Starting Block & Finish Line

Mark Tenney

Problem and product…
On March 3, 1887, an unruly six-year old Helen Keller first met her mentor, Anne Sullivan. Over the next 49 years, Sullivan unlocked the intelligence of her remarkable protégé who changed the world. Less well known, however, is another product of this mentorship. It’s the story of a starting block and finish line in mentoring.

Helen Keller started life as a bouncing and bubbly baby girl. But at 19 months she suffered a severe illness leaving her deaf and blind – and increasingly uncontrollable. Her parents contacted the famous inventor and educator of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell for help. He, in turn, put them in touch with the Perkins School for the Blind director, Michael Anagnos, who asked his star pupil, Anne Sullivan, if she was interested in working for the Keller family. Sullivan said yes and the mentorship sprang from a solid starting block – a specific problem. It’s the lack of this starting block – and a clear finish line – that has reduced mentoring to almost a cliché in business literature.

Mentoring has become a mantra of young and old alike these days, but research by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas indicates why it’s often nothing more than a cliché. Start with their observations of older leaders: they tend to see their mentors as world leaders of institutions and of acknowledged stature such as FDR and Churchill.1 The good news is they recognize what the brilliant sociologist, Peter L. Berger, argues – that the world doesn’t change solely because of ideas, “but rather because of their connection to very powerful institutions and interests.” But older leaders’ intuition about institutions too often translates into grand, institution-wide programs. Mentoring, in this case, starts as a program, rather than with a particular problem. The starting block for Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller wasn’t a program; it was a specific problem.

Younger leaders on the other hand believe institutions are to be more collegial than culture-shaping. They are largely indifferent to heroic leaders of the past. Younger leaders tend to instead admire a much-loved and admired parent or other relative.2 The good news is they recognize mentoring is not a program. The bad news is they fall off the horse on the other side – mentoring becomes nothing more than a piecemeal practice of “connecting.” The starting block is an amorphous “conversation” or “society” that “emerges organically.” The starting block for Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller wasn’t a “conversation”; it was a specific problem.

In a 100-yard dash, starting blocks are critical. When mentoring starts with specific problems – Bennis and Thomas call them real-life crucibles – it “galvanizes individuals and gives them their distinctive voice.”3 The galvanizing effect comes from granular problems – a real predicament in a real life. In the case of Helen Keller, she was increasingly becoming a wild animal. Anne Sullivan wasn’t engaged to pitch a grandiose plan or “start a conversation.” She was tasked with solving a gritty, granular problem – which is the best way to quickly find out what knowledge really needs to be transferred. Starting with programs or merely getting your pals together strips mentoring of it’s initial oomph. It has trouble getting out of the starting block.

Just as importantly, younger and older leaders tend to also have the wrong finish line. When mentoring is reduced to a program, you don’t get mentors – you get Zen masters. They preach platitudes and principles, passing on irrelevant or nonessential data they’ve accumulated over the years. The finish line is gurus and groupies. On the other hand, when mentoring is reduced to a piecemeal process, the finish line is simply “gathering” and self-congratulatory group hugs. This isn’t where the first Mentor story finished.

In the original story, Mentor was the trusted friend Odysseus enlisted to look after his son Telemachus when the hero set out on his long journey. The starting block was a specific problem. The finish line was when Telemachus became a leader – the protégé surpassing the mentor, as Plato and Aristotle in many ways surpassed Socrates. The best mentoring model always includes reciprocal relationships, as Homer described it.

This was the finish line for Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. We all know that Sullivan was the gifted teacher who unlocked the intelligence of young, blind, and deaf Helen Keller. Less well known is that Keller taught her beloved teacher Braille when Sullivan finally lost her limited sight late in life. That’s right – Helen Keller eventually surpassed her mentor. This finish line was identical to the original mentoring story.

It takes a particular kind of quiet, self-effacing confidence to be a mentor – what Jim Collins calls “Level 5 Leadership” – instead of a Zen master.4 Two such leaders come to mind. Bill Walsh was the San Francisco 49ers football coach who passed away in July of 2008. With the 49ers, Walsh won six division titles, three NFC Championship titles, and three Super Bowls. Yet his protégés have surpassed him. Last season, 22 of the NFL’s 32 head coaches could trace their lineage to Bill Walsh. This includes Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, John Fox, Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Tony Dungy, and the coach of the 2009 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Tomlin. These men make up less than a quarter of the total number of coaches who come from the same tree, with the complete lineage collectively surpassing their mentor, Bill Walsh.

The second leader that comes to mind is Jesus. He promised his protégés, his apprentices, that they would surpass him – do “greater works” (Jn. 14:12). Anne Sullivan and Bill Walsh’s “greater works” are readily recognized. How about faith communities? Are they surpassing Jesus? Or has mentoring merely become a program or a piecemeal process?

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1 Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), p. 159.
2 Bennis and Thomas, Geeks, p. 159.
3 Bennis and Thomas, Geeks, p. 4.
4 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001), pp. 12-13.

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2 thoughts on “Starting Block & Finish Line”

  1. Great insight. Rather than starting block and finish line, I like to think of this paradigm as relationship and goal. Why mentor? For me, the reason is that I want to see those I mentor achieve a very specific goal. Everything I do with my mentees isfor the purpose of helping them achieve that goal with maximum effectiveness. That is the finish line. The starting block has two comnponents. The first part is that I need to see in them a passion for the same finish/goal that God has birthed in my soul. The second part is a relationship of trust and expectancy – expectancy that we will journey toward the goal and cross the finish line together with each of us having gained increased proficiency in achieving the goal because of our mutual journey.

  2. My favorite article thus far – mentoring should be much more than networking! My question coming out of this article is, what are the problems to be tackled that make for forming the best mentoring relationships?

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