Boss, Leader and Mentor. Between myth and reality.

8 July 2021

by Eugenio Sidoli

A few weeks ago, Franco Visani – director of the Hybrid MBA with whom I’ve been collaborating in the last months – invited me to an exchange of experiences on the topic “Boss, Leader and Mentor. Between myth and reality”. It was an Open Lecture whose aim was to take stock of the situation on a subject that I believe is vital for the success of any enterprise: the development of people or of the “human capital” to put it in more polished terms.

My thirty years of experience as an Executive in a multinational company, within which I have discovered and experienced diversity as a value and talent management as a fundamental part of my managerial responsibility, taught me to distinguish between those who exercise a role without having the skills, those who have the leadership profile to lead others (sometimes even without having the title) and those who perform the silent task of guiding and mentoring people at all levels of the organization in a path of personal and professional growth.

Often these latter two – that of leader and mentor – coincide, but not necessarily. The distinction between boss and leader is easy: being a boss is a defined role, a supervisor, an authority, a job title; leadership, on the other hand, is “content,” managerialism, authoritativeness, competence, experience: qualities needed to effectively exercise a leadership role.

Leadership is not an innate quality, it is the sum of some natural predisposition and many trainable characteristics. There is now a large body of literature that establishes that genetics – in leadership – accounts for only 25-30% of the qualities that are required; 75-80% is practice, experience and constant effort aimed at improving one’s skills. Where some individuals show a precocious predisposition to leadership and fail due to self-centeredness, inability to listen and incompetence in soft skills, the training of a leader is a process in which learning depends on action, mistakes, taking responsibility, accepting feedback and putting into practice what has been learned.

The raw material for forming a business leader is the same as that needed to appoint a boss. The difference is not in the IQ, but in the ability to enhance rational intelligence with emotional intelligence, political intelligence and spirituality. I have met managers who were very intelligent but lacked any predisposition for leadership, and “ordinary” people who one day were offered the opportunity to take on responsibility in an autonomous manner and responded with courage and determination, asserting themselves through their authoritativeness. The leader’s responsibility also involves knowing how to lead others, and a corollary to that responsibility is that you should only take it on when you feel ready. At the foundation of the path to managerial growth are self-awareness and self-confidence. The first implies knowledge of one’s own abilities and limits, which is fundamental for focusing on one’s own areas of improvement; the second is learning what it takes to manage one’s own emotions, or “frustrations” as I prefer to call them, because they hold the best part of us hostage: shyness, pride, anger, ambition, jealousy, generosity, etc.

Management is, to a large extent, the government of one’s own and others’ frustrations, and the growth path required to become a leader is punctuated by trials and moments of debate, especially with oneself.  

Self-learning in the management experience has high costs. The possibility to engage with someone who has already been down that path, and who can support us part of the way, is therefore very useful. A boss should know how to do this, but often this is not the case and it is therefore useful to identify someone else: a mentor.

Mentoring is primarily listening and directing. The mentor has a maieutic function. I have learned this first-hand, meeting mentors who have had an important influence on my personal and professional growth: they have opened up perspectives and helped me overcome difficulties; they have pushed me to be daring and listened to me in times of failure; they celebrated my successes and have never asked anything in return.

The mentor – unlike the coach – is not an institutional figure, it is not a typical corporate role and cannot be categorized. Those who have a predisposition to be mentors emerge on their own, become a reference point in the company but do not have an assignment for what they do. The difference between coaching and mentoring is also the time perspective: the coach works on the “here and now”, performance; the mentor on long-term growth and on the choices that influence a career, the potential. The mentor does not provide solutions but points a way forward and prompts reflection. The relationship with the mentee arises spontaneously. Mentoring is the pleasure of sharing experiences for the benefit of those who show interest in what we can give; it arises out of an elective affinity and is a relationship in which the mentee manages his or her mentor.

In my career, I have coached by role; I have shadowed weeks for future managing directors, I have developed lasting mentor relationships with some younger colleagues and also with young professionals I met outside my company. Until a few months ago, my experience had always been one-on-one.

Thanks to Franco and to BBS I had the opportunity to develop a one-to-many mentoring project with a heterogeneous population of executives with whom I discussed and explored the area of cross-cutting skills in building leadership and a career. An enhancing and stimulating experience. 

One fact, in this last experience, stood out to me. Many companies invest considerable resources in the development of marketing plans for their products but, beyond the announcements on their web pages, they do not develop marketing plans, i.e. career development plans, for their people. They appoint bosses, but do not invest in the training of those managerial skills that form leaders. They have no focus on the processes that grow their human capital.

I believe that the lack of focus on the development of people – beyond the issues of gender and inclusion of diversity that appear increasingly urgent – is the greatest limitation to the growth of the Italian economy. A mentor works on the transfer of experience, develops managerialism, and inspires attention to the soft skills that characterize leadership. The best people, the ones who build the future of our society, flee bad bosses but follow inspired leaders who know how to guide them, who offer them a purpose for their professional commitment, and who know how to infuse energy into the progress that businesses need to maintain their competitiveness.

This reflection is dedicated to those leaders.


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