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What Makes Yoda So Good?

For most of us, mentors have had a profound impact on our personal and professional lives. They have for me. My mentors have helped me on my journey to deal with adversity and to more clearly understand my strengths and weaknesses.

The original Mentor appeared in Homer's Odyssey as the trusted friend of Odysseus, who asked him to look after his son, Telemakhos. Thereafter, time and again in literature, the mentor--like Merlin to Arthur and Charlotte to Wilbur--appeared at the outset of a person's journey as a guide, equipping their charge to deal with whatever might come. The modern cultural version of the ideal mentor, Yoda to Luke, has become a model for how to influence, support and develop a promising mentee.

In the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker discovers that he needs help on his journey to become a Jedi Knight. He finds what initially seems to be an unlikely guide for such a momentous journey. He meets Yoda on an isolated planet in the galaxy. The elfish character puts up with Luke's initial insolence and arrogance, takes him under his pointed ears, and manages to bring out the Knight that is within him. But what is it that makes Yoda so good as a mentor?

I think I know because I have had three Yodas in my life.

Carrie Abbott was the first. As a recent college graduate in 1969, I found myself teaching at the Texas State School for the Deaf. I had been a Houseparent Manager supervising sixteen deaf boys at the School as a way to work my way through college. While I was adept at the sign language, I knew nothing about teaching. Mrs. Abbot recognized immediately that I was woefully ill-equipped in the theory, methodologies and practices of teaching. But I think she also saw that I had energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Under her tutelage, I not only learned how to develop a curriculum, design a classroom and implement a range of learning techniques, but also discovered a calling.

George Kozmetsky showed me how an entrepreneur thinks and acts. He co-founded Teledyne (the first defense conglomerate), was a noted scholar, appeared on the Forbes 400, and served as dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, where I met him in 1979. He invited be to become a research assistant in the new think-tank that he was starting, the IC2 Institute. As a newly-minted PhD in U. S. History, I knew nothing about business. But he thought I knew how to conduct research and how to write. He tested me from the get-go. He was delivering a keynote speech at a major conference in Europe. He asked me to develop a detailed matrix on the social and economic issues facing the European Union. I worked for hours in the library pulling together a cohesive and coherent set of issues and their potential resolutions, all of which became the basis for his presentation. From that point on, we began to work shoulder to shoulder. He continue to present me with challenges and opportunities until I became the Executive Director of the Institute. We became dear friends. He then showed me how a mentor can let go of a mentee. When I decided to leave the Institute and go to the Kauffman Foundation in 1991, he asked if there was anything he could do to keep me at the helm of the Institute. I told him no, that I needed to move on to continue my own development. He then said, "Then what can I do to make this the best move possible for you?" I have always appreciated the generous spirit that he displayed to me at that transitional moment.

My third Yoda was Michie Slaughter. He was head of Human Resources for the pharmaceutical company, Marion Laboratories. When Ewing Kauffman sold that company and set up the Kauffman Foundation, he asked Michie to serve as President of the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Michie then hired me to be Vice President, for which I left the IC2 Institute. Michie was a remarkable manager from whom I learned invaluable lessons on how to build an organization. Michie was a big guy, easily six-foot-two-inches tall. He had the build of a football lineman (which he actually played at Davidson College) and a deep voice that made him seem intimidating to many, but not to me. We hit it off from our first meeting because of our mutual passion for entrepreneurship, and we formed a formidable team in building the Foundation. I learned from him how to build teams, develop and launch projects, deal with a range of HR issues, and prepare and manage budgets.

Each of my three Yodas demonstrated critical common mentoring attributes.

They supported me. They committed time to our relationship, and showed empathy for my concerns, hopes and aspirations. They listened actively to focus full attention when I brought them problems or sought their advice. They built trust by serving as an advocate for me and by continually encouraging my efforts, helping me to reflect on my experiences and having my back.

They offered me challenges to create an environment for me to learn. They assigned tasks for me to take on new roles and wider responsibilities. They engaged me in discussions to provide candid and constructive feedback to help me better asses my strengths and weaknesses. They debriefed teachable moments with me that provided new insights on how to solve problems, take advantage of opportunities and hone my skills.

They provided vision that helped me catch a glimpse of my own potential and future possibilities. Each of them served as a model that my journey could be made and that provided a mirror on what I might be able to accomplish. In other words, they helped me look ahead and chart my course in life. They helped me gain confidence in my own abilities and eventually achieve independence, even from each of them.

Just as importantly, my three Yodas recognized that real mentoring is difficult. They knew that it is more than advising, coaching or giving directions. As a result, they knew and avoided the pitfalls that can kill a mentoring relationship:

--Don't allocate time. Instead, they always seemed to allocate time to our relationship, set high standards, and express positive expectations. They facilitated intentional learning for me by creating opportunities for me to develop my skills and by exposing me to different experiences.

--Lecture a lot. Instead, they talked less and listened more. They were anxious to hear my thoughts, asked probing questions and considered my recommendations.

--Tell war stories. Despite their own extensive accomplishments, they never harped on their own laurels. They did not need to try to impress me with important things that they had done.

--Criticize everything. Rather than tear me down, they constantly sought to build me up with honest dialogue. They respected and even celebrated my accomplishments.

--Breach confidentiality. Instead, they maintained confidences. They never talked behind my back, and they kept the promises they made to me. I think they enjoyed watching me develop and grow, and they seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing their knowledge and experience.

Dag Hammarskjold, the late renowned secretary-general of the United Nations, dealt with wars, famines, pestilence, refugees and international conflicts over the course of his distinguished career. Yet, when asked what he had learned that was most important, he did not dwell on these mega challenges. Instead, he said, "It takes more nobility of character to make a difference in the life of one person than to work to save the masses."

Maybe this is what makes Yoda so good. That he demonstrated nobility of character to make a difference in Luke's life. I feel each of my Yodas demonstrated their nobility of their characters in making a difference in mine.

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