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How Does a Leader Differ From a Mentor?

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Leaders and mentors each have an important role to play in the workplace hierarchy. I think it’s an important distinction though and worthy of some further discussion.

How does a leader differ from a mentor? A leader is a person that motivates and leads a group of people towards a certain goal while a mentor is more focused on developing and guiding and generally has a more passive role.

Mentor and leader are terms that are often used synonymously but what really differentiates them and how does it apply to the workplace? I think inherently people realize there is a distinction but that distinction tends to be a bit lost behind a veil of ambiguity. In this article, I delve in to try and clarify those differences.

What is a Leader?

The simple definition of a leader is: a person that motivates and leads a group of people towards a certain goal. Let’s talk about what that really means and expound upon the concept so that we can gain clarity and understanding.

A leader doesn’t just manage and they don’t just teach. A leader takes a top-down view of the business and has a vision. They take that vision and they share it with everyone so that the business is focused in the right way. A leader motivates and focuses on customers, relationships and people.

In my corporate life, I have seen first hand how leaders use a big-picture approach to drive high-level results and a great leader is something to behold. A leader is not focused on the minutiae and they do not micromanage. They allow people to grow and blossom and leverage those people’s strengths while providing direction on how to shore up their weaker areas.

What is a Mentor?

A mentor, in the simplest of terms, is someone who is an adviser first. They have a high level of experience in their given field and use that experience to train and advise those who have less experience. Frequently they are older and those years of experience translate into a high-level understanding of their field and of life and business in general. As the saying goes, with age comes wisdom and mentors love to share that wisdom to develop people. That being said there are exceptional people out there and although it is less common a mentor can be young as well.

The mentee benefits from the mentor’s experience and looks for guidance in setting goals, developing contacts, career direction and trajectory, resolving conflict, constructive feedback, etc. A mentor is not a trainer. A mentor’s job is to take the mentee and subtly guide them by asking difficult questions, by challenging them to critically assess a situation. A mentor challenges their mentee indirectly and allows them to develop.

So What’s the difference?

I am fairly certain I could find a way to write a book about all of the differences and similarities but instead, I’ve created a handy little diagram below for your reference.

Can a Leader Have a Mentor?

Absolutely, a leader can have a mentor. When I originally moved up into a leadership role I had a mentor who helped me hone my leadership skills. He quickly moved me farther and farther away from managing and towards leading. He taught me how to be less task-focused and more people-focused.

Before I had a relationship with my mentor I considered myself a great leader. Once I became more involved with this person I realized I was only an adequate leader and that I needed to shift some of my thought-patterns and methodologies so that I could become great.

How to Become a Mentor

  1. Think about exactly why you want to become a mentor.

  2. Set some goals for yourself around what you want to accomplish.

  3. Find a mentee to mentor. This can mean someone at your company, in your neighborhood or city, or even online. Below I talk more about how to find some mentoring opportunities.

  4. Set some clear expectations with your mentee around what you will and will not do. It’s easy to provide answers for someone but that doesn’t help them grow. Being a mentor is like having a child; it’s the mentor’s job to provide framework and direction so that the mentee can come to their own conclusions.

  5. Mutual benefit. Frequently mentoring benefits the mentor as much as the mentee. Remember that and don’t necessarily look for a mentee in your exact field. Sometimes a different perspective or angle is more helpful. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of looking for someone in your exact area of expertise but it may be of more benefit to both of you to be in different industries or fields.

  6. Ensure that you have a conversation about time commitments. If one of you expects a vastly different commitment it will cause friction and sabotage the relationship.

How to find mentoring opportunities

There are plenty of ways to find a mentee. You can ask HR at the company you work for. You can get involved with a local charity or mentoring organization.

There are also some opportunities for online mentoring relationships. Mentor, the National Mentoring Partnerships is a great resource and would be a great place to start.

How to Become a Leader

  1. Have a vision. Great leaders have a clear vision and they work tirelessly to execute it.

  2. Find a mentor. Learning from someone who has been there is invaluable.

  3. Be selfless. Great leaders care about their team and spend more time on giving credit than taking it.

  4. Use negativity to grow and not to limit you. In life, there will always be people or situations that can negatively impact you. Great leaders take that negativity and use it to fuel their growth. They do not let the negativity affect them.

  5. Focus on communication skills. Communication skills are probably the most essential part of conveying your vision to a large number of people. To lead you must be able to communicate. If you can’t communicate nobody can understand your vision and hence you will not be able to execute that vision.

  6. Learn relentlessly. We only have a short time on this Earth and great leaders realize that they still have an almost infinite amount to learn. Be knowledge-hungry and absorb everything you possibly can. Knowledge is power and the more you know the broader your perspective is. A broad perspective allows us the ability to understand people.

  7. Be humble. Leaders nowadays need to inspire people to follow them. Gone are the days of tyrannical task-focused leaders. Today’s leader needs to be in control but be humble. Inspire people.

  8. Develop people. People are the core of every business, at least until computers take over. All joking aside, great leaders realize that they can leverage their own power by developing their people to a high level. I know this sounds obvious but one person cannot do everything. If you develop people and train them on your mindset, your ideas, your passion then they are able to make decisions that align with your vision without your direct involvement.

  9. Have passion! Being passionate means you’re not working at a job you’re working at your life. Passion is powerful in that people feel that passion and become inspired.

Leadership Opportunities

Leadership opportunities are everywhere; they are all around you whether you are in the mailroom, middle management or the upper echelons of corporate America. I would encourage you to look at leadership as a skill and spend some time working on that skill. Research the subject, and take some courses online or in a local classroom.

I will leave you with a couple of quotes that inspired me!

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” Woodrow Wilson

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” Oprah Winfrey
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