The Humble Leader: Giving Without Strings Attached

Open a book on leadership or management, read an article on the subject or listen to an interview and you’re bound to bump into coaching or mentoring. This inter-related field has exploded in the past decade, with certified coaching programs and mentoring initiatives becoming as ubiquitous as cubicles.

As with any new management development or fad there’s a saturation point, and perhaps to be provocative a case of diminishing returns. And as a longtime friend and leadership consultant said to me a while ago, “Jim, there are a lot of hungry coaches out there.” Indeed.

Certification as a coach doesn’t come cheap, at least not with the reputable programs. Expect to fork out major bucks. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of formal coaching programs, assuming one can afford to become a client, especially in a brutal labor market with a prolonged economic recovery. And just when getting that competitive edge is so important.

What has interested me for some time is the ongoing fuzziness over what is coaching and what is mentoring. I’ve listened to enough disagreements from experts on their distinctions. Perhaps one helpful explanation is from Hilarie Owen, author, consultant and head of leadership services for the police in Wales , England and Northern Ireland. In a recent interview with the International Leadership Association (of which I’m a member), Owen explained the difference between coaching and mentoring this way:

We often confuse mentoring with coaching. A coach asks questions and doesn’t have to have the same background or have experienced the same. A mentor has been where the mentee is, has empathy and hopefully, has learned and developed wisdom. Coaching tends to focus on performance; mentoring tends to develop the whole person which is why enabling a person to reflect is an important part of mentoring. In developing the person, you need to question the beliefs and assumptions that a mentee has, especially if they are limiting their capability.

I’m pretty aligned with Owen’s explanation of the difference between the two. It’s what I’ve personally come to understand after 20 years of studying and practicing leadership. However, professional coaches I’ve known would nick-pick on the above description.

At the heart of this issue is people–warm-blooded human beings, complete with their gifts, warts and idiosyncrasies. We shouldn’t be making coaching or mentoring a complicated rocket science process, feeding what is now a self-serving industry that “certifies” people to become coaches.


Of all the material I’ve read on coaching and mentoring over two decades, one piece stands out for both its simplicity and elegance. Meet Chip Bell, author of the 1996 book Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning.

The premise of Bell’s approach to mentoring is that the mentor is part teacher, guide, sage and, especially, someone who strives to the best of his or her ability to act in a “whole and compassionate way” with the mentee. As he states: “No greater helping or healing can occur than that induced by a model of compassion and authenticity.”

Bell uses the acronym SAGE for his approach to mentoring:


S – Surrendering:

In contrast to the mentor driving the learning process she surrenders it. It’s not about losing power or authority but rather yielding to a flow that transcends both mentor and mentee. A mentor who attempts to control the learning process will in the end hinder discovery and personal reflection.

A – Accepting:
This is the act of inclusion. It’s about embracing uncertainty, change and possibilities, as opposed to judging or evaluating.

G – Gifting:
The act of generosity underlies gifting. However, don’t confuse it with giving, which is the process of bestowing something of value with the expectation of receiving something in return. Mentors have gifts to share, accumulated from their life experiences.

E – Extending:
This involves the challenge of pushing the mentor-mentee relationship beyond the assumed boundaries. It may eventually mean the end of the relationship if the mentee is to continue growing and exploring new opportunities.

Bell explains that Surrendering and Accepting are essential to the learning process because it “levels the playing field.” They enable Gifting to occur in its full form, with Extending reducing the mentee’s dependence on the mentor.

What I’ve always liked about Chip Bell’s mentoring model is that it’s really a philosophy on how to approach one’s learning and how to become involved in helping others in their learning journeys. Indeed, it’s not even about managers as mentors, as the book’s title states; instead, it’s about people helping people. SAGE, in my view, serves as the four cornerstones to mentoring, or coaching if you prefer that word. Eventually, it becomes a case of semantics.

I encourage you to check out Bell’s book and his website (see the above links) and open yourself to a different way of thinking about mentoring and coaching.

There is a magical quality about the spirit of the mentoring process when it takes on a life of its own and leads mentor and protégé through an experience of shared discovery.
– Chip Bell (Managers as Mentors)