By Ian Chisholm
I remember very clearly the moment when I first understood why someone would want to write a book. I was sitting in the audience at a lecture given by Dr. Gabor Maté at the University of Victoria. He had just finished writing In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, about society and addictions, and was giving us a glimpse of what it means to be a working medical doctor who decides to write another book.
“I start,” he said, “knowing that I never want to write a book that the world doesn’t need.”
It really put me in my place. Me, who had daydreamed on and off for years about eventually drafting The Book of All Time. You know the one. It flips systems wholescale, shifts centuries-old paradigms, leaves people whispering in hushed tones.
I think every would-be author secretly dreams of this.
But Maté’s words that evening dared me to think seriously. His conviction has stuck with me for years. It has even been part of holding myself back from writing.
At my core, I have zero desire to add to the noise. I never want to write a book that the world doesn’t need. But it is exactly the clarity of Maté’s conviction that created the space for the book I do want to write — a book I think the world just might need, right now.
Writing. With my heart in my throat.
I’ve cleared my schedule every Monday with the idea that I can come out of my weekend well rested and at my creative best. I hired a writing coach who meets with me once a week, every Monday, at the end of the day.
And then, I’ve discovered, it’s about writing and writing and writing, until I can’t write anymore.
Our very messy and jagged emergence from the belly of the COVID-19 pandemic has made for an interesting backdrop for my writing Mondays — a meta-chapter for our planet marked by tremendous loss, pain, constraint and discomfort. Paraphrasing loosely from what I wrote to our clients in April 2020, “the meteoric nature of this pandemic is not characterized simply by the fact that it came out of nowhere, but by the impact that it has had in our external and internal lives. It has ruptured the bedrock of how we live our lives and how we understand ourselves. How we work and how we learn. How we take initiative together and what holds us back from taking right action.”
In the last year+, we have seen glimpses of humanity at its best. We dig down deep. We admit we need help. We connect with each other to get through. We mourn. We hit the wall. We find extra gears that we did not know were there. We adapt. We find meaning. We advance.
Or at least … that is what we are capable of doing. We know that this potential is there, waiting for us. Once we get out of our own way.
The pandemic has also exposed what gets in our way. We have seen, most remarkably, the world’s most capable and resourced countries fail to leverage their scientific prowess and logistical capability to move as quickly and as effectively as they could have. To take a close look at what got in the way of our potential to rise to this challenge is as interesting to me as assessing the damage done.
Because when the damage is done, we will still need to address what it is within us that tripped us up. For the inevitable next time.
Initially masks, and now vaccines — the very things we now know protect us the most — have become ripe and loaded symbols of how much we distrust any science that brings us face to face with inconvenient truths, any government that asks us to temporarily suspend a handful of personal freedoms for the sake of something bigger, and a polarized media whose integrity we cannot be assured of anymore. We would rather create, circulate and then believe our own alternative narratives that suit what we want, and not what is. And more than that, we are literally prepared to make offerings of human life to the altar of these alternative narratives.
The problem is, this sort of bullshit gets in the way of the life-saving, coordinated response we are capable of.
Now, at least, the opposing forces have shown themselves: the insatiable appetite for unchecked power, self-interest, pettiness, insularity. All the classics that surface if we are left to succumb to our worst tendencies, in the absence of some form of governance around us.
The question to me becomes: What opposing dynamics in our humanity give us a fighting chance to self-correct? How can these forces for good be distilled, increased and enhanced? What are some strategies that just might put us back on the path of moving forward? What whispers have millions of us heard in the stories of our lives but paid no attention to, until now?
There’s something that can get us out of this mess.
It is quite common for us to overlook Mentorship as a theme in the stories describing our lives as leaders and as the amplifier to our ability to learn, grow, adapt and evolve.
That is the way it works. It comes into our life almost unnoticed. Its spark is an introduction, a conversation, a presence that somehow we appreciate and would like to explore more with. It is a connection that we find ourselves counting on. Something that quietly readies us and steadies us to endure the discomfort, adversity and challenge ahead. Sometimes it becomes something quite akin to friendship or alliance. Sometimes we grow apart. Sometimes it ruptures and cannot be repaired — sometimes it can.
Sometimes it unlocks something exponentially more in us than we could have imagined.
Which is why I want to write a book about Mentorship. And what it means to cross the threshold from being a leader to being a Mentor.
The Gift Word of TEAM
In digging deeper into this dynamic, I’ve found that it is even more powerful when we become part of a team of Mentors, providing leaders with a set of human connections that holds them to account to bring a higher level of discretion to the choices that count in their lives — and impact others.
I want to look at what it takes to form these small but carefully curated collections of characters that ground leaders in their finest selves so that they can make their finest contribution, again and again — a constellation of governance around each leader that repositions them to be able to see their north star and navigate accordingly.
The dynamics created by a team of Mentors — think of it as a personal board of directors — invites us to be responsible for things bigger than ourselves. It supports our finest desires and challenges our most limited thinking. It jars us from our neurological ruts to find new connections and perspectives — and to reconnect all of us to what actually exists (not what we wish existed). We may not always like this dynamic. It is hard work. But we grow to respect it and trust it for what it brings out of us.
We need it. We always have. We always will.
When leaders are surrounded by a team of Mentors, those who look to them for leadership will not be let down.
Unless we weave people together in this way, we will keep making choices that are built on the dangerous myth that any of us are ‘self-made’ and not forged by, within and for a community.
The Mentorfesto (a working title) will be complete and published one way or another by 2022. Will it flip systems and shift paradigms? We will have to see.
Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.
Our convictions about Mentorship one decade ago stand strong, largely unchanged over time. Here’s what we had to say about the difference between the words “coach” and “Mentor” back in 2011.