Mentors’ and Leaders’ Aspirations

by Michael Shenkman, Ph.D.

No mentors, no leaders

Mentors aren’t the only teachers leaders have through their careers. There are exemplars that leaders keep in their minds as standards to emulate; there are coaches who offered valuable lessons in how to perform better; there are training programs and MBA programs galore to glean the latest in thinking about effective leading. But still, I would say this, no mentors, no leaders.

One of the people I have mentored over several years, a senior executive named Lisa, put it this way:

“I did not experience a meaningful mentoring process until late in my career–only a few years ago, and that’s in a 23-year career to date! I consider that to be a lost opportunity. I think I can be considered a classic example of people who enter a career, work hard to get the next promotion, change companies periodically, and then hit a wall. Suddenly, after sailing along, I am forced to ask myself: What am I really trying to accomplish in my professional career? For some of us, it’s crystal-clear. But for me it was not.

“For sure, during my career, I have had wonderful managers, though not necessarily wonderful leaders, who were great exemplars. At various points, you pick up skills you want to emulate and adopt. In addition, I have had a lot of coaching. However, I really had no vision of what I wanted to accomplish on a grander scale; I had no sense of how much I could actually influence decisions in my company; I was unaware of how my work and approach to work influenced others; and most importantly, I did not know how much my personal life (good and bad) was contributing and detracting from my professional growth. Basically I was working very hard but unconscious to how much ‘bigger’ work could be for me personally and professionally.

“In a sentence, mentoring put my heart and soul back into everything in my life including work. I stopped being unconscious about how everything is inter-related. Now, I honor my strengths and capitalize on them in a very aggressive and provocative manner. I put them out there. Leader mentoring literally released me from what felt like being on a hamster wheel. It led me to the starting gate, and propelled me into a life that could be much bigger than the one in the little box that I had defined for myself.”[1]

A Leader’s Aspirations.

Mentoring views leading as an aspirational role and, as such, as a role that needs mentoring to keep those aspirations alive as the difficult tasks of leading unfold. Mentoring is necessary because the pitfalls in leading are many and the demands unending; each challenge can deplete the energy that sustaining aspirations require. As Lisa’s testimonial makes clear, the mentor helps the leader forge the steeled level of commitment it takes to step into that role and act boldly, creatively, with courage, and does so by keeping the aspirations that guided this person into the leader role fully in view, as having deep roots in that person’s life, and as being the chosen path on which that person feels most alive.

Mentoring differs from instruction, teaching, and coaching in that it emphasizes the qualities and values of life that are needed to sustain aspirations. The mentor exemplifies and provides a setting for the leader to articulate what leading demands, not only in terms of the talents and skills used for the purpose of executing a project but also in terms of the very survival of the aspirations that moved that person into the leader role in the first place.

Aspirations in the leader’s life are at once more delicate and more robust than the press of daily challenges. Aspirations are more delicate because they are not solidified by goals, objectives, and ambitions or by achieving designated hierarchical positions. Aspirations are felt currents of energy–they are never more concrete than that. They are feelings that pulsate outward and do not have a validated, approved, recognized, or even articulate object that either pins them down or reflects back to the aspiring person, whether or not anything can happen as a result of this aspirations. If a person can name what those feelings are driving at, they are not aspirations: they are goals or ambitions, but they are not aspirations.

On the other hand, aspirations are also more robust than ambitions and are more powerful than the allure of the material accoutrements of success and achievement because they shape the life ways of a person before that person has uttered a word or taken one step into an aspiring role. As long as they are healthy and nourished, aspirational energies generate waves of awareness and desire to live one’s life so as to make available to one’s self and others ways of living that are more vital, more alive, more expansive and encompassing than current conditions allow. However, that caveat I mentioned is a huge qualifier. If aspirations are not nurtured and enriched, and if a person does not have practices in place that assure their enrichment, they can collapse. Collapsed aspirations often result in bitter and resentful attitudes that do not only have ambitions and success as a criterion.[2]

Mentoring Aspirations.

Mentoring is devoted to helping the leader articulate those aspirations and construct ways to sustain them through the gauntlet of challenges a leader faces. The aspirations of the leader, that is, are focused, concentrated, placed in real time, and contend with existing states of affairs that the leader’s aspirations want to affect. The mentor then also helps the leader to translate aspirations into organizational goals while not losing site of the generative, aspirational vitality that lies behind them. In so doing, mentoring supports the leader’s need for openness, perceptiveness, flexibility, and enthusiasm as he or she engages followers in an organization to pursue organizational goals of bringing to others new products, new services, new organizations and new relationships that promise more expansive and more encompassing ways of living.

My mentoring practice places leaders on a continuum of aspirational figures that includes artists, prophets, and mystics. As anyone who has experienced the effects of a real leader will tell you, leading worthy of the name supplies the endeavor of the moment with a firm sense that the collaboration underway will offer the organization, customers and others something new and something that offers a more expansive and more encompassing way to live. These feats are based on creative energies that require vision, discipline, new perspectives, and an ability to learn in intensely personal, as well as professional and technical, ways. Thus, leading is a creative endeavor and is not an extension of management, as it is most typically portrayed and treated by supporting services.

Three Transformations.

Mentors help leaders undertake three intertwining transformations in order to act on their aspirations:[3]

(1) Mentors help leaders to (continually) transform themselves. Not only do the situations in which they lead demand life changes but also leaders need to be open to being transformed in ways that they neither expected nor asked for. They need to see themselves and their lives in that movement of transformation and as being able and willing to do so in the face of no small amount of risk. When those transformations are aspirational in nature, they demand of the leader that they “grow” or that they open their hearts and minds to transforming their “self trust” to new and more encompassing possibilities.

(2) Mentors help leaders transform the “promise” they are making to their followers into visible, constant, and vivid behaviors that honor that promise. This promise, or “leader brand,” crystallizes, in as few as seven words, what the experience of working with this leader will be like: what the leader demands, expects, and gives as the project unfolds. Examples of brands that I have heard articulated through the years are “In fortitude I lead, in humility I serve” (shortly after working with her mentor, this senior manager was promoted to the company’s vice president of information technology); “Exploring and regenerating the beauty of being connected” (this person is a vice president at a large accounting firm).

The words of the brand are important, but more important is that these words succinctly express what the leader “puts out” each and every day so that the leader’s aspirations can remain constant to those who have decided to follow. These words may never be said out loud to anyone, but they serve the leader as a “lodestone” or a “north star” for resetting attention on his or her aspirations; the words serve as a way of reminding themselves, briefly and pointedly in a short declaration, helps them to revive their aspirations as the organization navigates through its inevitable discouragements. It is not a matter of the leader projecting an “image,” like a photo staring out from the wall, but of being constant and steady as complex situations strain relationships. The leader has to be the one to offer that constancy, put it out there first, before anyone else does, so that people can see, in flesh and blood, that these trials can be surmounted. One leader I mentored wrote her brand down on a three-by-five card and kept it with her. In one situation, when she was having difficulties with her new boss, she pulled out the card, slapped it down on the table between them, and said, “This is who you are dealing with.” The tensions between the two eased thereafter.

(3) The mentor helps the leader to recall and recite the joy that this aspirational role offers her, and thereby helps her to transform the very things may be exhausting the leader into a force for nourishing and expanding the vigor of the generative aspiration. Aspirations are not about going along to get along and getting one’s due. It is about making things different for others. The mentor helps the leader to see that these points of adversity, conflict, and setbacks are exactly the points of engagement where there is also, potentially, reason for joy.

This joy is not naïve “happiness” and it does not rely on the aspiration being “fulfilled.” The mentor helps the leader to negotiate a different kind of sense of joy: one in which the leader attentively appreciates all the ways that the organization generated new horizons for people, ways it enabled people to grow and learn aspiration for themselves and to appreciate how rare is being able to foster, no less create, such opportunities in life. Over and over I hear it said that a leader is someone “who saw in me something that I did not see, and that changed my life.” A mentor helps the leader recall hearing such things being said about him or her.

Mentors, Leaders, and a Life’s Way.

Mentors foster the transformations a leader must undertake in going from being an essentially private and quiet person to a new way of living in which others need the leader in order to collaborate in striving to achieve a goal that not only meets objectives and generates revenue but also fulfills to some extent an aspiration for something more expansive and more encompassing. The mentor helps the new leader to fully accept, articulate, organize, and implement this new and large-scale vision. And I will just add here, if such a vision is not at stake, there is probably no room for mentoring or leading.

In the final analysis, the mentor helps the leader decide, over and over again, from one conversation to the next, whether or not this leading thing, this aspiring in the role of a leader, is really right for this person. Maybe this person would be better off doing the also hard and challenging work of organizational and process management; or maybe this person has aspirations that are more appropriately addressed by the other figures and roles (e.g., artist, prophet, mystic). If the mentee is conflicted about what is required of leading—creating followers, contending with obstructions, failures, foes and/or competitors, etc.—no words in any “brand” will hide that conflicted state; if the leader remains in a state of conflict and has to constantly waver between leading and other roles in his or her life, joy will be harder to come by. The mentor always has to ask the mentee, is leading the aspirational role for you?

Mentoring and Today’s Creative Leaders.

Still, what about the claim, “No mentors, no leaders.” For a potential leader to take on the challenges of leading, there must be something special beating in that heart that transports that person beyond the tasks of the day; there has to be beating in that heart an excess of energy. This energy incites that high sensitivity to the situation’s inadequacy that translates into leading a specific endeavor; that energy opens up the capacity in one’s being to care for others and to want something different for everyone involved. Mentors are necessary because leaders burn out. Just as an aspiration can naturally arise and do its wondrous work, all that energy can also dissipate into thin air.

In order to gather those diffuse and indescribable energies, something from the “outside” has to catalyze them. Something beyond one’s own inner musing has to affect those wisps of will and longing so that they coalesce and organize into a robust and force that impels one onto the life’s path of leading (or artist, prophet or mystic, for that matter). And then that catalyst has to continue to affect those energies if they are going to be able to be sustained for the long haul. The appearance of a mentor is just such an event. The mentor provides the opportunity for someone who has those kinds and qualities of energy to speak about them, give them names and form robust practices around them so they can endure.

Of course, leaders are offered a cafeteria menu of training and development regimens for their choosing that promise them success and even riches. That there is such a multitude of entrances into leading, and that there are many kinds of supporting services to people in leader positions is all to the good. We need more leaders than ever before; we need leaders in every sphere of our lives, from the political and military to the industrial and community sectors, to service and family groups. Any and all resources that can help to launch people on this pathway are needed.

Mentoring, in the meantime, remains apart from these. No other relationship in one’s life has this concern and has a way of conducting a conversation that brings these factors of aspiration into bold relief so that someone can decide how to proceed. The mentor’s role is as bold as it is complex: help this person to see and articulate his or her aspirations, to envision how to enact them, and then, through thick and thin, help this person keep his or her aspirations alive. And so, once again: no mentors, no leaders.


[1] This quote and other testimonials about the value and practice of leader mentoring are available in, Shenkman, Leader Mentoring: Find, Inspire and Cultivate Great Leaders (Franklin Lakes, NJ; Career Press, Inc.; 2008); pp. 83ff.



[2] The affects of aspiration, the “feeling” in generates, and the personal expansion of one’s capabilities it supports, have much in common with Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow.” See his works, Flow (2008), and Optimal Experience (1992), for example. This notion also relates closely to the ideas of expansive “self-organization.” One of the best writers on this concept and paradigm of the way nature works is Stuart Kauffman. See his works, Investigations (2002) and Reinventing the Sacred (2010).



[3] These transformations are presented in greater detail in Shenkman, Leader Mentoring (op. cit.) and in his book that serves as a “text” in the mentoring process, The Arch and the Path: The Life of Leading Greatly (Philadelphia, PA; Xlibris Press; 2005).

Michael Shenkman, Ph.D.

Michael Shenkman
Michael H. Shenkman, Ph.D., founded the Arch of Leadership, Professional Leader Mentoring in 1998 ( He has authored four books on this subject, published many articles, and spoken at leadership and mentoring conferences. He has mentored more than 200 leaders in corporate, government and service organizational settings and has trained more than 50 people in his mentoring practice. The IMA will be publishing his newest book, Into the Open: Mentoring Mystic Aspirations, in Fall 2014.