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The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People & Teams That Win Consistently

The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People & Teams That Win Consistently

by Tony Dungy

Learn More | Meet Tony Dungy

I had been mentored by so many. They had all added value to my life. And my leadership style had been influenced by them. I had thought about the idea of leading in such a way that it created value for others, but in that moment, thinking of so many people who had made a difference in my life and had so much to do with my being on that podium in that steady drizzle, the idea of mentoring crystallized for me. It isn’t a structured program that necessarily makes the difference; rather, the difference is made moment by moment by leaders who care—for others.

As I hoisted that trophy above my head, I realized the responsibility we all have to become mentor leaders in the lives of others. Most people, at one time or another in their lives, will take on the role of a leader—whether formally or informally, at work, at home, or at church. And most people, if they’re honest about it, would say they feel a little inadequate in that role—whether as a parent or a boss or a team leader. Actually, some self....doubt is a healthy attribute in a leader.

Leadership is necessary in any human society; thus, a leadership void will not exist for very long before someone steps up to lead, either by popular acclaim, selection, or self....appointment. The question is, what type of leader will that person be? This question is more than academic, however, for the leadership style can dictate how effective that person will be, and how significant an impact the person’s leadership will create.

In my life and career, I have seen all kinds of leaders, but the ones who have had the greatest positive impact on my life are the select few who have been not only leaders but also mentors. In fact, it is largely because of the influence of mentors in my life that I was drawn to write this book.

I believe that certain principles of successful leadership are timeless. In other words, they’re not just the latest fad or fashion, and they’re not dependent on or dictated by our circumstances. Furthermore, I have come to realize that these principles can be taught, learned, absorbed, and then passed on to others, especially to those whom we ourselves have the privilege to lead.

Conventional wisdom says that leaders are born, but I don’t believe that’s true. From what I’ve seen, positive, life....changing leadership is an acquired trait, learned from interaction with others who know how to lead and lead well. Leadership is not an innate, mystical gift; rather, it is a learned ability to influence the attitudes and behavior of others. As such, we can all learn—and then teach others—how to understand and apply the principles of successful leadership.

I spoke with the head of a Fortune 300 company who noted that he had recently experienced an awakening in how he interacted with his employees. He said, “I had long known that I could influence whether or not my employees had a good day; it was fairly obvious that I held sway over that, for better or worse. But one day, as I drove home, trying to fight off a dark cloud from a tough day’s work and trying not to let it affect my family when I walked through the front door, I realized that many, if not all, of my direct reports were experiencing the same thing. If they weren’t able to compartmentalize their frustration, anger, and irritation, then they were going to take those toxic feelings into their homes. I don’t simply have an impact on my direct reports—there is an exponential effect on those around them as well, based in no small part on their interactions with me.” Understanding the profound effect of our leadership is often the first step toward adopting a style of leadership that has proved itself effective over many generations—a style I’m calling mentor leadership. It isn’t so much the creation of a new kind of leadership as it is a recognition and exploration of a model I’ve learned—and tried to practice—throughout my life.

Much of what I’ve learned I owe to two men in particular: my father, Wilbur Dungy, who provided a consistent model for me through his teaching, coaching, and parenting; and Chuck Noll, my head coach when I was a player and an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They, in turn, were shaped by others—my father by my grandfather, Herbert Dungy, who modeled for my dad what he in turn modeled for my siblings and me; and Coach Noll by Paul Brown and Don Shula, coaches under whom he coached and played. As their title suggests, mentor leaders seek to have a direct, intentional, and positive impact on those they lead. At its core, mentoring is about building character into the lives of others, modeling and teaching attitudes and behaviors, and creating a constructive legacy to be passed along to future generations of leaders. I don’t think it’s possible to be an accidental mentor.

While leading in such an intentional manner, mentor leaders cannot help but also have a positive impact on others—whether as role models or through the lives of the people they have mentored. The primary focus of mentor leadership, however, is to shape the lives of the people right in front of them, as they lead, guide, inspire, and encourage those people.

We often mirror what we see. Coaches will model the behavior of successful coaches they know or observe, sometimes with detrimental results. Similarly, business leaders model other business leaders—or when necessary, try to do the opposite, whatever that might be. Too often, though, we choose people to mirror or model, and leadership books to read, solely for the purpose of figuring out how to win more games or increase our financial bottom line. In the process of looking for leadership models to emulate, we choose people who have won a lot of games or who have made a lot of money for themselves or their organizations, with little thought given to how they have affected the lives of the people around them. If along the way lives are made better, we too often view it as a wonderful by....product rather than as a primary purpose of leadership. I don’t have all the answers, but my hope is that you’ll find enough here that will help you become a positive mentor leader in whatever setting you find yourself.

Before we get into the heart of our discussion, here are some essential traits of a mentor leader to keep in mind:

  • Becoming a mentor leader is not rocket science. If it were, I wouldn’t be writing a book about leadership. As we’ll see, leadership consists of principles and skills that are accessible to anyone and everyone. They aren’t necessarily intuitive, but they aren’t terribly difficult, either.

  • Mentor leadership can be taught and learned; but in order to be absorbed, it must be practiced. The best way to evaluate leadership philosophies and find your own style is by testing them in action. You can’t stay in the ivory tower reading books and discussing theories. Eventually you have to wade into the fray.

  • Mentor leadership focuses on developing the strengths of individuals. It might be in a fairly narrow way, such as building a specific skill, or more broadly focused, such as teaching employees to be proactive about meeting others’ needs so they can better support the organization. Successful mentor leaders make the people they lead better players, workers, students, or family members—and ultimately, better people.

  • Mentor leadership works best when the ones being mentored are aware that the mentor leader has a genuine concern for their development and success. Those we lead will be more receptive if they believe we genuinely want them to succeed.

Though true mentor leadership is intentional, we need to understand that people are watching us and learning from us whether we’re aware of it or not. The leadership we model can lead to positive or negative results. We’ve all seen cases where leaders have unintentionally fostered destructive, dysfunctional, or damaging behaviors. Parents who have heard their children echo harsh words to a pet, doll, or sibling will know what I mean.

Success for a mentor leader is measured by different standards than those commonly accepted in our society. Mentor leadership is all about shaping, nurturing, empowering, and growing. It’s all about relationships, integrity, and perpetual learning. Success is measured in changed lives, strong character, and eternal values rather than in material gain, temporal achievement, or status. Ultimately, mentor leadership is just as successful in achieving the standards of accomplishment in our society. But unlike other types of leadership, it is primarily concerned with building and adding value to the lives of people in the process. It’s about changing lives.

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