One of the hardest things to discern in leadership is if you are truly helping someone or enabling them. My father used to say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink; but you can put salt in his oats and make him thirsty. This simple test is ideal for making sure that your mentoring actions don’t head down the slippery slope from helpful to harmful. The roots of the question lie in: are you offering a hand up or a hand out? And can we be objective about the difference when our intentions drive us to help in any way possible?
There’s a story of a young child who finds a cocoon. He watched it grow and change and anxiously waited for the butterfly to emerge. He witnessed the internal struggle and ran home to get a pair of scissors so he could “help” the butterfly out, however what came out was a partially developed butterfly. The caterpillar would never fly because it hadn’t fully developed the muscular strength gained by struggling to leave the cocoon. The child had meant well, but had inadvertently killed the butterfly.
In life, to deny the struggle is to deny the victory. Suffering and hardships are a necessary part of life. If we shield our mentees from these invaluable trials, we make them soft and unable to spread their wings and fly. One of my favorite quotes is by John D. Rockefeller, “Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it.” We are to be generous with our time, knowledge and expertise, but also aware that stepping over the line from helping to saving is of no value to the mentee and will limit their ability to develop their own skill sets and coping mechanisms. When mentoring, give them just enough salt so they thirst for more; more responsibility, more accountability, more prosperity, more knowledge. You’ll never help a person develop if you do it all for them.
As a general rule, we should freely give to those genuinely in need so they can grow, thrive and eventually serve as a guiding hand to others. For mentoring specifically, we should give just enough to encourage mentees to continue on their path, grow their knowledge base and stretch beyond that which they thought they were capable while being careful not to overwhelm or frustrate them with information overload.
One of the key skills new employees must develop is a sense of when to struggle and when to seek help. It can be tempting to offer help immediately to alleviate the anxiety and frustration that can accompany challenges, but that denies the mentee the very real need for practicing and strengthening problem solving skills. Persistence, ingenuity and creativity are muscles that must be exercised regularly. Mentors must be accountable for nurturing those very skills, often by watching uncomfortably as the mentee attempts new things, struggles and eventually triumphs. The mentoring relationship is a two-way street that requires this level of discipline, as well as the mentee’s drive and personal commitment to put in the necessary work toward success.
Personal development is hard, and like any hardship in life it causes pain. The beauty of hardships is that they are temporary and often productive. So allow you mentee to develop their own set of wings so when they’re released they can fly.