University of Southern California

Warren Bennis
A Reflection on Mentors
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Undergrad Institution
Antioch College

In April, Warren Bennis received the distinguished USC Mellon Mentoring Award for his work mentoring undergraduate students. He took this as an opportunity to reflect on mentoring, what it means to him, and to remember one of the mentors that influenced his life.

“The term mentor doesn't do justice to what a great one does. I've thought and written about mentoring for quite a while, mainly about the reciprocal nature of the relationship: It's a dance really, a pas de deux of a mutual attraction and recruitment. But until this occasion, I don't think I've adequately acknowledged the generosity a mentor shows. A mentor does so much more than share his or her wisdom with the mentored.  The mentor allows the protégé to share in his or her achievement, an extraordinary gift. Moreover, the mentor puts his or her reputation on the line with every good word dropped about the mentored to people in power, every recommendation made. In that sense, mentoring is an act of faith. Once in a while, rarely perhaps, you get burned by a mentee who didn't live up to your assessment. When we recommend someone, we make an implicit promise that he or she will perform well. But we have no real control over how anyone else performs. When I look back, I am stunned by the faith Doug McGregor had in me, as a 22 year old freshman, just returned from WWII, so much more faith than I had in myself. A half-century later, I still wonder what my life would have been like if Doug had not decided I should to M.I.T. and made damned sure I was accepted. (I was told by the MIT department chairman—my first day in class—something like, "We didn't exactly throw our hats in the air over your application. Without Doug's letter of recommendation..." His voice trailed off and looked into space, with both amusement and wondering if he said too much.) Being Doug's protégé was the next role that would shape my life. I had to grow to become the person Doug vouched for again and again. And by example, he showed me how. I would not be here today if it weren't for Doug. Which is why I sometimes tell my students, only half in jest, to 'Stalk Mentors!'

"A final word about the creation of Mentor. Odysseus, the great warrior, was going off to war pained over the prospect of leaving his 11 year old son, Telemachus, pretty much on his own. It worried the supreme goddess, Athena, even more. So, being a goddess with super-natural powers, she converted a stem-cell of her own, creating a half-man and half-woman, a duo, residing in one body, and called him Mentor. Under Mentor's tutelage, Telemachus was turning out to be a terrific young man. When he was about 15, he heard that Odysseus had been captured and was marooned on an island and close to starving to death. The two of them decided to build a sail boat to rescue Odysseus, and reached him on death's bed. Odysseus continued to live a vigorous life under the care of Mentor and now the grown-up Telemachus. I think that circle of rescue, of love, expresses the grace of mentoring. All mentors have been saved one way or another, perhaps only in the memories of all those whose lives they touched. So listen up, Mentors: Stalk Mentees!"

About Professor Bennis

Warren Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business, at the University of Southern California. He is also Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard.  He has written over two dozen books and many articles on leadership, change, and creative collaboration. He is a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and has served as advisor to four U.S. presidents. His book, Leaders, was recently designated by the Financial Times as one of the top 50 business books of all times. An Invented Life was nominated for a Pulitzer. Geeks & Geezers, republished as Leading for a Lifetime, examines the differences and similarities between leaders 70 years and older and 32 years and younger. The most recent books Bennis co-authored are Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, and Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. His best selling book On Becoming A Leader, republished in 2009 on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, has been named one of the 100 best business books of all time and considered the top leadership book. His latest and the 30th book, Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership was published in 2010.

Forbes Magazine refers to Warren as the “Dean of leadership gurus” and the Financial Times referred to him as “the professor who established leadership as a respectable academic field.”