Chapter 1: What is mentoring? What is leadership?



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  • Mentor, advisor, leader, role model, teacher, coach, manager, boss all have overlapping characteristics, but they are not synonymous.

  • Each of these roles have different characteristics also depending on whether they are formal or informal relationships.

  • Recognizing the differences is the first step in each person understand and clarify expectations and build a stronger relationships.


A mentor more easily overlaps will the role of a teacher, a advisor, a role model, a leader, a coach, a boss, or a manager. A boss can be a mentor, a teacher can be a mentor, a role model can be a mentor, and so on. But a mentor has special characteristics that go beyond each of these.

Importantly, a mentor expects no personal gain from the relationship, they do it out of gratitude and generosity. We toss around the word mentor too casually, using it as synonymous with advisor or coach, for example. But using it so casually means we lose the value of a true mentoring relationship. A mentor provides help and advice through a caring relationship, without expecting anything in return. They advocate for their mentee even when the mentee isn't present. Gratitude inspires us to be givers (rather than returning a favor to the person who did you a favor – pay it forward). Ofelia Olivero discusses the power of gratitude in her discussion of what a mentor is: Olivero Chapters 1 and 2.

A mentor relationship is strongest when mentors tap into their own feelings of gratitude as they consider helping others. Careful reflection and introspection is important for both mentor and mentee.

Mentoring relationships often happen spontaneously, and sometimes they are better when they organically evolve, rather than being "assigned". But even an assigned mentor relationship can grow if both people accept and understand their role in the relationship. This means that both mentor and mentee need to define their needs and expectations early in the relationship.

While it can be intimidating for a mentee to ask someone to be their mentor, the direct asking is possibly the most powerful moment in the development of the relationship. It is this moment that converts someone from a role model into a mentor, it makes a previously one-way relationship into a two-way relationship.

Each person needs multiple mentors in life, because no single mentor can provide everything we need from career success to personal growth: multiple mentors provide multiple perspectives. This team of mentors is analogous to a Board of Directors for a non-profit. Board members contribute what they can based on their backgrounds and experience, they do it for free, and they are advocates for the organization in many different arenas. But there are also times when some board members leave and new ones are invited in, this keeps the organization alive and adaptable. Who are your Board of Directors?


The definition of a leader is multifaceted. Leaders are people who are able to engage people to act toward a common goal - that goal may be to create new scientific knowledge or to enact change in the world.  If the team is simply acting within Leaders do this through many avenues. Leaders are good listeners, leaders are inspiring, leaders are good decision makers, leaders can keep their ego under control, leaders take action and get things done.  A leader is highly respected by followers, but in return, a leader maintains a high level of respect and trust for her followers.

Daniel Goleman describes 6 styles of leadership in this article: the coersive style, the authoritative style, the affiliative style, the democratic style, the pacesetting style, and the coaching style. These styles appear in scientists as they both work with students as well as managing a research team.


In the academic world, the words advisor and mentor are often used synonymously. I disagree with this, heartily. An advisor is like a boss or manager, who wants you to succeed, helps you, and provides advice. But an advisor wants you to succeed because you are working on their project and your performance often directly reflects onto their reputation.

Role Model

I think of a role model as more of a one-way relationship than a leader or mentor. Leaders and mentors can also be role models, and they often are, but not always. A role model is someone who help you visualize who you could be in the future. Role models are critical for anyone trying to confidently enter or succeed in a community of people who are different because "If you can see it, you can be it". For example, women and girls need to see women succeeding in their chosen path (such as in science). The power of role models is strongest with gender, ethnicity, and disability, but is necessary for many aspects of life. When we want to take a risk, to go outside of our comfort zone, it is much easier to do if we see someone like us doing it already.

A boss, manager, or supervisor delegates work and wants something specific in return; they have an agenda and can be very effective at working with the status quo. She may be efficient at delegation, good at explaining the expectations, but the employees may still only be doing the work because they have to because they receive some kind of compensation. A leader inspires people to enact change through a desire to contribute to the goals they share with the leader. A mentor may inspire action, but requires nothing in return. A boss or manager provides advice for her employees, but this does not make her a mentor.