Why the Best Mentors Think Like Michelangelo

Thoughtful sculptors use the tools of patient listening and generous affirmation to help draw forth the dream.

Michelangelo approached the craft of sculpting with the conviction that a piece of art already existed within the stone, and his job was only to release it. We think the best mentors approach their art in the same way.

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A skilled mentor should bring a mentee closer to their ideal self.

Social psychology teaches us that in the best romantic relationships partners sculpt one another by bringing each person closer to their ideal self – the person they want to be. A skilled mentor can affirm a mentee’s ideal self in a similar way.

Two distinct components of mentor affirmation come into play.

First comes perceptual affirmation, through which mentors take the time to truly understand their mentees’ real and ideal selves. The second element involves behavioral affirmation, helping mentees to engage in behaviors aligned with their ideal selves.

Cross-gender mentorships

Since men are more likely to hold senior leadership positions than women (a gap we need to close), the male mentor-female mentee pairing is more common than the reverse. But it can be especially challenging for men to mentor women.

One reason is that men sometimes struggle with the sort of active listening required to help a mentee unearth her ideal self.

Can men truly channel Michelangelo and mentor women with the humility and patience required?

The answer is yes but only if men understand how socialized masculinity interferes with good cross-gender mentorships.

First, almost all mentors have an inclination to clone themselves in their mentees, pushing mentees to pursue career trajectories that mirror their own – as far from Michelangelo-like affirmation as one can get. It can be harder for male mentors to overcome this tendency because of the ways in which men are socialized to listen and tend to be more task-oriented.

Men have to work hard at really listening to the women they mentor, focusing on the relationship more than the specific task being discussed.

Reaching dreams

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Male mentors should display gender humility, transparency about the limits of understanding and empathy.

Similarly, male mentors are more likely to jump to fixes and solutions in conversations with a mentee rather than taking the time to listen and appreciate her perspective.

Troublesome gendered assumptions about mentees – for example about their desire to have children and how that will affect their professional lives – can also damage the mentor-mentee relationship.

On the path to affirming a mentee’s ideal vision of self, male mentors should display gender humility, a quality that requires self-awareness and curiosity about women’s unique experiences, transparency about the limits of your understanding and the capacity for expressing empathy for them.

Should a mentee appear to be aiming too low, an engaged mentor will paint a more ambitious and inspiring vision of her potential.

In the end, a great mentor will honor the mentee’s ideal self and career dream. Thoughtful sculptors use the tools of patient listening and generous affirmation to help draw forth the dream.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

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W. Brad Johnson is a professor of psychology in the department of leadership, ethics and law at the United States Naval Academy.

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David G. Smith is a professor of sociology in the department of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College.

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