The Perfect Protege | A Mentor’s Appreciation

Leaders who choose to become mentors usually have their own agenda.

All of us have met mentors who are well and truly holier-than-thou. Their tone is patronising, their teachings are irrelevant and they are terrible listeners for the simple reason that they are too accustomed to the petard-like sound of their own sickening voice.

They come equipped with authoritative teachings that they zealously wish to impart on their proteges. The life lessons that came the hard way, the wisdom that can only come with age and experience, and even their own dogmatic ideas about the world and how it sprang into existence.

I won’t lie. I fell into this trap in the early days of my mentoring journey. I groomed my mentee as I would a successor: someone whose destiny was to follow in my footsteps and take over the position I once held.

Once you’ve reached a certain level of accomplishment in your life, you can be quite fussy and choosy about the mentees you take on. There may be many out there who come seeking your help and assistance. Young people who come asking for advise that they have no intention of ever following. I sometimes humoured them. Mostly, I was humoured by them.

And so I searched and searched, for that young person that I could groom. I was disappointed by what I found. There was no one to groom, to mould or to shape–or so I had erroneously concluded.

I wanted to groom someone who needed me. Not someone who wanted to be groomed by me because of my resume. My resume will never show you who I am.

One fine day, I was asked by a friend of mine to help out his wife.

I showed up as I always did–larger-than-life–my reputation well-known and well-regarded. But like anyone well-known and well-regarded, I am not without my share of detractors.

So I introduced myself and made it known who I was. My friend’s wife was cordial and polite, but I received neither the fanfare nor the dissidence that I was so accustomed to. Instead, she received me as she would any ordinary person. I was convinced I was not ordinary, but rather quite extraordinary–and it was I, who had come to help this ordinary person who was ‘in need’.

We all find ourselves ‘in need’ in some point or another. That does not diminish the brilliance of who we are. You can always see it in someone–that innate genius as well as the capacity to accomplish whatever it is that they set out to do.

So, I went on my merry way, doing what I had always done. In my mind, I had done well for myself and had a lot of knowledge to impart. But in a genuine mentor-protege relationship–the exchange is two-way synergetic flow of energy. The mentor imparts and the protege imparts. They are both on different journeys, but they grow together and alongside each other.

In time, I discovered that my friend’s wife was no ordinary person and therefore could not study under an ordinary mentor. It is why he had asked me.

Sometimes we are ‘in need’ because our needs are unique and exemplary. They are not the needs of an ordinary person seeking shelter, food and pleasurable past times. Leaders are not ordinary people. We are not talking about mere titles here.

Those who are selected to lead by their predecessors, by society or even by God are not individuals who willingly accepted the title. They are thrust into it by circumstances and forces beyond their control. And that’s when I started to see my own journey in a new light.

Did I choose to become a man of many accomplishments? I cannot honestly say ‘Yes’. A lot of it was circumstantial.

In either case, I later discovered that the reason why my friend’s wife remained largely unimpressed by my accomplishments is because she had a brother who had accomplished far more than I had. And as far as she was concerned, he was a little brother and an annoying brat.

So, you did a lot with the lot that you were allotted. There are others who did even more.

For a relationship to exist and for an exchange to take place, the mentor and the protege have to be ‘in need’ of each other. It was never meant to be a one-way sermon street.

Before deciding on who will be the perfect protege, it is imperative that the mentor first understands what the protege is ‘in need’ of. Some leaders have flawless track records but struggle in their personal lives. Others find themselves wrangling with a talent and skill that so few understand, let alone appreciate.

And of course, every aspiring leader has to contend with tall poppy syndrome: when you become more than you ever have been and outgrow your friends and family like old worn-out clothes that you have no choice but to discard. These are all delicate matters that must be navigated carefully.

My most treasured moments of working alongside my protege is not so much in the teachings I am allowed to impart. She has rolled her eyes at me on more than one occasion and she the only person I have afforded that privilege. Not one for arguments, we have never crossed swords either. If I talk down or over her, she simply stops speaking; which has forced me to change my approach to a more inclusive one that does not dismiss someone who is still struggling to find her voice and learn to use it.

I see that ‘the way’ I have gotten things done is not the only way to get things done. There are less painful, more diplomatic ways to get what one wants and what everyone wants.

What I love most about working with my protege–who possesses a very brilliant and enquiring mind–are the questions I get to ask and the answers that I have the privilege to receive. They are, indeed, the most peculiar, yet absolutely spot on answers that I have ever received in my life. These are not the answers of a well-educated person who regurgitates information. Her answers are that of a person who feels deeply into the situation to find the wisdom that lays deep within the annals of human consciousness.

I personally know the mentor who worked with her before I did. He graciously left the role because he had nothing further to teach her. Similarly, I left my former proteges behind because I was bored and fed up of how boring and entitled they were.

My protege asks some seriously darned difficult questions. I, myself, have to do some serious soul-searching to answer them. I cannot just shoo her away with the kosher responses I am so accustomed to giving. She will simply roll her eyes. Oh, I have tremendous respect for a woman who knows when I’m bluffing.

I am no longer a leader and as it stands at the present moment, I have no desire to be one again anytime soon. I am now a teacher–and like all teachers–all I hoped for was an excellent student who wouldn’t drive me crazy, put me to sleep or make me want to quit the profession.

God has blessed me with the best student I could ever dream of. I suppose wishes do eventually, somehow, come true.

Clark Quay, Singapore

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