Twice in my career I had two great mentors, both men, who saw more in me than I did. Both were “outsiders” in the organization, they had different perceptions and challenged the status quo. They stood on their beliefs and were willing to be the outspoken minority in executive decision-making processes. For me, they opened the door to paths of opportunities and advancement.
My first mentor gave me a leadership role within his team of executives. I was his administrative assistant but unlike any other administrative assistant in the organization, I was included in all of his team meetings and had an active voice in decision-making activities. I was not just the “note taker” but an active participant. I provided insight for his team at a different level. He knew one of my strengths was the ability to observe, listen and identify important cues, and he valued my perceptiveness and commentary. I learned more about our department and also the political landscape of the organization as I was part of the inside conversations. I was trusted and I honored that trust with confidentiality and loyalty.
My second mentor, who held the same position as my previous mentor, was very similar but took his mentorship to a higher level, encouraging me to break out of the “pink collar” ranks and promote to management. When I applied and was selected for my first management position, I knew he would take some heat for this opportunity. I did not yet have a bachelor’s degree which was a basic requirement for a management role. I was selected based on the condition I would finish my degree. This was in higher education where degrees defined the hierarchy of the organization. A manager with an AA degree was not going to be given much credence. But he stood with me and supported me, even when I doubted myself and feared my critics.
My loyalty to both was high. And I valued their guidance and mentorship. So I placed both of them on a pedestal, high enough so that when they fell, I questioned their loyalty, my loyalty and my ability to see the truth in them. One had an affair with a colleague and used me as a “cover” for their activities. The other checked out of life for a while and abandoned his duties which forced me to step in and cover his job and my own.
No one is perfect. No leader or mentor is perfect. We have flaws, each of us, we are human. But it can hurt and be devastating when the mentor we admire does something where the flaws now become apparent. We can be blind in our loyalties. And when the blemishes begin to show, we will question ourselves and our beliefs.
Those who inspire us, who build us up, fulfill many gaps within ourselves. Unknowingly, and sometimes undeservingly, we pile on the trust, loyalty and admiration. We construct a beautiful golden pedestal on which we place them. All that they do and act resonates with our internal messages of belief and values. They are not like us, there are no doubts of self-confidence, no shortcomings. No, they are filled with super powers and high levels of knowledge. And so they sit where we have placed them, high up and out of reach.
But when the pedestal tips and our heroes fall, do we blame ourselves or them? We blame them, of course. They are the ones who pulled back the curtain and showed us their flaws. Yet, they did not ask to be placed up there. We put them up there on that pedestal. We built the throne without their permission.
As painful as it can be to see someone we admire topple downward, we need to realize that perhaps they haven’t fallen as far down as we seem to think. All that has happened is that we took off our blinders and now are seeing them as themselves, without our rose-colored glasses. This may actually be part of the overall plan – the signal that it’s time for us to fly with our own wings, time to let go. The news of the fall, while hard to absorb, can be a growth moment for us. It allows us to ask questions of ourselves, deepen our own convictions, look at the message rather than the messenger. As in school we move forward and leave our favorite teachers behind, ready for the class behind us. We graduate and we get new teachers as we broaden our knowledge and expertise.
I look back at my two mentors and am very appreciative and grateful for the opportunities they provided for me. I would not be where I am now if they hadn’t challenged me, opened doors and showed their confidence in me. I also realize our paths were to be connected for that short time only. They helped in the beginning of my transformation but it was my responsibility to fully develop that transformation. Mentors are wonderful guides who join us for a specific portion of our journey. We can share beliefs and values but why those beliefs and values resonate within us is not the same for both.
The floor a pedestal sits upon is weak in structure. It is built by the mentee, with no input from the mentor. It consists of planks of emotional dependency, approval seeking and the need for validation. It is too soft for the pedestal to carry the weight of someone sitting on it for long periods of time. It is not wrong to admire someone who inspires us or builds our confidence. Great mentors and leaders influence and challenge us, they help us grow into leaders ourselves and become mentors for others. Just remember, pedestal building is not a joint venture between mentor and mentee.Great mentors will pull you up alongside them, not leave you down on your floor.