Being a mentor means letting go and taking risks

By André Costopoulos

By André Costopoulos

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Photo by Andrew Agrabia

Mentorship is not about getting results. Mentorship, like some other forms of leadership, is about creating the conditions under which others can thrive and achieve their goals. At the end of the day, if you’ve done your job properly, and if you’ve set up the right conditions, whether others thrive is up to them. If …

When I have a bit of free time, I like to fly. I learned to fly when I was entering my forties. I was already a professor and associate dean. I had done lots of mentoring and teaching by then. My flight instructors were all in their early 20s, in their first real jobs. By letting myself be mentored by them, I learned a great deal about teaching and mentoring.

My most intense learning moment in that whole process, both in terms of flying and mentoring, came on the morning when my instructor, after we had done a couple of practice landings, unexpectedly told me to drop him off at the end of the runway and take the plane up on my own. My first solo.

Here was a twenty-something, with whom I had flown for a few hours, who had decided that I was ready to fly solo. How did he know? How could he take the awesome responsibility of letting me take this flimsy machine into the sky on my own, and bring it back down safely and in one piece, without hurting myself or anyone else in the air or on the ground? As I drove home after that first solo flight, I remember reflecting on these very questions.

If he had been wrong about my level of readiness, or about the weather that day, or about a million other things, if he had been wrong about the conditions he had set up for me to thrive in the air, the consequences could have been catastrophic. I don’t know whether it was an easy decision for him, but outwardly at least, he never hesitated a moment and never showed any doubt in me. He just unbuckled, stepped out and said go.

As an archeologist, I thought back to the times I had decided to put graduate students in charge of a group of undergrads in the field. I knew they were ready to teach. I knew they were ready to plan and carry out survey and excavation. They were ready to keep everyone warm, dry, fed, reasonably happy and safely rested. I knew they were ready to mentor younger students. This was expected of them.

The main question I asked myself is: were they ready to face the unexpected? The emergency? Would they have ready-made mental templates that they could quickly adapt to face a situation in which they had never been before? Would they bring everyone home?

If the answer was yes, I let them go. I was still in overall responsibility of the project and of everyone’s safety, and if things had gone wrong, I would have been the one to blame. No one else. Despite this, thinking back, I never hesitated. I knew that if I hesitated, it meant I didn’t think they were ready. Or rather, it meant I wasn’t ready to let go and take the risk. I was wrong only once, and fortunately for everyone involved, there were no lasting consequences, although there were serious short-term ones.

Flight and archeology give mentors many opportunities for stark choices that can have life-and-death consequences. The lessons they teach, however, are applicable in everyday mentoring in classrooms, labs and workplaces.

The key role of the mentor is to create conditions in which others can become autonomous, and to guide them toward that autonomy. The key decision of the mentor is to decide when to let go, knowing that you no longer control the outcomes, but that you are still responsible for them in many ways, at least for a while.

This is made even more difficult by the fact that your newly and increasingly autonomous mentees may make decisions that you wouldn’t make, or do things that you wouldn’t do. And that’s the whole point. If you’ve done your job right, they will do wonderful things you wouldn’t have thought of, and make good decisions you wouldn’t have imagined. If.

You’ll never know until you let go.

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André Costopoulos, PhD, joined the University of Alberta as Vice Provost and Dean of Students in July, 2016. Born and raised in Montreal, Costopoulos holds a BA (Hons) in anthropology from McGill, an MSc in anthropology from the Université de Montréal and a PhD in archeology from the University of Oulu, Finland. He began his career in 1999 as a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Eastern Connecticut State University. In 2001, he joined McGill as a research associate and sessional instructor in the Department of Anthropology and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 2003. From 2012–2016, he served as McGill’s Dean of Students.

This article originally appeared in University Affairs in July 2019 and is re-posted here with permission.This article originally appeared in University Affairs in July 2019 and is re-posted here with permission.