Fast Talk: The Mentor’s Mentors

We asked top leaders about their mentors. What did they learn? What lessons do they still apply? What do they pass on to mentees of their own?

Warren Bennis

Distinguished professor of business administration and founding chairman of the Leadership Institute, University of Southern California

I stalked my college president as a mentor. I was 22 when I entered Antioch College, and I was weighted down by my four years as an infantry officer in World War II. I watched leaders do damage to their followers. We were playing for mortal stakes, and I saw leadership at its best and worst. I had all of these ideas sitting within me, and I couldn’t easily conceptualize or talk about them.


Doug McGregor, then Antioch’s president, helped me. His thinking illuminated an area of study — leadership, organizational development, group dynamics — that I wouldn’t have known existed. He pulled qualities from me that I didn’t know were present. He not only recognized my potential, but he also gave me confidence. And he made it clear to people that I was a guy to watch.

But here’s the thing: I went after him. Initially, I positioned myself so that Doug had to notice me, and then I practically forced him to teach me stuff that I thought I had observed in the infantry. By senior year, he was giving me a one-on-one seminar, and I was his inescapable protégé.

Being mentored isn’t a passive game. It’s nothing less than the ability to spot the handful of people who can make all the difference in your life.


Tim Murphy

Head football coach, Harvard University

My first mentor was a boyhood friend, Buddy Teevens, who I’m still close to. He came from a more secure, educated, athletic background, and he taught me that there is no substitute for work ethic and confidence. My high-school coach, John Montosi, gave me a lot of self-esteem. And Rick Taylor, the football coach at Boston University where I was an assistant and the director of athletics at the University of Cincinnati where I was head coach, understood the importance of not compromising principles.

I still enjoy spending time with all three of them. A few weeks ago, my son and I saw Buddy, who happens to be the head coach at Stanford. Tomorrow, I am playing golf with my high-school coach, and this weekend, I am going to a function for Coach Taylor, who is retiring as the director of athletics at Northwestern University.

I’ve found that mentoring is like being a parent. I don’t see my role as trying to be someone’s buddy. Sometimes 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds think they have all the answers, and it’s not until they go through the bumps in life that they realize what I or anyone else told them was good advice after all.


Mentoring can happen formally, when people seek specific guidance. But informally, you are going to be a mentor in terms of how you live your own life. With children and players, I don’t try to please them. I treat them with respect and expect the same in return. And I give them this advice: Choose your friends wisely, and as Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up.”

Betsy Bernard

President, AT&T

My mother, Barbara Bernard, stood out in the 1950s and 1960s because she had a successful TV talk show. She was the first and most important mentor I had. She was a businesswoman, balancing relationships, negotiations, interpersonal skills, all of that. It wasn’t until later in grammar school that I realized that not everybody’s mother went to work every day. She constantly reinforced the idea that you can do anything you want.

In the mid-’90s, I had the good fortune to meet Eunice Azzani. She was a partner at Korn/Ferry, the well-known search firm. She was a mover and shaker in the San Francisco business community. She took me under her wing and, from a leadership standpoint, helped me get to the next level.


Today, as the executive champion of our corporate mentoring program, I try to listen to my mentees and determine the next opportunity for their developmental experience. It’s also helpful to chat with folks about what I am dealing with on a daily basis; it gives them an opportunity to see things in a more holistic way. What’s more, mentoring helps me stay grounded in employees’ realities.

A mentor has to make sure that the conversation around continuous development is inspiring, not intimidating. A great leader truly believes that personal development is a never-ending journey. If you can help people embrace and love continuous development, then you are really making a difference in their lives and careers.

Dee Hock

Founder, Chaordic Alliance and founder and CEO emeritus, Visa International

I have not had mentors in the traditional sense. Much greater ability and knowledge come from storms and unfamiliar terrain than from fair weather and a well-trodden path, providing one persists and prevails. I have had much “reverse” mentoring from people who attempted to undermine that which was attempted. Most of my growth came from them. You learn nothing from your successes except to think too much of yourself. It is from failure that all growth comes, provided you can recognize it, admit it, learn from it, rise above it, and then try again.


However, on four occasions, I met extraordinary people who could have prevented that which I espoused but, once convinced the concepts and ideas had merit, chose to stand aside and give them a fair chance to succeed or fail. To them, I am eternally grateful.

Mentoring as a whole is little more than one of those management popularities so beloved by consultants. From the perspective of the mentees, there is something demeaning about hitching their boat to an elegant cabin cruiser and being towed along in its wake. From the perspective of the mentor, there is a slight stench of injustice and hypocrisy in selecting a chosen few and lavishing time and attention on them. Any leader worthy of the name makes sure that all people for whom they have responsibility have open and equitable opportunity to develop their abilities to the maximum.

Paul Muldoon

Professor of creative writing, Princeton University
2003 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Poetry

In April 1968, when I was 16, the poets Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley along with a singer named David Hammond were performing poetry and songs in Armagh [Northern Ireland]. I was introduced to the three men afterward. In many ways, it was a rather embarrassing occasion. My teacher Jerry Hicks introduced us and told Seamus that I would be someone much better than he in years to come. It was not exactly how I wanted to be introduced.


A year or two later, I became a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, and as it turned out, Seamus was my tutor. He was a great champion, and the experience was very motivational. That is not to say that Seamus and I didn’t have our ups and downs. I feel daunted that he’s writing at the same time as I am trying to write, but I’m also encouraged by it. Publicly and privately, the thing I say about him beyond all that is that I love him. We keep each other honest — and not just the two of us. Many writers in Ireland form a great community. Particularly, as one gets long in the tooth, one realizes that in the mentoring business, you are all in it together.

The responsibility of a mentor is extraordinary. One has to be enthusiastic and nurturing. By that, I don’t mean to pull one’s punches or inappropriately nurture. I don’t tell my students that they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. One wants to behave as openly as possible with students, but to err on the side of generosity, if one is going to err at all. I want to let them find a place where they can flourish. Overnight, they might do something truly amazing.