The River Guides of Our Lives
This week’s post is dedicated the mentors in our lives. It was also the topic I discussed at the book launch of The Shift from Me to Team: A Guide to Achieving Greatness in Ann Arbor this week. The attendees were warm and enthusiastic, and they raised great questions about both the topic of mentors and the book. I’m grateful for the support and interest!
#leadership #team #PeakPerformance #CoreIdentity #teamdevelopment #ShiftFromMeToTeam #purpose
Reflecting on the recent loss of Don McMillan, my mentor of more than thirty years, has made me realize the power of mentors in guiding our lives.
Life is like a river. At times it has tranquil, calm waters we enjoy effortlessly, and then at others that river has challenging parts where we must call on all our abilities to manage and maneuver effectively. And then, the river has surprises, requiring us to react swiftly to survive.
If we are lucky, we have river guides—mentors—who prepares us for the challenges we face. They coach, support, and stretch us to maneuver the river effectively, even preparing us for the sudden, unexpected, life-threatening challenges we may encounter.
Our mentors stretch us to realize greatness we did not see in ourselves. These mentors may know us better than we know ourselves, and they see what is best for us before we can understand it ourselves.
Some of the Cherished Mentors Who Have Impacted My Life
My mom was my first mentor. Although I was in the fourth grade, I was reading at the first-grade level when we moved from Covina, California, to Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. The school wanted to hold me back, but my parents insisted it would be awkward, given my above-average height. So, my mom took it upon herself to help me study every day after school. Before I could go out to play, all my homework had to be done. Looking back now, I realize I most likely was dyslexic. To do my homework, I would talk to my mom about what I was learning and thinking, and she would capture my thoughts in pencil on our white Formica kitchen table. And then, from what she had written, I would create my homework. These were very difficult times for me, yet she often said, “I can see you becoming President of the United States someday.”
My next mentor was my father, who traveled Monday-Friday for his work. Upon returning one Friday, he asked how football practice was going, and I told him I did not go out for the high school football team. They were State Champions the previous year, and I was only second string on the junior varsity team. My father told me, “You can fail in trying, but you will never fail to try. You get your haircut and ask the coach if he will permit you to come out for the team.” I wonder where I would be today had I not played football in high school.
I was fortunate to play football for Head Coach Bo Schembechler at Michigan Football and then work for him for twelve years on his staff. Having Bo as a coach was extremely challenging. His high expectations of you on the field, in the classroom, and in the community were extraordinary. His demanding style was intimidating. Interestingly, when off the field, his demonstration of love for you was comforting. You knew he cared about you, and what he was doing was not for himself but for you.
Bo’s deep purpose in life was to challenge others to be all they could be. Even when we were dining out together, Bo would often engage with the server, challenging them on poor service, or congratulating them on something done well. He wanted to help everyone he encountered perform closer to their potential for their own personal development.
For more than thirty years, Don McMillan was my executive coaching mentor. He had a deeper understanding of human nature than any person I know. Don was hard on me like Bo was, challenging me to be the best executive coach I could be. He knew what buttons to push and when to back off. I would get five to ten emails and three to five phone calls a week from him informing me of the latest research on human nature that I needed to learn and know.
Don was the last long-term mentor I will have. On the evening Don passed away this year, I had over 800 unopened emails from him, including one from that evening. I have not opened that last email—it’s difficult for me to accept that the last of the mentors who seemed to dedicate their lives to my development is now gone.
There is something in our mentors that resides in us also. For us to admire, respect, and desire to listen to these mentors reveals the qualities we admire most. For these qualities to be meaningful, they also reside in us. However, the qualities we admire in our mentors are not as fully developed in us as we desire. With that understanding, we can move forward with greater confidence that we are on a journey to honoring who we are meant to be and become, and potentially become a mentor to someone else navigating their life’s river.