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Anyone may be a mentor who changes people’s lives

Published 11:19am Monday, March 5, 2012

I studied Matilda Cuomo’s “The Person Who Changed My Life” expecting to find most to be teachers, as I have said here. I also said the 76 people Cuomo had tell their stories named teachers — of every subject and on every level — more frequently than any other relation. Yet, this is not the whole story I found in these stories. Only 17 of the 76 individuals named teachers as having changed their lives. So, in fact, far more non-teachers were cited than teachers. However important teachers always are in influencing students, the significant life-changer in a person’s life can be anyone who cares enough to make the difference.

The particular relation most frequently mentioned aside from teachers is parents. Interestingly, only a couple cited “parents.” Most named either father or mother, and in equal numbers. Girls were almost as likely to name their fathers as their mothers, and boys were almost as likely to name their mothers as their fathers. Some other dynamic in the relationships seems to have been decisive. If I could investigate these specifics, I suspect I would find the parent not specifically named also had a strong influence. The effectiveness of one parent has much to do with how well the other supports. Most frequently it is a team effort with one as lead.

I suspect more of these people would have named one or both parents if Cuomo had used a term other than “mentor.” This immediately suggested a non-parenting relationship.

Other than parents, several named another relative, e.g., older sibling, uncle or aunt, grandparent. In some instances, a parent was weak or absent and another relative stepped in and provided the nurturing relation.

Other than a teacher or family member, they named: acting coach, family’s housekeeper, a neighbor, a lecturer, agent, friends, candy store owner, employer, fellow employee, pastor, or even an individual in passing contact.

An interesting number said the person who most influenced them was a employer or work supervisor. In every case, these did more than teach how a job is to be done and focused as much on attitude toward the job or attitude toward work in general. They not so much taught but modeled a work ethic. Several of these eventually succeeded their mentor in his or her job.

I recognize a category that none named. This is an employer or work supervisor of teenagers. I know of CEOs who attribute their business success to a lowly small business owner who gave them their first job. This, because they taught them how to work and to love work. One CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation asserts his whole career was set by the proprietor of a small grocery store who demanded he sweep the floors clean three times a day and would accept nothing less than completely clean floors.

During 43 years military experience, I recognized some of the best mentors are non-commissioned officers (petty officers in the navy). I am convinced these NCOs have more influence on soldiers than officers do, who received higher pay for whatever it is they do. I learned how to be a sailor not as much in boot camp as by Cookie and the first class signalman on a small ship. I have seen sergeants take a kid who was nothing in civilian life and turn his life around.

As I have instructed cadets and young second lieutenants, I have urged them to pick out a senior NCO they can trust and learn from him or her. They can teach things a captain or general never could.

There are things a school teacher can learn from the janitor. A young executive is smart to learn from an experienced secretary. A nurse can make or break the physician for whom he or she works.

Mentors come in all sizes, shapes, and forms. They must possess a sense of purpose in mentoring those who need mentoring. These, for their part, must be willing to learn from whomever they can. The person who changes lives is the one who cares about lives and about lives being changed.

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