Need Leadership? Teach your Managers to Mentor

Gartner reported in 2019 [1] that building leadership bench strength was a major priority for 67% of Heads of Human Resources and 78% of talent management leaders globally. As the global pandemic took hold in 2020, leaders were really put to the test and many were found wanting. A lesson was learned that people need to be looked after. Leaders that could not respond to the crisis with care, empathy and focused listening found that their best people jumped ship shortly after. Employee wellness programs flourished in response to the pressure of working from home. Hybrid work has now become common. With all the issues associated with managing a remote workforce, where do we go from here? 

As we move into a tougher economic cycle, Josh Bersin says: 

“In 2023, we will need to learn to balance the new world of empathetic, flexible leadership with the need for ever-increasing levels of productivity.” [2]

Leaders will need to pivot once again and draw on different skills. How do we keep developing leaders so that they can adapt quickly and with resilience? Can mentoring play a part in helping managers develop strong leadership skills? The simple answer is: Yes, it can. The reason is, one of the most powerful ways to help a people manager develop leadership capability, is to have them develop and practise mentoring skills. These skills, such as active listening, discovering and amplifying people’s strengths, and supporting mentees to grow by challenging them, are the same skills that transformational leaders employ. By contributing as a mentor, new leaders can test and hone their skills with a mentee in a low-risk environment rather than with a direct report. At the same time, they are exposed to learning for themselves, about another part of their organization, another generation, a different culture, from someone who is not in their direct reporting line. 

From good to great leadership 

What makes a great leader stand out from a satisfactory one? According to Bass & Avolio [3], truly transformational leadership provides direct reports with the values, enhanced skills, and confidence to go above and beyond the basic performance standards of their roles. It’s also about having a strong understanding of human motivation to know how to light a fire within team members. And this process starts with communicating a vision that inspires team members to go the extra mile. [4] Great leaders also link their team member’s individual strengths and interests to organizational goals, creating a continuum of energy. [5]    

The list of traits of transformational leaders is, frankly, quite long:  

  • They build trust by behaving as outstanding role models.  
  • They develop their team by looking at each member as an individual.  
  • They stimulate their team members’ critical thinking capacities to increase their independence.  
  • And they draw on their own experience to share stories of how they overcame difficulties in similar situations. [6]

Transactional leaders, on the other hand, pursue a more elementary exchange with their direct reports. These leaders set goals mechanically and provide feedback and rewards to followers as a means of helping them achieve performance objectives. This approach doesn’t transform or challenge the follower, but simply assists them to complete their work. 

This comparison of transformational with transactional leadership correlates quite neatly with developmental vs transactional mentoring. When a mentor can lift the conversation above a simple transfer or exchange of information or advice, true mentee development and transformation can occur. 

Pursuing the mentee’s own form of greatness 

Ragins [7] says a successful mentoring relationship drives mutually dependent, growth-driven enrichment between both the mentor and the mentee. In fact, the greatest contribution a mentor can make is to ensure mentees identify and pursue their own form of greatness, not necessarily the mentor’s. 

Quality developmental relationships can ignite a passion for learning, excitement, and work engagement associated with creativity, innovation, and productivity. Individuals who display these mentoring and leadership behaviours harness the full potential of their mentees and direct it towards achieving their organization’s goals. 

Many studies have focused on enhanced organizational outcomes associated with strong leadership. From innovation to retention, to financial performance, market share and customer satisfaction and transformational leadership —it’s clear, mentoring can ignite organizational performance. [8]

The seven ages of the leader 

Warren Bennis wrote an engaging article on the subject of business and leadership. Drawing on more than 50 years of academic research and business expertise—and borrowing from Shakespeare’s seven ages of man—Bennis says the leader’s life unfolds in seven stages. [9]

  1. “The infant executive” seeks to recruit a mentor for guidance.  
  2. “The schoolboy” must learn how to do the job in public, subjected to unsettling scrutiny of every word and act.  
  3. “The lover with a woeful ballad” struggles with the tsunami of problems every organization encounters.  
  4. “The bearded soldier” must be willing — even eager — to hire people better than he is, because he knows that talented underlings can help him shine.  
  5. “The general” must become adept at not simply allowing people to speak the truth but at actually being able to hear what they’re saying.  
  6. “The statesman” is hard at work preparing to pass on wisdom in the interests of the organization.  
  7. And, finally, “the sage” embraces the role of mentor to young executives. 

Navigating each of these stages is made easier with the guidance of a mentor. Each new stage brings challenges and opportunities for growth. These moments can be wrenching — and can knock anyone’s confidence — but they’re also predictable and common to all leaders. Having a mentor at these moments of crisis and transitions can help new leaders know what to expect. Emerging successfully from a tsunami such as a merger, a restructure, new promotion or even a global pandemic can help mentees surface with less angst and more confidence than they had before.  

Yet, even more powerful, is asking leaders or potential leaders to step up into the role of mentorship — level seven — thereby accelerating their progress through the levels, to become the “sage” helping others develop their own wisdom.  

Creating better leaders from the inside out 

So, how does one improve the leadership skills of organizational leaders? The answer is to make them better mentors. 

Business coaches suggest leadership is not a top-down relationship but one that’s drawn from the inside out. The leader as mentor draws on their entire memory of experiences to listen and understand their mentee and to inspire them in their discovery and expression of their own talents within the organization. [10]

This correlates with the metaphor of the martial arts master borrowed from the Asian Ancients: 

To start at the core of essence and dance with the learner as that learner works toward the periphery of discovery on a path of self-direction. [11]

Through the act of mentoring, mentors begin to understand themselves and their own strengths and preferences better. They can take this self-awareness back with them into their team leadership. Moreover, people who mentor identify themselves more readily as, and feel more confident as leaders. [12]  

There we have it in a nutshell. When you’re building your leadership bench strength, make your next generation of leaders, mentors. Provide them with good quality mentor training to equip them with skills such as active listening, seeing people as individuals and supporting their followers to grow by challenging them. The aim of the mentoring relationship for new leaders is to learn a more informal, subtle, and indirect influence process that enhances their self-awareness and communication skills. Becoming a truly transformational leader will, in turn, achieve great things for your organization. 

©Melissa Richardson 2023



  1. 2.
  2. 3.
  3. Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1997). Full range leadership development: Manual for the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. Palo Alto, CA: Mind Garden. 4.
  4. Bass, B. M. (1990). Bass and Stodgill’s handbook of leadership. New York: Free Press. 5
  5. Hambrick, D. C. (1989). Putting top managers back in the strategy picture. Strategic Management Journal, 10, 5–15. 6
  6. Sosik, J. J., & Godshalk, V. M. (2000). Leadership styles, mentoring functions received, and job-related stress: A conceptual model and preliminary study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21, 365–390. 7
  7. Ragins, B. R. (2005). Towards a theory of relational mentoring. Unpublished manuscript.  8
  8. Cited in Ragins, B. R. and Kram, K. E. (2007). The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research and Practice. California: Sage. 9
  9. Bennis, W. (2004) The Seven Ages of the Leader. Harvard Business Review, January 2004. 10
  10. Cashman, K. (September 1999). Coaching from the inside out. Executive Excellence 16:9, 14. 11
  11. Zukav, G. (1990). Seat of the soul: A remarkable treatment of thought, evolution, and reincarnation. New York: Simon & Schuster. 12
  12. Ayoobzadeh, M. and Boies, K. (2020), “From mentors to leaders: leader development outcomes for mentors”, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 35 No. 6, pp. 497-511. 
A female mentor is showing her male mentee something on her tablet computer


A guide to unleashing the hidden value in your organisation through high impact strategic mentoring programs.

Most human beings and organisations have one thing in common – they both want to do better. But it’s hard for one to achieve without the other. When you can harness both you can achieve great things.

Unfortunately, most organisational structures are hierarchical, which may aid efficiency but not necessarily “real” human interaction.

Solving the human equation is the cornerstone of great culture and the larger and more diverse the workforce, the more challenging it becomes, even before we factor in things like location, technology and pay rates.

Well designed and managed mentoring programs can have a dramatic impact on workplace culture and people engagement. A strategic mentoring program transcends hierarchy, creating relationships and interactions to build individual and hence organisational value.

In this guide we present you with proven practical insights on how to design, build, implement and automate a high influence mentoring program and create your own ripple effect.

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the ripple effect