Throughout history, mentors have made a tremendous impact on their mentees. From influencing culture to changing the course of history, these mentors have accomplished a lot through developing others.
Read about three famous mentoring pairs from history, and see what you can learn about mentoring from their relationship.
1. Stella Adler Mentored Marlon Brando
Born in New York City to Russian immigrant parents, Stella Adler grew up in theater, performing in plays as a young child. As an adult, she studied acting under Konstantin Stanislavski, a pioneer in acting techniques and philosophy known as the system. She opened the Stella Adler Theater Studio in 1949, where she taught many actors and actresses her techniques, focusing on the actor emotionally empathizing with the character. One of Adler’s pupils and mentee was Marlon Brando, a two-time Oscar winner for Best Actor who was once described by Time Magazine as the “Actor of the Century.”
Adler never favored a directive approach to teaching. Instead, she said that it was impossible to teach another person to act, and that one could only activate the talents and abilities already inside the individual. Further, she believed that the point of acting training is to develop the capability in the actor to be responsible for their own training and development.
Brando wrote the preface of Adler’s book The Art of Acting, saying about Adler: “Little did she know that through her teachings she would impact theater culture worldwide...almost all filmmakers everywhere in the world have felt the effects of American films, which have been in turn influenced by Stella Adler’s teachings. She is loved by many and we owe her much.”
Lesson: Mentoring impacts culture. Many business leaders struggle with organizational culture. How can they shape the culture in a lasting way? Leaders would be wise to remember Adler’s work and that mentoring, teaching, and developing others has a lasting impact on the culture of the organization.
2. Mahatma Gandhi Mentored Nelson Mandela
Born in India under British rule, Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer, politician and activist who is considered to be the father of India due to his leadership. Today, Gandhi is known worldwide for his support of nonviolent protest.
Born thousands of miles away in a different century, Nelson Mandela spent decades in prison fighting white rule in South Africa. In 1994, Mandela became the first democratically elected President of South Africa.
Mandela credits Gandhi with influencing his leadership, even though the two individuals never met. However, Gandhi was a prolific writer, and influenced many through the written word. At a conference in 2013, Mandela said, “In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.”
Lesson: Mentors can influence people that they never even meet. The story of Gandhi and Mandela seems to challenge some of our notions of what is mentoring. However, a powerful communicator can be a mentor to many whom they have never even met.
3. Socrates Mentored Plato
Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates might have been found wandering the streets of Athens, interacting with and challenging his fellow citizens, one of which was Plato. Although Socrates influenced generations of philosophers, his caustic style contributed to his demise: he was found guilty of dishonoring the Athenian Gods and corrupting the young, and was forced to drink hemlock as a fatal punishment.
Perhaps one of Socrates’ most influential ideas was the Socratic method. In the Socratic method, the mentor will ask deep questions to the mentee to force them to confront their assumptions about particular topics. By doing this, the mentee will be forced to defend and refine their positions, primarily on challenging topics like ethics. Today, the Socratic method is still considered one of the best ways to stimulate critical thinking in others, and also influence them. The role of a mentor is to ask questions to the mentee, to help them come to their own conclusions.
Even though we know so much about Socrates and his life, he never wrote down any of his teachings. Instead, we know about his accomplishments through the works of his mentees, mainly Plato. Plato immortalized Socrates by turning him into a character in his writings, known as the Socratic dialogues.
Plato went on to contribute to philosophical thought, but also contributed to scientific thought and mathematics. He also mentored other famous thinkers such as Aristotle.
Lesson: Your legacy depends on your ability to mentor others. A successful business career can be divided into thirds: in the first third, you focus on growing and developing yourself. In the second third, you focus on accomplishments. In the final third, you focus on developing and supporting the next generation of leaders, often through mentoring and coaching. Often, the best business leaders are remembered more for their mentoring than their own accomplishments. Although Socrates never wrote down any of his work, his legacy has lasted for thousands of years simply because he mentored.