Lessons from the World’s First Mentor

Young businesswoman talking on the phone in coffee shop

While mentorship programs may seem like a new component of corporate culture, their etymology has ancient Greek origins. You may be surprised to know that the modern word mentor is actually derived from a name. In the telephone game of history, not much has changed from who Mentor was to what today’s mentor should aspire to be.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, while Odysseus is off fighting in the Trojan War, he asks his friend Mentor to take care of his home and his princely son, Telemachus. The goddess Athena takes on the guise of Mentor to advise Odysseus’ son on his quest to find his father.

“The prince replied, wise in his own way too, ‘How can I greet him, Mentor, even approach the king? I am hardly adept at subtle conversation. Someone my age might feel shy, what’s more, interrogating an older man.’

[Athena/Mentor responded], ‘Telemachus…some of the words you’ll find within yourself, the rest some power will inspire you to say.’”(Homer 108)

It’s no wonder that the name Mentor became popular as a person who advises, guides, and collaborates with a person seeking counsel. But we mere modern mortals sometimes get confused about the real definition of a mentor. Is it the same as a guide? A coach? A sponsor? An advocate?

Nancy Wolk, principal at eMentorConnect was inspired by Heather Foust-Cummings, Catalyst’s senior director’s thoughts on mentors vs. sponsors, and puts it this way:

  • A coach talks to you.
  • A sponsor talks about you
  • A mentor talks with you.

For a relationship as formative as that of Mentor and Telemachus, one truly designed by the gods, you’ll have to create a relationship that maintains these tenets:

Trust: Trust is an important component of any mentoring arrangement. In order for the partnership to grow and sustain, each party must feel free to share feedback candidly. Wolk says it’s all about how you communicate. Outline your goals and establish clear boundaries and expectations from the first meeting.

A Collaborative Approach: Remember the word “with” from above. A mentorship is a partnership. Economist Darrick Hamilton describes how his mentor empowered him while he was studying at UNC Chapel Hill,

“He really tried to break down that hierarchy of teacher and pupil. It was not competitive—it was collaborative. At some point there were epiphanies where I realized I was making substantial contributions to the relationship.”

Guidance not Governance: As a mentor, you need to let mentees make their own decisions, and sometimes that includes making mistakes. Mentors may often lean on traditional sociocultural dichotomies in age, race, and gender, and may approach their mentee in a “paternalistic fashion,” Hamilton explains, “a better approach is giving them information, so that they can make choices.”

Reciprocity: Not only do mentorship programs benefit from collaboration, but even further, they thrive when mentors feel as satisfied as their mentees. Russell Cruz, a scientific superhero who trains cells to fight cancer, sees his mentee as his future teacher,

“What I want to do is provide Allison with…someone to bounce arguments back and forth with, and someone that she can rely on to be her cheerleader. She’s my first grad student, so this is my start, too. Part of the goal is for me, by the end of three years or so, to be learning from her.”

Mentor’s wise words came from godly inspiration, but his message was more humble. If you encourage your mentors to take notes from the OG, they’ll approach the partnership with a similar approach and maybe even make a friend as well.

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Kate Mason
kate.mason@ementorconnect.com

Kate Mason is a writer, historian, and stand-up comic living in New Orleans, LA. She is the Programming Coordinator for the New Orleans Film Society and an avid enthusiast of pop culture. She approaches mentoring challenges with a witty, creative mind.

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