A person who had meant a lot to me and an organization in which I am active passed away recently. That got me thinking about the importance of mentors.
Like everyone, there have been many people who I’ve looked up to and found guidance from over my careers. I’ve learned a lot from them. But were they mentors? I suppose it depends on how you define the term. A quick Google search (the OED of the modern age) gives a definition of “an experienced and trusted adviser.” I’ve certainly had those, but I’m less certain they actually knew they were my trusted adviser. Mostly that’s on me. My nature is to absorb more than develop a close personal relationship, which I would think should be part of the definition of mentor. There were people I listened to, absorbing their experience and advice, but whom may not have felt they were acting as mentor to me because of that lack of personal relationship. I can be close to someone without that closeness being necessarily obvious to all parties. If that makes any sense.
In any case, I’ve been especially fortunate in the last ten years of having people around me from whom I can absorb expertise and guidance. This is especially important given that over that time I’ve effectively launched a new career. After getting degrees in science and working in the scientific arena for what many might consider a full career, I’m now living in the field of Abraham Lincoln scholarship.
This is actually a bigger deal than you might think. Every area of scholarship has its “professionals,” i.e., people who have studied in that field, received their degrees in that field, and operated in society in that field. That would be science for me. My credibility as an Abraham Lincoln scholar was at least initially looked at by professional Lincoln scholars as an avocation, an “amateur” with an interest. “Just a hobby,” I once heard someone say about such interlopers into their field (no, not about me). It isn’t necessarily malicious, but there is a sort of territoriality and protectiveness about a profession by those formally trained and practicing in it. To a large degree, that’s as it should be.
This makes the role of mentors even more important. These are people who are giving of their time and knowledge. They recognize others as potential colleagues rather than merely trespassers.
After this recent colleague (if I may be so presumptuous) passed away, I wrote a brief note about their importance as a role model both to me and to the organization (and other organizations as well). Yesterday I received a note from their spouse thanking me for my kind words. The words were of course true – the person was seen by me and others as having a deep historical knowledge from which we all benefited by their participation in discussions. The person may not have realized they were mentoring others, but certainly the others felt it, as did I. One part of the note that really hit home, and made me think of the role of mentoring, was that the person had said my scholarship meant a lot to them and that the final book they purchased was my newest book. That meant a lot to me. It suggested I had moved from trespasser to colleague status; that I had successfully “made it” in my second career.
It also reminded me of two other mentors in this field. One I met at my very first meeting of the organization. That person noted they were reading the then-new book about Abraham Lincoln by Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly (written almost entirely by his co-author whose name wouldn’t sell as many books). The reading was an act of sacrifice done “so others wouldn’t have to” (yes, the book is that poorly written and historically inaccurate, even false). Another long-time member of the organization also seemed to take a liking to me, in part due to my interest in Lincoln scholarship and in part due to their interest in Nikola Tesla (the topic of my first book). In both cases, they offered their time and historical experience to me. Both have since passed away.
There are, of course, many others from whom I’ve learned in my new field of scholarship. Some of them wrote back cover blurbs for my newest book. One even wrote the foreword. They continue to be a source of mentoring, whether they know it or not.
I’m now the president of the organization and led the team organizing the 100th anniversary event celebrating the Lincoln Memorial. I have a vision of taking nearly a century of organizational excellence and building it further to an even greater national organization. I already see signs of broader recognition and think we continue to grow in influence and contribution. Thinking of how the aforementioned scholars mentored me makes me wonder if, at least in some ways, I’ve become (or perhaps, will at some point in the future become) a mentor to others. That seems an odd concept to me at this point, but perhaps not everyone I have learned from over the years truly understood how much they were teaching me.
In a sense, growing into mentorship myself creates pressure to be more aware of the importance of that mentor role. Of course, I’ve had enough experience with successful organizations to know that they attained that success through the combined dedication and time of all of its board members and the enthusiastic participation by its membership, but also enough experience to know that a good leader can inspire greatness. Perhaps that is the best way to mentor – to empower those around you to keep pressing forward toward their individual and collective greatness. Whatever the future path, it’s clear that there is a responsibility and power to mentorship. Something we all should consider in our daily lives, whether you’re in an educational organization, a multinational corporation, or head of household in a family.
Lincoln: The Fire of Genius is available for purchase at all bookseller outlets. Limited signed copies are available here. The book is also listed on Goodreads, the database where I keep track of my reading. Click on the “Want to Read” button to put it on your reading list. If you read the book, please leave a review and/or rating.
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David J. Kent is President of the Lincoln Group of DC and the author of Lincoln: The Fire of Genius: How Abraham Lincoln’s Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America and Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America.
His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World and two specialty e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.