Mentor with Meaning

Has our casual attitude and approach to mentoring diminished its power?

A mentor of mine, Dr. Denny Roberts, once shared the opinion with me that the word mentor has become watered down.  I agree.  I'm  not one who generally cares about terminology battles, but I can get on board with this.  Mentor is now used all of the time to describe a wide scope of relationship types, of any length, depth, or value. You can be called a mentor if you spend an hour with a person, or a decade.  You can be called a mentor even if the impact you have is forgettable.  So-called "mentors" can come in and out of our lives like taxi cab drivers.  By the time we are in college, we've probably had dozens of individuals in our lives who were called or claimed to be our mentors. 

Lots of educational institutions and nonprofits now have "mentorship" programs.  "Be a mentor today" is a common slogan.  Mentoring relationships are even becoming predetermined.  Once, on a plane, I overheard a guy complaining to the person next to him about how much he dislikes his assigned mentor.

With mentor becoming relatively synonymous with having any well-intentioned interaction with another person, what term is truly left to describe the extraordinarily powerful, life-altering link between a person with guidance to share and a person eager to soak it up?  The link that turns a caring adult in your life into a father or mother-figure? What can you call the Yoda in your life, the Morpheus, the Mary Poppins, the Professor Keating?  With mentor becoming a benign, throwaway word in our culture, can it still do these types of relationships justice?

Dr. Roberts' concerns with our overuse of mentor came also from the historical derivation of the word.  Mentor was a character in Homer's The Odyssey.  If you remember, The Odyssey is a sweeping story of Odysseus and his adventures during his return home from the Trojan War.  While he was gone on his quests, Odysseus entrusted his kingdom and his most important possession - his son Telemachus - to the wise Mentor.  That level of trust was profound.  Because of Mentor's wisdom and regard, the Goddess Athena chose to take on his persona while giving Telemachus guidance that would alter his life. 

If you had to entrust your child with one other person in this world, who would that be?  Probably someone extraordinarily consequential to you.  Someone like Mentor.

Ever since The Odyssey, the word Mentor has come to mean a rare relationship that is longstanding, caring, and developmental.  Well - maybe not so much any more.

The purpose of this essay isn't to try to reverse how the term mentor is being used, or try to reclaim its significance as a word.  That probably can't happen at this point anyhow. I only wanted to share the information above as encouragement to all of us to remember, and not take for granted, the presence of true mentors in our lives.  Even if the word gets watered down, the relationships are real.  And you know which ones they are.

A lot of my mentors come from my college years.  I'm guessing that's true for a lot of you as well.  College is a time designed to force us into a journey of self discovery, and so we tend to be attracted to influential people who want to help us along that path.  Thus, fraternity can provide us these opportunities as well.  Consider for a moment your big brother or big sister program.  Some bigs and littles will define their relationship by gifts to each other and perhaps a deeper friendship.  Others will grab that chance to coach a younger member on how to draw the most power from the fraternity experience.  They'll seize the opening to mentor.

By the way, if you let down your guard, get to know them, and let your relationship with them flourish, Greek advisors can become some of the best mentors you could ever have.

Take a moment to think about who are true mentors in your life. Remember - there should only be a few.  Do these people know this?  If not, why wait to tell them?

And, consider another question. Are you currently, or have you ever been, a mentor to anyone?  As you look at it, you may need to downgrade some of the relationships you thought were mentorship because they aren't at that high of a level.  Or, if you want to continue to call it mentorship, then you may have to double your efforts to earn it. Give your heart and soul to it.  Make it matter more to the other person than it does now - more than they would have thought possible.

And, if it isn't a mentoring relationship after all, a caring relationship of any kind still matters immensely. Young people need those now more than ever. The Search Institute's research shows that the presence of a caring non-parent adult in the lives of young people could be the tipping point for their future.  It doesn't have to be mentorship to matter.  I have lots of advisors, coaches, supporters, and friends in my life who have made a difference for me.

But I only have a few mentors.

And to my mentors - I thank you. I'm sending you a personal note today to remind you of how much you mean to me.  You have earned every ounce of the meaning of that word.  And by now, you should know, that its a word I hold in reserve.  For only those rare relationships. For you.

Dr. Denny Roberts has an outstanding blog, Pursuing Leadership.  He is also the author of Deeper Learning in Leadership: Helping College Students Find the Potential Within.


  1. I can think of several organizations that would do well to see this but I feel it belongs here more than any of them. Fraternity life is all about mentors and growing to become the gentlemen that each of our organization's founders envisioned. This is why we have big brothers. They are supposed to guide us, walk with us, grow with us, and teach us the ideals of our organization.

    Just as you stated, however, most big brothers do not perform their duties because they are busy or simply can't be bothered and received a little brother because they "deserved" one.

    I am lucky enough to have a big brother who, though he is unable to fully fill the role he has been given due to the fact that he is a senior, has taught me plenty about the fraternity system and Sigma Nu in general. If I have a question, he is usually more than willing to sit down and teach me. He pushes me to strive for greatness in everything I do. He still isn't a mentor, though.

    My mentors are those outside the Greek system at my university who are fully interested in seeing me grow to greatness in both my physical life and my spiritual life. The campus minister is a powerful example of this. When I went to him last semester and asked him if he could help my with a few small problem areas in my life, I had no idea I would uncover the greatest challenges of my life. He didn't make me walk through them alone and, with his help and the help of my best friend, those challenges are slowly being overcome.

    Now, one of my biggest problems came from drinking. I quickly became addicted to and abusive of alcohol. I had never thought I would and was in complete denial when it happened. There came a point when I had to accept that I had a problem and sought out help. As mentioned before, that help came from the obvious places of church and friends. What I didn't expect was my big brother stepping in.

    At first, he was in slight denial that I was legitimately done with alcohol until I could legally drink but it didn't take long for him to accept what I was saying. He stopped pestering me to drink and helped out by offering me some alternative drinks for when I go to parties. On top of everything, he backed me up and now fights alongside me against everyone who tries to pester me.

    My big brother, the one who I thought was supposed to be my mentor, was now my friend and ran alongside me. He continues to push me to strive for greatness and has fought for me to receive an officer position and use it for the purpose it was meant for.

    Next semester, I will actually be stepping into a position to be a potential mentor to several guys in our chapter as we start up a Bible study and their lives begin to change.

    I look back on the last few months and realize, at this moment, I am still a freshman but I have taken so many large steps that put me ahead of most freshmen on campus. I look at our fraternity and see a place where I can help. I cannot be a mentor to all my brothers but I can help them by guiding them with my own knowledge and, in return, they can help me to become a gentleman of Sigma Nu Fraternity.

    Jeremy Landry
    Sigma Nu HN 1065
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette

  2. As I look through the members of my fraternity, I can point out several people who I can call a mentor. As Jeremy said before, big brothers are given to show you the ropes and to also help you with the trials that you will face even after being initiated. My big brother has given me great advice and helped me through tough situations but I can not see him as a mentor but more as a person who I know will always be there to help me. However, he has shown me through his actions how to be a true gentleman and how to live life while holding our values to heart. The true mentors in my fraternity are the men who have taken it upon themselves to run chairman and executive council positions. The reason I see these men as mentors is because they are open about explaining the rewards and struggles of their current position held or ones they have held in the past. They teach you how to overcome these struggles so that hopefully another member can be a leader who not only brings the chapter further forward but also strives to develop skills for him and his brothers that will be beneficial throughout life.

    Devon Muhleisen
    Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette

  3. I really like it whenever people come together and share ideas.
    Great blog, keep it up!