Mentoring is like flying a kite: the secret is to know when to let go

Life coach Lee Foulis is a firm believer in the power of mentorship. Whether coaching government councillors or Cuban doctors, she’ll help them find their life purpose and learn how to build long-lasting relationships. It’s all about finding balance – and a big dose of self-belief. When she isn’t empowering others, you’ll find her trail-running in the ‘berg or taking care of her endlessly endearing family.

So, what is mentoring? I won’t bore you with the definition or historic details of its origin, fascinating as these are. Suffice to say, it is a vocation – one which I stumbled into and instantly loved!

I was approached by the NBI (National Business Initiative), which was a collaboration between government and business. The objective of the project was to appoint a mentor to participating executives at provincial government, and to transfer the necessary skills and knowledge needed for the mentee to fulfil their functions. Furthermore, this was done with the expectation that these skills would filter down to their subordinates, in this way improving the entire department. 

The NBI project was a great success but was sadly dissolved in 2006. But while this spelt the end of the project, it was my first introduction to mentoring – and I was hooked. And while many of us are natural mentors, there is a certain subtle skill involved. I like to liken mentoring to flying a kite. You take your kite and try to get it airborne. You must adjust the size, the length of the tail, and so on. Then, you must run with your kite, and tug at it to get it over the treetops; let the string go a bit so it can clear the power lines. Sometimes it comes crashing down and you have to pick up the pieces and start again. Then, when the time is right, you set off with your kite again. This time it soars high over the trees and the power lines, up towards the blue sky – and you jump with sheer delight!

Mentoring is like this. In collaboration with your mentee, you design, you plan, you mend and correct. However, when the time is right, you stand back and watch your mentee spread their wings and fly. This is the most rewarding, gratifying and humbling experience: to be let into and be part of another’s life to this extent, to have this much influence over another. What a responsibility, what a privilege! I am honoured and humbled daily.

Can any profession be better? I don’t think so. Having said this, it is a profession that shapes not only the mentee but also the mentor. I learn from my mentees as much as they learn from me. I believe that if you are not open to this cross-pollination, you are robbing yourself of the richness the experience offers. Everyone has a story to tell that is as important as the knowledge and skills we, as mentors, are sharing. However, if you are not open to these stories, your success as a mentor will be limited and self-limiting.

To illustrate: as I speak Spanish, I was assigned a Cuban doctor as my mentee, and he was at one of the biggest provincial hospitals in the Eastern Cape. During that collaboration, not only were skills and knowledge transferred, but so much more. I was invited to his home where I met his family and was introduced to some heavenly Cuban cuisine. I developed a deep respect for our Cuban friends, their culture and joyous attitude to life. Had I not been open to the whole experience, I would have been much the poorer for it.

Mentoring is so much more than ‘teaching’. It truly is a life-changing experience for both mentor and mentee. In my opinion, to be an exceptional mentor one must have not only the academic knowledge and skills but, equally important, a love and respect for every human being you come into contact with. You must be prepared – no, ought to be excited – to learn from your mentee; how they make sense of their world, and what they bring into the relationship. Only then do you and your mentee grow far beyond just knowledge.  You become – become more rounded, more complete, and multi-faceted.

The Greek concept of eudaimonia, meaning ‘Live well and flourish’ also speaks to mentoring.

  1. KNOW YOUR PURPOSE

What is your purpose in life? Steve Jobs said his purpose in life was to ‘put a ding in the universe’, and Phil Knight, the founder of NIKE, stated that his purpose was to ‘sell quality running shoes in the USA’. I think we can all agree that they succeeded rather nicely.

2. ACQUIRE THE SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE NEEDED

Harnessing all the skills and knowledge you need to succeed at your purpose is, of course, essential. This may entail, over and above academic knowledge, acquiring your own mentor or life coach.

3. MORAL COURAGE


This means you must have the courage to put your skills and knowledge to use in such a way that it speaks to your personal values. And to do this, despite societal or commercial pressure to do otherwise.

In sum, I believe each one of us has a desire to ‘live well and flourish’.  However, to achieve this we have to embrace the concept of eudaimonia: purpose, knowledge and moral compass. 

Mentoring can play a vital role in realising this. It is an ongoing process of growing and developing, for both you and your mentees. Both have to be willing to open themselves to this enriching experience. For me, this is exactly what life is all about – an amazing journey with many fellow travellers.

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