Clay in the Hands of the Potter – Mentoring’s double-edged sword

Dr Albert Schweitzer was a theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary in Africa. His philosophy of Reverence for Life has influenced thought beyond the medical sphere from which it initiated and has much to commend to the way people relate in the workplace. In his own way he was a universal Mentor.

Schweitzer or Frankenstein

A long time colleague and I were recently reflecting together at the number of former protégés who were now in executive or seniorSchweitzer management positions. Thankfully I was able to lay claim to the fact that the vast majority of those who passed through my sphere of influence continued to instil pride in me as to how well they were doing.

My colleague commented “It must be a great feeling to have helped so many young up-and-coming managers progress their careers. I sometimes wonder whether I have emulated Dr Schweitzer or Dr Frankenstein

I asked him to elaborate. He admitted there were a few whom he thought had taken a path different to that he imagine for them. “Not that they have not been successful in rising through professional ranks – they all have. It is just that there a couple who are not good role models to their teams and I wonder if it is my fault.” He said. I assured him that would not be the case.

Active or passive mentor

We are all mentors in our own way, influencing the development of those around us, and our mentoring can be active or passive.

onoffswitchThe active sense we can control because we are deliberate in seeking to influence and develop our protégés (usually with positive values). Our passive mentoring is much more subtle and can often produce unintentional consequences with negative outcomes. This comes about because mentoring never really switches off. You can never drop your guard because the Protégé is always drawing upon your example and will pickup the negative as well as the positive messages.

I have seen instances where mentoring in the practicalskills of management and business skills has produced exemplary results in a technical sense, but the underlying moral and social responsibility foundation of leadership has been missing. This might produce traits of racial or religious prejudice, gender bias, low moral and ethical principles under the veil of outward professional presentation.

One of the traps for Mentors is in adopting a “do as I say, not as I do” approach – even if unintentionally – where their advice is not evidenced by what the protégé observes of their personal behaviour. It is pointless for a Mentor to preach equity and fairness if those traits cannot be observed in their own management practice. If you are to be an inspiration you need to be a complete intellectual, spiritual, moral as well as a professional role model.

This means:

  • Demonstrating the values you espouse in your everyday life and work
  • Rewarding positive emulation with praise and reinforcement
  • Counselling or even censuring negative behaviours by disapproval

Building a mutual bond is the centrepiece of successful mentoring

Infiltration of negative traits is not always attributable to the Mentor. Even the best efforts of the Mentor can be counteracted by family, peer groups or other social influences. Subtle seeds of character weakness can be sowed over a lifetime to produce weeds amongst the blooms which are then difficult to eradicate.



It is important to provide the Protégé with personal advice and techniques on how to avoid and counter negative outside influences. To do this the Mentor needs to be able to identify closely with the protégé as much as the protégé identifies with the Mentor. Understanding what the protégé is going through and experiencing in private and work life is important to understanding their particular needs and developing strategies to help.

Mentoring is a very serious responsibility. Like the clay in the potters hands you can mould or you can break.

The protégé / Mentor relationship cannot be “all take” on the part of the protégé and must involve the protégé sharing their reality with the Mentor in order for the latter to be most effective. Mutual listening as well as sharing is central to their common understanding, especially when times get tough and encouragement and support is what is needed most .

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” – Albert Schweitzer

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