Qualifications of a Mentor: Four Crucial Skills for the Best of Mentors

I could never mentor. I’m not qualified.

Have you ever heard that? Have you said it yourself? Here is a simple truth: every one of us has within us the qualifications of a mentor. They are simple; anyone can mentor. But they take time to master.

Everyone can hit a golf ball. It takes hours and hours of practice and, yes, perhaps the help of a more experienced golfer with a practiced eye to hit a three-iron onto a small green from 200 yards out in the fairway and do it consistently.

Here are four qualifications of a mentor we see flourishing in the best of mentors. Please indulge my mental journey back into life as a fighter pilot by way of illustration:

Four crucial qualifications of a mentor

1. The best of mentors are willing to grow themselves.

At LDG, we know from long experience that mentors who are growing themselves—often with the help of their own mentor—are the most effective mentors to others.

One of my memorable sorties in the F-16 was a short and unremarkable flight at a deployed location in the Middle East. Because of my responsibilities there, it had been several weeks since I had flown the aircraft and needed a simple, undemanding sortie before I returned to the whole range of demanding scenarios we flew in the aircraft.

I flew one of these sorties with an experienced pilot and great teacher, Burt Field. We chose one simple task—the air-to-air employment of the F-16’s gun—and concentrated on just that task for the whole flight of about an hour.

Because he had some specialized training I’d never had, Burt had some very creative ways of looking at how the F-16 gun sight was mechanized, and how we could use that to our advantage in flight to make our tactical problem easier to solve. We did it—again and again—over the course of an hour and at the end, I knew more about both how it was mechanized and how to use it to best effect than I had learned in the previous decade of flying the airplane.

At the time, I was a pretty senior leader in the Air Force. I had over a decade and 1,000 hours of flying the F-16 and was a qualified instructor and flight examiner in the airplane. But I knew there was always more I could be and do in the airplane and I knew Burt could help me think through what that takes. I not only grew myself that day, but I was better equipped to help others grow too.

2. The best of mentors are skilled listeners.

In our society, we seem wired to be speakers, tellers, talkers. This is particularly true of people who are more experienced. We see what needs to be done (at least we think we do) and we just want to tell others what to do and get on with it.

At LDG, we engage in intentional, deep-change, whole-life, transformational mentoring. In order to achieve this in the life of emerging leaders, we must encourage those we mentor to realize themselves what is needed to grow. To do this, we must be l-i-s-t-e-n-e-r-s, not tellers.

In the middle of my flying career, I spent hours and hours chasing new pilots around the skies of Germany as they became qualified in our mission at the base there. In one particular mission, a young pilot navigating to a target reached a waypoint and turned ninety degrees to the north, when the mission plan and map both showed a continued track east to our target that day. He eventually figured out what was wrong and got back on track.

In our debriefing that day, I could have just chastised him for becoming confused, getting off track and reaching the target too late. A better course was to listen: What caused him to turn north and get off track? (An improperly programmed navigational computer). What caused the error in programming? (He was behind during ground operations, entered the data quickly and did not have time to check the data before he took off.) What was the main reason he had so little time? (He had not planned enough time for his ground routine for a mission and location that was new to him.)

At the end of the session, he discovered a way to help himself avoid the error in the future. If I had told him how to fix it, I would have given him the wrong answer, since I would have settled on the wrong cause of the error. Good listening helped us both reach the right solution for him.

The twin sister of good listening is…

3. The best of mentors learn how to ask good questions well.

Good questions, combined with exceptional listening, help both us and those we mentor to reach the best path to deep-change and whole-life transformation. At LDG, we encourage mentors to be intentional students of questions.

At a later period in my career, I participated in a large mission between a dozen or so aircraft that resulted in a large and complicated dogfight in the middle of a Utah training range. One of our youngest and least qualified pilots wandered into that fight without anyone else in sight, or even more than a vague awareness they were there at all, a potentially very dangerous situation that, fortunately, remained only potential and we returned to base safely.

We all debriefed together, and afterward, I asked the senior leaders of the mission to remain behind. I used a series of questions to help them think through what we had just done: Are you satisfied with a very young pilot in the middle of a big dogfight unaware of others there (I asked it as a “yes or no” question because that’s the answer I sought—they were good leaders and were not happy with what happened.) What were you trying to accomplish by having him separated from the rest of the formation? (A good tactical goal—it was a sound plan). What in this pilot’s skill set and preparation had prepared him to execute that plan. (Nothing, really. We had not developed him to the level of skill required for what we asked him to do). How might we have executed such a plan in a different way? (By using a different and more experienced pilot in that role—perhaps even reassigning places in the formation to achieve that end).

At the end of the day, we all learned something about detailed attention to who is playing what role in complicated plans. We reached that place through well-designed questions so we all fully understood the thinking and planning that resulted in a dangerous outcome.

4. The best of mentors nurture those they mentor.

“Nurture” is the right word, but its modern usage might communicate less than we mean. “Cultivate” is good, but implies the plant (or person) under cultivation is passive in the process. “Care” is good, but too broad a set of meanings. A mentor does all this and more. At the core of the best of mentors is a deep desire to see those we mentor thrive and flourish through their own exploration and discovery of what it means to live into all they are designed to be.

In my years in the Air Force, I had countless conversations with young men and women on their own journey: what do you want to be in this aircraft, this squadron, your career, your life? Every single one of them had a unique path and end in mind. Some of them needed help in understanding what the end was, others were confident from the beginning.

But because each was a unique individual with their own path and their own definition of what it means to be all they are designed to be, it required from me a deep desire to help them identify and cultivate that uniqueness. It could not be mass-produced. Successful mentoring required life-on-life time helping each person thrive in the way they themselves discover they are designed to thrive. It was the most profound and joyous privileges of serving with young people in the military.

It is also the privilege of the best of mentors. In this space over the next four weeks, we will look more deeply into these four key skills: a willingness to grow ourselves, listening, asking good questions well, and s spirit of nurture. Join us, won’t you? These are the essential qualifications of a mentor and our strong desire is to help you become “the best of mentors.” If you seek to be a better mentor, we would love to hear from you.

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LDG_ebook_coverFor more information on designing leaders through Intentional, Deep-Change, Whole-Life, Transformational Mentoring, download our free eBook.

Written by

Tim is uniquely designed to think strategically into the future and build plans to move an organization from the present to that future. He has a passion for developing young business and military professionals. In his role as CEO for LDG, Tim exercises his unique personality to serve, help form and co-lead LDG’s new initiatives. He has the creative responsibility for delivering world-class leadership design through mentoring to a variety of business, educational, government, arts, sports and non-profit organizations. Tim also helps to oversee the selection, training and management of a network of Leadership Master Mentors for Leadership Design Associates.

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