The Mentor as Confidante.

July 3, 2023

The Mentor as Confidante.

May 29, 2023

As I mentioned in a past post, I believe there are two kinds of mentors: the librarian and the confidante. Given how many MEA alums have recently asked me about how to be a better coach to a young mentee, I thought I would elaborate on the idea of the mentor as a confidante.

The formal American definition of confidante is “a person with whom one shares a secret or private matter, trusting them not to repeat it to others.” But, as I learned from one of my Airbnb colleagues, Lisa Dubost, in French, this word (spelled “confident” in French) can also mean “a person who inspires confidence in you.” With time, I started realizing the incalculable power of simultaneously keeping confidences while also inspiring self-confidence, of being both a trusted ear as well as a “permissionary” – in that I gave younger people at Airbnb the capacity, courage, and permission to truly “go for it.”

This leadership alchemy became a life-affirming elixir for me. Combining the fountain of wisdom with the fountain of youth created a level of intimacy, insight, and awareness that felt unprecedented. When I explained this to an Israeli friend, he laughed and said I was just a garden-variety “mensch.” Whatever you want to call it, this elixir allowed me to counsel my young colleagues on a deeper and more meaningful level.

Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, who had this kind of relationship with the trillion-dollar coach, Bill Campbell, describes it aptly when, upon Bill’s death, he wrote in his blog, “Whenever I struggled with life, Bill was the person that I called. I didn’t call him because he would have the answer to some impossible question. I called him because he would understand what I was feeling 100%. He would understand me.”

A mentor focuses as much on their protégés’ essence as on their actions, as much on the “being” as the “doing.” A mentor focuses as much on helping people find their joy as on helping them find their next job. And a true elder helps younger people think more seriously about their lifelong career journey, not just the immediate challenges of their day-to-day work. That’s because elders know it’s the complete package that matters and endures.

And yet, even in what might feel like a very sage-like role, an elder still must hold on to their catalytic curiosity. Jonathan Rosenberg from Google told me about how Bill Campbell used to say that arrogance was inversely correlated with age. “He (Bill) appreciated becoming someone’s mentor when they had recently failed as they were humble enough to learn.” Being a confidante means finding those teachable moments when you can radiate clarity and keep an open beginner’s mind to catalyze a younger person’s questing spirit. Think Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker.

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