Questions Concerning the “Essence” of Mentoring: From Goddess to Profession
Michael H. Shenkman, Ph.D.Arch of Leadership, Professional Leader Mentoring
As a practicing professional, I have seen how mentoring transforms people's lives. Still, it seems we need to make a strong case for why, in certain situations, mentoring is called for, and we need to be able to distinguish what methods and outcomes are specific to mentoring, even when it is combined with other developmental methods.
Philosophical inquiry is well suited to affirm the specific contribution mentoring offers and opens up promising ways to advance the practice. Philosophical questioning, as has historically been the case in Western science, can sharpen the thinking that determines criteria for professional excellence, specifies rationales for training and demarcates necessary subject matter for mastery.
As a professional, non-academic, practicing philosopher, I interpret the “founding” story of Mentor, as found in Homer’s Odyssey. From this interpretation we can then ask:
Why has mentoring now risen to the fore? What are the situations in which mentoring alone suffices? What occurs only in that mentoring relationship? What does mentoring produce, bring forth into a person’s life, which is uniquely an effect of mentoring?
From this non-technical, participative inquiry we can begin to distinguish our field of study.
This essay explores the question, “what is the essence of mentoring?” I ask a philosophical question, in order to generate practical, professional questions.
It seems to me the notion of mentoring faces challenges that cannot be answered by shifting our perspectives on institutional practices or practical definitions; and, accordingly, another viewpoint needs to be summoned to the scene. For instance, the word "mentoring" is now applied to all sorts of support services -- to everything from urging young people into careers to providing advisors for guiding employees through the thickets of corporate politics. “Mentoring” supposedly fills the gaps. Form another direction, other practices claim to cover any and all manner of "informal" (non-licensed, non-technical) support services, such as surrogate parenting, to coaching or student advising. We could be content with this state of affairs. And then, the subject of this conference is the question of how, where, why and whether mentoring fits in with other professional support and developmental services?
I propose to show here that when we say we are “mentoring” we give voice to a special and singular set of intentions, one that is different from other intentions we have and other activities we perform and/or engage in. When a psychoanalyst is doing his or her work, it is conducted in a certain way, with particular models of development being employed and certain outcomes are expected and used as touchstones to determine the stage of movement toward those outcomes. Analogously, when we say we are mentoring we can be aware of very particular aspects of the mentee’s situation and speak to these aspects alone -- even in the midst of offering other kinds of services. When we are mentoring we are putting into play a certain model of what our “psyche” wants and how it operates. And then, when we are mentoring, we can be aware that it is only mentoring that is being done; and when we do them, we can expect certain results, and not others.
In raising the question as to the “essence” of mentoring we turn our attention toward the factors that organizes our “awareness”. It is not that we can ever get to say, “mentoring is this or that,” as though it were a thing we could pick up, examine and then go to work on. In examining the “essence” of mentoring we are guiding our awareness as it is employed in order to elicit a certain kind of relationship, conversation and outcomes. When we act according to the “essence” we are orienting our attention to a cluster of questions that delineates a particular path, just this path, and no other. We are dedicating ourselves to an awareness that will, with some effort, guide us in an endeavor we intend to enact and fulfill.
I will begin with an interpretation of the "founding" story of the idea of the mentor from Homer's, The Odyssey. By highlighting how this account truly does introduce a very special kind of intervention in a life, we can answer the questions we asked above and take from this what we can refer to as being the "essence" of mentoring.
The Scene. Telemachus was a boy when his father, Odysseus, departed to fight in Troy. Telemachus is experiencing a profound sense of “expectant absence” — the absence of his father, he thinks, but as the story unfolds we see that this “absence” has other dimensions as well.
In the meantime, Telemachus’s domain is under siege. Rumors have spread that Odysseus has died in the war, and thus a phalanx of suitors and hangers-on flock to the family’s estate to woo Penelope, his mother, Odysseus’s wife, and thus assume ownership and command of Odysseus’ kingdom. The scene is one of chaos, of the breakdown of order, of competition (conflicts, fights and deaths) among individual, testosterone-driven desires and ambitions. But it is one in which it is clear just what one must do with respect to it. It is a scene that calls for action and remedy, to be sure; but it also calls for wisdom in deciding the right tack to take, the right kind, quality and amount of force and/or authority to wield.
State of Mind. Telemachus feels an absence; that is, where there should be a sense of purpose and energy, of vision, instead, there is a hole, emptiness and a deafening silence. Instead of a concrete voice and visage there is confusion and impotence. Telemachus feels something: he feels a longing that he has now set this in the shape of the bsence of his father. But in the most anti-psychoanalytical way imaginable, Homer tells a story in which the father problem is a stand-in for Telemachus’ own longings. Telemachus feels a stirring, he experiences an absence; it might be the case that the absence he feels is something else, that he might be on the verge of something new, a new stage in his life; but at this moment he does not know what that “something” is.
The crisis Telemachus faces is that of being blocked, of feeling an inner urge and calling being thwarted. The immensity of the problem seems to put it beyond his reach, although he keeps getting called back to it.
It is not that he lacks the will or know-how to take on the debauching suitors who are creating such chaos -- he has these qualities; it is not a matter of him not knowing how to perform certain skills, such as sword play or combat -- he does know how to do those things. His sense of self (such as the Greeks might have had it) is dwarfed in the face of this absence, and so, as long as he thinks this, he is immobilized. His sense of his own mission and calling are unclear; they are in too diffuse a state to respond to, too overwhelming in its chaotic, ambiguous, massive extent for him to engage; they are too new, in this growing and maturing young man, to identify, clarify, put in order and priority and so act upon. With all this chaos around him — overwhelming him and his mother, and upsetting the kingdom over which his family presides — this absence (presumably, the absence of his father) burdens him, blocks him from acting in a way that accords with his nature.
Enter Mentor. The goddess Athena appears on the scene in the form of a friend, Mentor, who urges Telemachus to undertake a voyage in order to search for his father. Mentor is a goddess incarnate. When we invoke the name “mentor” the fact that the name stands for an incarnated goddess is a mark of pride. It lends an “aura” to the term, and gives to mentoring an immediate claim to status. And, from my own philosophical perspective, I would actually say that we have not sufficiently examined the goddess aspect of this founding scene. We go far in grasping the essence of mentoring when we ask, “What does this “goddess” aspect mean?” Why did Homer, author of many an intriguing human character, invoke a goddess to approach Telemachus? Indeed, the goddess aspect of the encounter is a big deal; in terms of the essence of mentoring it does set the tone, demarcate a terrain and imply a specific kind of interaction. And so, to contemplate the goddess will take us far in our exploration. We’ll take up this task momentarily.
Mentor urges a journey. What does Athena/Mentor do? She urges Telemachus to undertake a voyage. This advice should immediately give us pause. The goddess is not telling Telemachus where his father is – although we might presume she knows this. Further, she recommends no prescribed set of tasks such that success will be guaranteed or made more likely. She urges Telemachus to undertake a perilous voyage over huge, open, always estranging seas. The unexpected will occur, the operation will be massive and will require the summoning of great personal resources, for the sake of the journey — since no successes are guaranteed. Finally, and perhaps most of all, the journey will not resolve the immediate situation, will not immediately “fix” his malaise; and so in no way does taking up her advice promise to fill the specific vacuum, the absence of the father.
And then, her advice dispensed, when the message is received, and the plan is set in motion, she disappears from the scene. Her work is done.
The Essence of Mentoring
What does this scene tell us about the “essence of mentoring?”  Here I speak of “essence” as being a core of constancy to which we relate with the confidence that the continuity of our attention and what it elicits in us will persist through multiple engagements, through many diverse analyses and through all the permutations of conversations, dialogues and discussions. This awareness keeps us in a state of questioning about mentoring – opening an intended field such that mentoring, and mentoring alone, emerges to affect us and carry us forward into response, action, engagement and giving, as mentors do.
The Scene. First, the scene itself brings to mind the questions, “Why was it that Mentor appeared, and not some other kind of intervention? Does this say anything to us about why mentoring has become important today?” My suspicion on this subject is that mentoring rises to the fore in the context of precisely scenes such as this: when mentees feel that they are facing situations of immanent chaos, where values and processes are called into question. Mentoring is needed when we might know what needs to be done, but we need to ask ourselves, am I the one to do those things? Even though I possess the skills, do I possess the will? Is this the situation to which I want to devote my life, or this part of it?
The nature of the chaos of the scene at Telemachus’s home goes right to the heart of this question: Why does a goddess, of the stature of Athena no less, have to appear to resolve the process? She is required because a completely different kind of perspective, one that is completely outside of the tumult, is required to address this situation. A mere mortal, even a heroic one, would simply attack the situation head on in order to prove worthiness by means of alpha status type invincibility. That approach would only repress and forestall the chaos for a time; it would not dispel it. It also validates Telemachus’s crisis: all the normal, adolescent and power-based approaches won’t suffice here. What will suffice? Does he have what it takes to address the situation? How would he know whether or not he did (or didn’t)?
Today, we ask the question, “Why has mentoring risen to the fore now?” I would say that it has done so because our way of life emulates to a tee exactly the quality of chaos depicted in Homer’s scene. Our rationalized, prescribed behaviors create situations of competition-driven chaos. It is just that now the sources of conflict are so diverse and numerous, navigating them is infinitely more difficult than what Telemachus faced. And so, even more pressing for us are the questions that beset Telemachus. More than ever, we need some way to gain a perspective on the resources we can bring to bear such that we can make our respective ways.
Telemachus’s Issue: His Role. I think, in respect to the situation he faces, we can say that Telemachus is blocked, prevented by some internally generated reticence, and is so in a peculiar and specific way. The sense of absence that he feels is cast in the image of his father, not of just a person, but in the mode of one who takes up a specific kind of relationship to him, who takes up a certain responsibility so that certain kinds of events, certain qualities of life, and that certain values can be nurtured and established. Thus the longing for the father can be considered a longing for being able to take up what, in his young, aspiring mind, is an appointed role: just as his father personifies the assumed, mastered, masterly role, he is seeking such a role for himself. But, this is not even as clear as that to Telemachus himself. In view of the chaos around him, what kind of a role is suited to this chaotic situation? Has this role ever been named? Not to Telemachus’s mind. He is on his own here, and that is a lonely place indeed.
The Goddess. Mentor is a goddess — one of the greats -- the goddess of wisdom and war. To fully appreciate what we can glean from this scene, we need to appreciate that the gods in Homer’s time were not creators in the sense that the biblical Judeo-Christian God is. Homer’s gods enact what occurs and what takes place, in special relations with humans, on the earth, right then and there; but, not as would an earthly commander, but as imbued with a aura of destiny, futurity as a field of play, influence, and opened but constrained trajectory – in short, of possibility. Accordingly, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, enacts the irrepressible drive to comprehend a situation, to enable Telemachus to compose a mindset that is able to go right at the situation, head on, with vision and courage. That is the wisdom side. What about the war aspect? War organizes forces of contestation against standing conventions and arrangements so as to stand up a different way, one that does not yet exist, but still holds sway as an engine of action. A goddess’ war is one that takes a stand for what is beyond the pale of mortal reductions and conventions, and so uplifts and transcends mortality and bends one’s will toward a greater, brighter light, and a wider sense of what living offers. War, strange as it may seem to our modern ears, stands for striving, aspiration, and the contestation the thriving spirit requires. The war making then undertakes the steps necessary to overcome the incessant obstacles in order to accomplish this “vision.”
Conversation. Athena does her work here by instigating a conversation, one from seemingly out of the blue, that will inspire Telemachus to undertake deeds that will literally transport him beyond his current state of being. This is what the gods do in human affairs; they appear at the “right time,” when the subject is “ready.” The goddess signifies a power that must be prepared for in order to be received, one that transforms and shapes events as they are transpiring and so requires the readiness to engage, grow and comprehend the new. It is not that the gods can see the future, but rather that they “get” the logic (the Greek Logos) of the whole that is in play in this particular arena of engagement– both in terms of the character of the people involved, as well as the dimensions of the situation in general. That is, as a “logic,” what Mentor offers is the full force of what can be gathered into a “saying,” into a voiced, articulated, directed and destined “call” that can be heard, comprehended and taken up in a plan of action – the full force of wisdom and war. Thus, Athena/Mentor’s words, instructions, entreaties and demands form a sort of psychic bridge into new amplitudes, intensities and expanses of living. 
The Goddess’s Labor: Aspiration. In a word, we can say that the goddess dramatizes aspiration — the life beyond tasks, the spirit of expansiveness of possibility and encompassing of greater forces than those immediately in effect, the spirit opens futures beyond given strictures, and constantly generates open and unknown horizons that beckon. And, the image of the goddess, arising on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere, signifies to us that all of this psychic uplift occurs in the midst of the here and now, the journey on the earth, over the seas, by the means available now.
Returning to our scene, Mentor appears, seemingly out of the blue, and urges Telemachus to take a long and dangerous voyage over vast seas in order to find a mere spec of a being -- one man, his father. This is the first step in altering Telemachus‘ view of his fixation on the missing father. This way is also completely new and foreign to Telemachus, a way that has no guarantees, but places him in an act that is outrageous, but also seems in proportion to and is an appropriate and adequate response to the absence and yearning, and sense of crisis that Telemachus feels pressing upon him. Thus the second way the grip his fixation has on him is loosened and he is freed to decide what he will do next.
Outcome and Conclusion: the Gift. And then, recall: once Telemachus sets out on the voyage, Mentor/Athena disappears. Once aspiration is voiced, envisioned (gathered and placed in the light) and undertaken, that aspiration belongs to that person alone – not to any goddess, or mentor. Her urging is offered pure a gift,  one that envisions no reciprocation or debt, that is given purely, as only a god (or a mentor) can give. And even though Telemachus does not find his father, the “absence” is addressed none the less: he now can assume full responsibility for the situation and take up a father’s role with respect to the chaos at hand. That does not mean fix it, but instead means engage it, take it on has his mission, his mandate, his labor — his aspiration — to be the master of his domain.
The Essence, Its Differences and Consequences
So from all this, if Homer’s story is anything to go by, we can say that mentoring spurs and arouses the spirit to venture into the life of aspiration. Whatever a mentor does, the question that remains salient and outlines a sense of its “essence” is this:
Am I encouraging a person to gather his or her will, sprit and acumen in order act on his or her aspirations above all, against all obstacles, over and above all criticisms and judgments, and to strengthen and nurture those life competencies that will keep those aspirations alive?
The key questions that will keep a mentor on that way are these?
1. Is this person facing a chaotic scene in which values and priorities are under pressure and profoundly disturbed, murky?
2. Is this a person who aspires: who is seeking a resolution in which the situation is not just for being fixed, but offers a pathway on which deep yearnings for something great to happen can be pursued?
4. Is that person is blocked from pursuing that urge?
3. Am I grasping the mentee’s aspiring mindset, and helping him or her to organize a life that generates such a path, comes on the scene?
4. Am I conducting a conversation that enacts and embodies a gaze of wisdom and will, as the one who stands for the mentee’s life of aspiration?
5. In each session, am I working toward validating the mentee’s aspiration and getting closer to envisioning practical steps that can be placed in service to that aspiration, while allowing other considerations that interfere, diminish or disparage that aspiration fall away?
6. When the mentee’s journey is underway, enacted in a mood of resolve, so as to fully adopt the life of aspiration do I fade out of the scene appropriately?
Questions Guiding Next Steps. In a most crucial way, we are still learning about mentoring. In one way, of course, mentoring is the most natural, spontaneous, informal and personal way of supporting a person’s growth and development. But if we are to be “professional” about mentoring and establish it as an independent component of developmental practices, we have to become more systematic about our approach – indeed as this conference and many academic departments are doing. We then, might continue with our questions, asking:
· Why has mentoring risen to the fore now? What are the situations today that require mentoring more than ever before?
· How do we make it known that mentoring is indispensible at various points in people’s lives, and so both highlight those points, and have mentors be there to take up the task, to appear on the scene?
· We are not goddesses, so how do we need to learn what mentoring entails? What do we have to learn? What kind of “persona” does a mentor adopt (in comparison to the remote psychoanalyst, or the “in your face” coach, for instance)?
· What is a "mentoring" conversation: how does it proceed? What constitutes its pacing, working assignments and methodology?
· What does one have to learn about our subject matter, aspiration, in order to be a mentor? Is there a special way to order our knowledge? Is there an aspiring mindset that needs to be characterized outside of behavioral and cognitive psychological schemas?
· How do we, do we want to, make mentoring be "professional?"
· When subjecting mentoring to institutional metrics, what compromises are we putting into effect? How can we do so doing the least “harm” to the “essence” of mentoring? Or can we convince institutions that mentoring’s value lies in the life stories it sets in motion?
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F., (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
_________, (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Derrida, Jacques, (1992). Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Heidegger, Martin, Early Greek Thinking (1975). New York: Harper &Row.
_________, The End of Philosophy (2003). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
_________, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (1977). New York: Harper Perennial
Shenkman, M., The Arch and the Path: The Life of Leading Greatly (2005). SHM Press.
________, Leader Mentoring: Find, Cultivate and Inspire Great Leaders (2008). New York: Career Press.
 To be sure this is an interpretive enterprise, as Homer had no operating notion of something akin to an “essence.” This was a notion that only began to take shape in any kind of “functional,” that is “philosophical” form anywhere from 500 years to even 800 years after what are estimated as the time of Homer’s life (if, in fact, there is such a single person at all).
 Philosophically speaking, one can make a career out of clarifying what this term means. We can’t do that here. But we can stake out a position on the legitimate (reasoned, reasonable, lawful) use of this term for our purposes. I emphasize the sense that Heidegger brings to this term, of an appearing that transpires so as to be complete, abiding and enduring in the light, and in such a way that nothing other than this appearing, and no other, could transpire. Heidegger presents serial interpretations of “essence,” one after another, as he works through (the essence of) his thought. See, for example, his discussion of Aristotle’s definition, in The End of Philosophy (Chicago; 1973); pp. 1ff.; and then for a more free-form rendering see The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays (New York; 1977); pp. 3ff. Also see note #3 below.
 Heidegger constructively forms a bond between the notion of “essence” and questioning in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York; 1977). The notion of “essence” puts us on a way, ensconces us in a mindset in which certain occurrences, formations, sayings, and states (emotional, intellectual, cognitive, intentional) become active. The “essence” gives us to question, (p. 1) to take up a mode, a way, such that, by questioning, we assure ourselves that we keep the in-forming presence (what we gather into a mode of standing before us, what we “enframe”; p. 24) in our attention and that it remains salient therein. Questioning thus forms a “free relationship” to this act of in-forming, and so brings us, we bring ourselves, to a state of awareness in which that which is in-forming our attention emerges, out of all the clutter, clamor and noise in which it might otherwise be submerged.
 In the parlance of Deleuze and Guattari, a “war machine,” is a mode of engaging that underlies every organism’s impetus to take its place in its milieu. See Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis, MN; 1987); Ch. 12.
 Athena founded cities. Athens is the most famous of these, but there are others as well. These cities are characterized by great energy, inventiveness and an expansive and, indeed, expansionist mindset. See Sallis, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timeaus (Bloomington, IN; 1999); pp. 40ff.
 “…[The] enduring lighting lets gods and men come to presence in unconcealment in such a way that none of them could remain concealed; not because e is observed by someone, but because – and only because – each comes to presence…[The] gods are those who look into the lighting of what is present, which concerns mortals after their fashion, as they let what is present like before them in its presence and as they continue to take heed of it.” Heidegger, Early Greek Thinking (op.cit.); p. 119.
 The mentor’s disappearance from the scene is not well accounted for in the current literature on mentoring, and yet it is an absolutely critical aspect of the process. The mentor opens what cannot be given: an unknown future, and one that remains so in each and every moment of its unfolding, to all concerned. According to the obscure logic of “the gift,” nothing, no existent factor, has passed between the parties. The mentor’s urging remains a gift because the outcome is completely incommensurable to anything that actually took place in the conversation. Paradoxically, Mentor/Athena has proffered a gift precisely because Telemachus would fully internalize the outcome of the voyage as his own accomplishment. Also, Mentor/Athena did not do anything in particular to engineer a specific outcome for which she could claim credit; and so what she gave, the urge into aspiration, remains in a state that does not command reciprocation, or enter into any exchange whatsoever. C.f. Jacques Derrida, Given Time :I. Counterfeit Money (Chicago; 1992).
In the most profound way, this disappearance signals a break with lines of causality and evokes notions of spontaneous emergence. This also makes it very difficult to “measure” the outcomes of mentoring, in its “essential” mode, especially in metrics-driven institutional settings. Metrics assume that one set of actions “caused” outcomes and the intent is to optimize these causing actions so as to increase the likelihood of the outcomes. Mentoring specifically refuses the ascribing of cause, and the mentee takes up the urge according to his own will, proclivities and values.