To Lead Others and to Be Led…
Jan 10, 2020
By Jill M. Siler
Merriam-Webster defines “mentor” as “a trusted counselor or guide.”a The actual origin of the word dates back to the end of the eighth century when Homer wrote The Odyssey. Mentor was a trusted friend of Homer and he stayed behind during war to watch over Odysseus’ son. The word was then adapted to mean “someone who teaches or gives help and advice.”b
I share that story of the origin of the word because I love the imagery of “growing up under” someone else's guidance, teaching, and coaching. As I look back on my own journey, I have had many mentors who have poured into me-so many that I’ve had the great fortune of “growing up under” as a leader.
We’ve all heard that “to whom much is given, much will be required.” When it comes to leading in our fields, part of that sacred responsibility is raising others up along the way. Gandhi noted that “a sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have but how many leaders you create.” The work of a truly exceptional leader goes beyond themselves.
I know what some of you are thinking, “Well I'm not in that position of leadership that I need to be in to serve as a mentor (department head, instructional coach, or campus/district leader), so these are great notes to keep in mind for when I get there.” Regardless of the position you are in or are aspiring to, there are people who are looking to YOU for leadership. Lead them.
Equally important to leading others, we need to make sure that we are being led. So often as we rise in our leadership, there are fewer people to help lead us in our journeys–sometimes because we have already arrived at where we were trying to go and sometimes because those very mentors have turned into colleagues and friends along the way.
As I look back on my leadership journey, my life would have looked drastically different had I not had people pour into me along the way. Some of my mentors helped me become a better teacher; some opened doors into leadership; some of them taught me how to run a school, write curriculum, and build systems; and some of them taught me that “the work” was nowhere near as important as “the people.”
Sometimes our lack of mentorship is due to not finding the right person to serve in that role, as if one person holds the keys to unlocking your future. Sheryl Sandberg said, “I realized that searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.”c Finding the keys to the kingdom shouldn’t be the goal. The goal is to learn and grow and become a better leader, teacher, and human being. The task is to look at all of the people in your life and realize who is serving as a mentor for you-whether they know it or not. The question is not “who is your mentor?” The question is “who are all of the people in your life who are serving as a mentor to you right now?”
John Maxwell shared that even after leading thousands himself, that his greatest challenge as a leader was “leading me.” He went on to say that,
“Most people use two totally different sets of criteria for judging themselves versus others. We tend to judge others according to their actions. It’s very cut-and-dried. However, we judge ourselves by our intentions. Even if we do the wrong thing, if we believe our motives were good, we let ourselves off the hook. And we are often unwilling to do that over and over before requiring ourselves to change.”d
Mentorship only happens when (1) we admit that we don’t have all the answers, (2) we admit that we’re not where we want to be in a particular area, and (3) we desire to actually do something about it. No matter where we are in our leadership journey, we will not be our best if we don’t continue to seek people who challenge us, pour into us, and can see further into us than we can see ourselves.
Mentorship looks different at every season of our lives. There are seasons where we are so thankful there are people pouring into our lives. And there are seasons where we are blessed by the people we have the opportunity to pour into. But the magic happens when we realize that the pouring can happen both ways at one time—one-minute pouring in, the next being led ourselves, and all the while being encouraged and inspired. Each of us needs to be leading others and each of us needs to be led.
Jill Siler, EdD, is the Superintendent of the Gunter Independent School District in Texas and serves as the Chair of the Future-Ready Superintendent Leadership Network through TASA where innovative leaders from across the state gather to learn, share, and grow together. Jill has a passion for helping raise up other leaders and is a frequent speaker at TASA's Aspiring Superintendent Academy, First Time Superintendent's Academy, and other leadership conferences. You can follow Jill on Twitter @jillmsiler or at jillmsiler.com. This excerpt was adapted from Jill's upcoming book about leading through challenging times to be released in summer 2020.
aMerriam-Webster, Retrieved September 29, 2019, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mentor.
bHistory Disclosure Team, "Word 'Mentor' Originated from Homer," History Disclosure, Retrieved September 29, 2019, https://www.historydisclosure.com/word-mentor-originates-homer/.
cSandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Knopf, 2013.
dMaxwell, John. Leadership Gold: Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Leading. Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2008.