. As mentoring programs develop it is important to understand what is and what is not mentoring. I have participated in a few so-called mentoring programs, and from my experience have come to believe that the concept of mentoring is not generally well understood. Often what happens in church programs is simply a time of older men visiting with younger men without an agenda. These visits sometimes turn into Bible study or prayer times. These are excellent activities, but they are not mentoring.

Mentoring is a one-on-one relation between a mentor and mentoree for the specific and definable development of a skill or an art. One of my favorite mentoring stories is of the young pianist who came to Leonard Bernstein and asked to be mentored by him. Bernstein said, "Tell me what you want to do, and I will tell you whether or not you're doing it." When you analyze this, you realize Bernstein's deep understanding of mentoring. The young man initiated the contact, he had a specific request, and he made the request of an authority—not that he might get rich as a concert pianist or famous like Bernstein, but that he might become a better pianist.

Bernstein essentially said to the young man, "You're responsible for your playing and your practice. The one thing you can't do is hear yourself as a great pianist hears you. That I can do and will do for you."

The study of mentoring can be organized, but not the application of it. Effective mentoring has no set formula. It's a living relationship and progresses in fits and starts. It can involve a specific area or several areas. For example, one big area of need is the improvement of decision-making. Goal-setting is another. However, these must be specific. The goal may be broad, but in skills-art mentoring it must be specific.

There are several commonalities that must be present. As in all leadership, these may exist in combination with not all represented in equal proportion.

The two must share a compatible philosophy. Our goals and methods are really an expression of our philosophy. If the goal is to be Christian, the philosophy must be built on divine principles. To me, wisdom is the knowledge and application of scriptural principles; not the citing of verses or telling of stories, but the definition of the principles. I usually illustrate this by the principle: "God will not do for you what you can do for yourself, nor will he let you do for yourself what only he can do."