While I was in the Army, serving as the chairman of West Point’s Department of Behavioral Psychology and Leadership, I became interested in mentoring as a bottom up process. I found by doing research on Army mid-career officers that most of those who had mentors began the relationship themselves by seeking advice from a former boss. This ran counter to surveys that showed mentors reaching down to embrace promising but less experienced people. My work went on to reveal that, in the Army, 95% of mentor-mentee conversations were conducted by phone or online, and (this was key) initiated by the mentee.
I found that these principles would play out in my experiences as a mentee and a mentor. My most fulfilling professional relationship was started when I called my boss and asked for advice about taking an assignment that had been suggested to me by Army Human Resource Command. That boss intervened, arranged for me to interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, and subsequently arranged for me to work for his best friend. Each time I called my mentor he gave me encouragement and advice. My career would never have taken off without the support of John Pickler, now a retired three-star general living near Nashville.
Fast forward to my chairmanship at West Point. I was at a conference at Duke and met a young woman with an interesting background. She had been recently cured of a heart ailment that sidelined her from most sports. A graduate of the Fuqua School of Business and a former analyst for Goldman Sachs, she had subsequently placed her energy into becoming an elite athlete and mountain climber. She had already served as captain of the Women’s Everest Climbing Team. Her name was Alison Levine. Alison reached out to me to be of service at West Point and I brought her in to speak to several of our classes, and our professional relationship grew. Conversations ensued about the nature of leadership. One day I got a call from her that left me stunned—she told me that she was inspired to serve her country and had decided to enlist in the Army! She told me her decision to serve was final, but that she was 6 months past the age limit defined in the regulations. She was asking me to pull some strings to get her a waiver so that she could enlist and serve. While serving as a soldier would have been a compelling life experience for her, and she would have been very good at it, I immediately countered with, “Well, why don’t you accept an adjunct position at West Point and work for me?” I thought that her contribution would be greater if she could do what she does best—teach about leadership from her experiences. She thought it over and chose to teach, and provided many hours of pro bono classroom instruction to the leadership, management, and psychology programs at West Point, flying a West Point banner on the summit of Mount Everest and inspiring cadets with leadership lessons learned while summiting the highest points on all seven continents. She started the Climb High Foundation http://www.climbhighfoundation.org/ , an organization that lifts women out of poverty by teaching them to become trekking guides and porters in their mountain villages.
I’m now a professor at the Yale School of Management. Alison is one of the finest leaders I have ever known—her TED Talk is mesmerizing Lessons from the ledge: Alison Levine at TEDxMidwest . She has a new book out, http://www.amazon.com/dp/1478925221 titled, “On The Edge,” that gives leadership lessons from her life and experiences in mountaineering. Alison took a few pages in her book to highlight my work on leadership and our relationship, and she refers to me as her mentor—a role that I never sought, but that I suppose simply came to be. Perhaps I’m her mentor, but I have certainly I’ve learned a great deal from Alison as well—as is the case in many mentoring relationships.
It’s been truly fulfilling for me to get to know Alison and to play a tiny role in the development of such a high performing young leader. I have always believed that the development of others is the only lasting legacy a person can leave. We can write books, but eventually they won’t be read. We can develop and implement programs, erect and name buildings, start successful companies—it will all have an end, either within our lifetimes or shortly after. But when you develop others, that change to their character continues to pay forward through them and through the people they touch in their lives—employees, friends, children. That’s the real reward of mentoring, and the only legacy we’ll ever have.