Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Mentorship, Humility and Ego

There are innumerable studies focusing on the afflictions of black men in the United States. Many of these studies focus on the lack of mentorship for young black boys. A popular argument in the education community is that the shortage of black male teachers is a contributing factor to the poor academic performance of black boys. A similar argument is put forward to explain the demise of the black fatherhood. The argument goes that black boys grow up without the example of responsible fathers and husbands. These arguments suggest that there is a special element of personal connection that is only attainable between black men and boys. I would not challenge the merit of those arguments. Open for challenge is the willingness of black men with gifts and talents to offer themselves as mentors.

Mentorship is a universally understood concept. Socrates was a mentor to Plato. Jesus was a mentor to John. Malcolm X was a mentor to Muhammad Ali. It is the time honored process of imparting wisdom and guidance by example and instruction from one generation to the next. One of the necessary characteristics of an effective mentor is humility. The mentor must have the ability to recognize and be comfortable with the fact that the mentee’s light may ultimately shine more brightly than his own, indeed that is the point. Progress hinges on the outcome that the mentee improve on the achievements, understandings and accomplishments of the mentor. Such is the progress of knowledge and such is the progress of men.

In the context of black men, the conditions are so dire that mentorship is often targeted to the least experienced among us. Successful black men are enlisted to serve as examples to young black boys in hopes that they will consider college as an option. The hope is that the boy will see possibilities for himself in the towering figure presented to him. I argue that this component of the mentorship game is the most popular because it is the easiest. Often the separation between the mentor and the mentee is so vast that there is little challenge involved for the mentor. Indeed the mentor is not a mentor, but an example – a one time, feel good, ego feeding display of what is possible. Further, the expectations are often that the boys just be decent. This is a consequence of the dire circumstances. The conditions are so bad that often all that is hoped for young black men is that they not grow up to be local terrorists and biological fathers to functionally fatherless children. These are important, but painfully low expectations that make it easy to be a mentor. The mentor can feel good and feed his ego by simply presenting himself as a visible example to the mentee and discussing the benefits of having his life. There is little challenge in that.

On the other side of the accomplishment divide among black men there is an entirely different level of mentorship that is necessary. At this level, an effective mentor is required to give more substantively of himself. Young black men with Ph.D.’s and other professional degrees have already reached academic heights. Mentors – older black men – are needed to help them navigate through a world of dollars and smartness to a place of integrity and contribution. Simple presentation of themselves is no longer sufficient. At this level the difficult features of mentorship become more clear. The mentor is forced to evaluate himself and reconcile the balance sheet between his success and his contributions. He must ask if he is willing to have the young mentee stand on his shoulders to achieve greater height. That is a different proposition than presenting himself as a polished example to a rough child.

The willingness to have a young star stand on your shoulders is rooted in humility. In that circumstance the mentor is not visible. Photographs are never taken of the foundation of a building. It is the spire that appears in magazines. This brand of mentorship is a bit more difficult to come by. While our community continues to raise the alarm about the crisis of black men, the state of high level mentorship is often overlooked. Is there a quiet network of old sages nurturing the next generation of stars such that when the time comes they are ready to receive the baton? Or has ego taken mentorship hostage in the battle against humility?



luvlife0702 said...

A resounding YES!!!!!

THERE IS a quiet network of old sages and i have heard of their stories from some of their mentees as well as met some of these esteemed mentors in person.

Those entrepeneurial CEOs (from music to trucking to construction and genes) in Black Enterprise, brothas in academia and the political hustlas have benefited from often quiet and behind the scenes mentorship that could only be effective as a subversive act to provide guidance and strategies to wade through muck and scramble over rocks.

sometimes those sages take them aside and give them quiet advice. other times younga brothas humble themselves and seek out the wisdom of those who got bloody hacking out a path for them to follow.

In fact, that brotha to brotha to sista to sista mentorship is what brotha man at Black Enterprise is all about. that is supposed to be one of the main reaons for that publication's existence.

First, i aint no ad for the mag but i know i wouldn't know bout all the stuff we be doing if it wasn't for my man. and so he shows us who's doing what so we can holla at a bra'/sista and ask for some assistance.

john said...

This high level mentorship of which you speak is very important. I have several people who have mentored me at my 300,000+ employee company (which will remain nameless) and I've been forced to think about the various styles of mentorship that I receive. Two things I've noticed:

1) High level mentorship in which there is a vast gulf between me and the mentor is not very useful (perhaps consistent with the polished/rough example K Bobb cites). I've received mentoring sessions from Senior VPs (2 levels below the CEO) who are so busy and so out of touch with issues and problems at my level, there is little to discuss besides well known platitudes.

2) Intimacy: Good mentorship must involve knowing intimate details of one's job without getting too personal. This is a tough balancing act and it takes the right match of personalities to get right. I've had some mentors who got too deep in my bidness and others who remained too distant.

- John D. (MTFO co-founder)

lilcali2mama said...

I really enjoy this post because it made me reflect upon my own experiences and my views on mentorship.

I believe, when it comes to blacks, it is a very difficult conversation to undertake, mostly because there are so many areas in which a child/young adult can (and needs to be mentored). To me, it is not sufficient to simply mentor a black child academically or a young black adult professionally, as there are so many social, economic, and spiritual aspects that need to be addressed as well.

I have found that in academia, those most willing to "reach out" and "give back" via mentoring are, as Kamau points out, great "examples" of what/who a child can become, but not good ROLE models, in that they often lead a role to which the child cannot identify.

I am very passionate about education because I feel that education brought me out of the dire situation I found myself as a child. And as a result, I am pursuing education as a career, as it will enable me to enable others as someone once enabled me. However, I have found the most resistance from my very own black community to this idea. I am (and I recognize a very rare) a black, female, aerospace engineer. And as such, I could pursue a very "fruitful" career as an engineer. I could bring home a nice paycheck and have a big house and I could go to inner city schools and PREACH to the kids "see, go to college, and you can have what I have". And my black brothers and sisters (even my own father) seem to look down upon me for choosing the path of an (underpaid) educator. But me, I'd rather have a moderate living in a simple home and go to the inner city schools and TEACH the children, so that they can have what I have, and then some. I want to change the statistics of Georgia Tech graduations. I want in 2025 for a black female like myself graduating with an AE degree to be recognized for her achievement on its own merit, not because she is one of the very few who has achieved it. And that is only achievable if I show them the path, rather than show them MY end result.

I am not suggesting that all engineers or doctors or CEOs need to give up their professions and become teachers. But I believe for one to undertake the responsibility of being a mentor, he/she must first be able to relate to the mentee. That may come from empathy (which I believe is most productive) or sympathy. This task should not be taken from a "look at me" standpoint. Instead, it should be from a "let's look at you and see how the things that I have accomplished and achieved in my life can help you accomplish and achieve even more in your life".

Just as every parent should want more for their child(ren) than they had themselves, every mentor should aspire for their mentee to shine brighter than they do themselves. But to me, it's not simply a matter of humility, but rather (or also) a matter of love. When we truly love our entire black community as we should (as brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters) then we will be able to embrace the role of mentorship with all that it should be.

Thanks Kamau, for your insightful (as always) post!