Insight article

Leadership wisdom: becoming the mentor

The Hero’s journey is a well-trodden path when it comes to storytelling, and the world of business is no exception. Seeing your organisation through the lens of a journey that takes you through through a series of emotive and meaningful steps of change has proved to be a formula that truly helps businesses turn situations of despair into ones of resurrected promise.

So this is one great use for the Hero’s journey in business: the portrayal of who we are as an organisation in order to engender greater understanding of the journey that we are on and drive visible change in service of that same journey.

But there is another aspect to the Hero’s journey that is sometimes overlooked in how businesses apply storytelling as a vital internal capability. A way of seeing that considers the key characters in the Hero’s journey, as well as the journey itself – and in so doing, shines a light on the intergenerational and interpersonal challenge that we see dawning across the world.

Across the world, the faces of companies are changing – literally. Bosses are getting younger, people are retiring later in life, and less people than ever are electing to spend their careers climbing a single company ladder – succession planning in the midst of all of that is frankly a nightmare, and the statistics show it. According to Harvard Business Review, a 2010 study revealed that only 54% of boards were grooming a specific successor, and 39% had no viable internal candidates who could immediately replace the CEO if the need arose. It’s not an overstatement to say that this represents a global leadership crisis, and it’s one that we continually hear from our own clients too.

So how could looking at this global challenge through the lens of storytelling deliver fresh insight? If we look at the Hero’s journey in its classic, Joseph Campbell incarnation, we see that there is a key moment in the story that introduces us to an important archetype in the alchemy of the Hero’s journey. A figure who may not just play a key part in the overall arc of the journey, but also someone who plays a critical interpersonal role, and specifically in the growth and development of others.

Early on in the Hero’s journey, after our Hero has heard the ‘Call to Adventure’, we meet a character known sometimes as the ‘Mentor’, which we can take as a highly relevant term in this instance. Classic examples of this character include Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Obi Wan in Star Wars. (Unfortunately, as is so often the case, many of these classic archetypical characters are played by men – Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda is one of shamefully few examples in film and literature that show that women can be Mentors too.) 

To the Hero, the ‘Mentor’ is a friend, teacher, guide and role model all in one. Here are some of their key attributes:

  • They are entrusted with the care and education of their charge
  • They are equipped with the knowledge or expertise to nurture those who face the challenges ahead. 
  • They give what they know with no expectation of immediate reciprocation or remuneration, beyond striving for the greater good
  • Ultimately, in the context of the overarching journey, they come to represent accomplishment, knowledge, skill, and virtue.  

This is an immensely important and noble role that is played as the Hero’s journey unfolds. This person emerges very near the beginning of the story, guiding the Hero on the starting principles as they set about their challenge. Without the Mentor, the Hero’s journey is not remotely possible – meeting the Mentor is the first and most providential of many fateful sliding doors for the Hero.

So coming back to the shifting world of business in the 21st century, doesn’t that list of attributes sound like the kind of person businesses crave now, maybe more than ever? It seems that the present global crisis of succession planning could be improved if senior business leaders were able, at the right time, to see themselves more as the Mentor and less as the Hero… so how can businesses help their senior leaders to shoulder these responsibilities, and know when being the Hero of the journey actually means they need to be the Mentor?

The first step is to consciously understand that teams of leaders are also on evolving journeys of their own.

In life, we are all on a personal journey. We go through a series of changes, and change roles throughout this: daughter, friend, teenager, student, employee, partner, boss, grandmother – we continually redefine the terms we use to fundamentally describe ourselves… so why should the world of work be any different?

There’s an evolving leadership story that organisations need to get better at telling here, in order to help individuals make the transition from Hero/Leader of the organisation to increasingly playing a Mentor role. It’s one that doesn’t supplant the need for an organisation-wide narrative, but rather expands and enhances the meaning of this for those playing a leading role within it. By understanding our role in an organisation story as a fluid and changing one, business leaders will be better placed to respond to the key drivers of that narrative, over time.

The second step is to recognise that the relationship between Mentor and Hero is in fact a symbiotic one – both parties can learn from each other.

Chip Conley, a well-known thought leader on the theme of intergenerational change in the world of work expands on this theme in one TED talk in particular. Conley vividly recounts his own experience of intergenerational relations at work, sharing a story of his time as a seasoned veteran in the world of hospitality entering the tech start-up world of Airbnb. 

Self-effacing and humorous, Conley acknowledges his own lack of expertise and knowledge of the tech world… but counters this with a sharp awareness of the ‘wisdom’ that he brought to the fledgling tech company, and the endorsement he received in this way from his younger, more tech-savvy colleagues.

Conley sees himself as a ‘Modern Elder’ in this regard, and this is effectively another way of describing the ‘Mentor’ role in the Hero’s journey. What is different about Conley’s perspective is that he wisely identifies that the learning curve is not just for the younger party – and this is something that ought to draw senior leaders closer to younger counterparts as they begin their journey to becoming the leaders of tomorrow. These interactions ought to be taken in the spirit of mutual benefit – the latest industry and technological understanding meeting with timeless business savvy.

By framing the topic of generational change in the world of work in a symbiotic manner, Conley shows one key factor in how businesses can find a way out of this challenge – to encourage both ends of the generational spectrum to value what the other can bring, and encourage a culture of mutual learning through dialogue.

The third step is to frame succession planning through the lens of legacy – a single, rich word that unlocks a new way of thinking.

Rather than focusing on the fact that senior leaders are effectively stepping down as the Hero of the journey, there is an opportunity here to reframe this. If we do see ourselves as on a personal journey, then we must accept that there comes a point where that journey comes to an end in the shape of retirement. Looking at this key milestone in a career gives senior leaders the opportunity to then consider what will remain – what legacy will be left when they depart the stage.

Not only does this give scope for leaders to begin to come to terms with their own retirement, it also frames this in a positive light. ‘What good can I do before I retire… how can I better prepare future leaders for my absence… can I be remembered as much for the foundations I laid for the next leadership team as for my own contributions as a leader…?’ All these are questions that can be asked and explored as a collective leadership team under that single, powerful word – legacy. 

So, the present challenges of succession planning demand a different approach, and there are three simple questions that draw on the power of storytelling to frame this:

  1. As a leadership team, what is the journey that we are on?
  2. Who can I reach out to and develop a mentor relationship of mutual benefit with?
  3. As a leader, what is the legacy that I want to leave?

Thinking of the evolution of an organisation through the lens of storytelling does not solely have to be a case of mapping progress according to the steps on the Hero’s journey. The Hero’s journey is more than this – it is the alchemic combination of different roles, different skillsets, different moments along the way that bring a series of revelations and illuminations that make overcoming the challenge possible. 

Recognising and celebrating that these different archetypes within our own organisations have different wisdoms and learnings to share along the way is vital. Helping senior business leaders recognise that their true value has imperceptibly evolved, and now lies in playing the role of the mentor, rather than that of the Hero, is a mindset shift that brings generations closer. And helping leaders to focus more on the legacy that they will leave as Mentors of the next generation may just start to address the current generational gap in the world of succession planning.

Daniel Castro


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