Four Essential Best Practices for Leaders (Post 2 of 4)

Best Practice Two: Have Mentors in Your Life

Uzziah became CEO at a very early age (at 16—II Chronicles 26:1)! He didn’t know much about running a country, and he probably was well aware of his ignorance! He needed others with wisdom, experience and “deeds done” to help him understand reality, see what he needed to see and do what he needed to do. A key factor to his success was that Uzziah learned from two mentors. This is another essential best practice for leaders.

One mentor was his father (v. 4). In fact, there was probably a period when Uzziah’s and his father’s leadership roles overlapped. It was a healthy transition in which his father, as the wise and experienced leader who was approaching retirement, took him under his wing and coached him in ways that best prepared him to lead well.

His other mentor was Zechariah (v. 5). Zechariah was a man who understood how to love and follow God and helped the young leader understand this as well.

This best practice is directly related to the first one. It is mentors that can help us understand how to seek God and apply His principles in our leadership roles. We simply cannot do this on our own. We must be honest and humble enough to say we need help, and seek out mentors. The young, newly-appointed Uzziah did this. It served him extremely well.

 

Two Reasons Mentors are Critically Important

First, mentors are able to see things you can’t see. They don’t have your blind spots, and so what you will never see, they easily observe and point out. True, mentors have their own blind spots, but they are not the same as yours. The end result is they provide counsel and perspective that you would never see on your own.

Second, mentors are outside your chain of command, and so can speak the unvarnished truth. They can “call it like it is” even if it is not what you want to hear. They can see and articulate what you won’t see. As Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” We hope our staff will do this. Yet it is much harder for staff under our authority to do so. Mentors have no problem doing so.

I’ve benefited from the wise counsel of many mentors over the years (I include the work of consultants here, which I define as short-term mentors focusing on one aspect of my work). Many times they showed me a way forward I would have never identified. At other times they told me the ugly truth that I was unwilling or unable to see for myself. The times I listened to their counsel I was saved from many errors in my leadership. The times I did not I paid the consequences and learned the hard way what should have been done.

I’ve also observed leaders who refuse to seek out mentors. Their attitude is “I don’t need their input. What I do/what we do here is unique. Others wouldn’t understand. So they wouldn't be helpful.”

This was the attitude of a seasoned CEO of a ministry I recently helped work through some leadership issues. He believed only he could understand and make the right decisions concerning every aspect of the ministry. He was never willing to bring in others with expertise in various areas to identify and suggest ways to solve problems the ministry was facing. As a result, the ministry was imploding. Situations like this are sad reminders of the importance of mentors in all our lives.

 

Getting the Right Mentor

However, not just any mentor will do. It must be one like Uzziah’s father—one who has walked in your shoes and therefore understands your realities. Advice is easy to come by. But a true mentor is valuable only because she or he understands, at a deeper level than you do, what is really going on. And this only comes from having been in similar situations and learning from experience (and his or her mentors) how best to proceed.

Good mentors will also be like Zechariah—men and women can mentor and counsel you in light of biblical truth. In the first best practice I explained why it is critically important to live and lead according to biblical principles. A good mentor will understand this and offer wise counsel based on these Truths.

One way this shows itself is the mentor being concerned with more than just increasing your bottom line. For instance, he will not encourage you to see people as only “means”—cogs in a wheel to produce more widgets. A mentor who understands biblical principles will help you also be concerned with promoting human flourishing and the common good through your leadership. He will help you understand values beyond economic gain that should permeate your life and work. Of course, non-believing consultants sometimes emphasize these same themes. However, these values are grounded in the biblical worldview, and mentors who understand and personally embrace this worldview can best mentor you in these values and practices.

Another sign that a mentor is concerned with more than the bottom line is his/her concern that you develop as a person, a spouse, a friend, and as a disciple of Christ. All of this has a bearing on being a good leader, but goes much beyond that.

 

Authors Can Be Mentors

We also can be mentored through the writings of others (their books, blogs, journal articles, etc.) They are often not people who can be our personal mentors. They may not work professionally as mentors. If they do, they may not serve those in our location or professional sector.  Or they may simply cost too much. And so on. Yet we can still learn much from them through their writings.

The disadvantage, of course, is they cannot understand and speak into our specific situations. Yet this is balanced by the advantage of being able to go back to them, again and again, to listen to their general counsel and think more about how it applies to our situations. Through their writings, we can glean much wisdom.

 

Four Cautions in Your Reading

I offer four cautions in your reading for mentorship. First, beware of only reading those from your sector. For instance, don’t only read those who work in the non-profit sector, or only in the for-profit sector. Don’t only read those who work with large corporations, or those who only work with small organizations. Everyone is conditioned by what they see, and so often “if one is a hammer, everything is a nail.” Reading more broadly will provide various insights into your reality.

Second, beware of only reading those of our time. There is much value in reading those writing at different times. As C.S. Lewis argues in his wonderful essay “On Reading Old Books” (reprinted here) we can learn much from reading those writing at other times. This is not because they had it all right and we have it all wrong. No, they had their own issues. But they didn’t have our blind spots. Therefore in reading them, we pick up places our historical milieu blinds us to reality. They help us identify and correct our “temporal myopia.”

Third, beware of only reading those of our culture. There is much we can learn from those writing from outside our cultural context. It is not as if those of other cultures get it all right and we get it all wrong. They have their issues, just as we have ours. But they don’t have our issues. Therefore they help us identify and correct our “cultural myopia.”

Fourth, beware of only reading within business literature per se. Reading widely and seeing things from the perspectives of other disciplines can provide fresh and rich insights. For instance, my academic background is in philosophy, and I often find that I have insights into leadership challenges when reading philosophy. (Just this week I was helped in determinig a ministry goal by applying the distinction between a “necessary” and a “sufficient” condition, a concept from logic.)

 

Conclusion

CEO Uzziah benefited much from his mentors. How about you? Do you seek out mentors (including consultants), or feel you do not need anyone else in order to lead well? For those times, places and issues that you cannot find a personal mentor, do you find mentors through their writings? If so, are you limiting yourself to those of only your type of company, your time, your culture or your field? If you answer “yes” to any of these, how might you benefit as a leader by expanding the input and counsel you receive through mentors by expanding the voices you listen to? These are questions we as leaders would do well to revisit regularly as we seek to lead well.