I don't believe in mentorship. At least not as it's normally taught.
As we enter a global paradigm, we're going to have to get comfortable with the idea of more flexible, shifting roles, and to learn to maximize what everyone has to offer, rather than relying on ordained expertise.
For most of the history of the world, work and knowledge have been passed from one generation to its younger counterparts. The formal structures of this exchange were education, apprenticeship, and yes, mentorship. In exchange, the bearers of knowledge received the energy that comes with the unrefined passion of youth.
The relationship between teacher and student, master and apprentice, mentor and mentee is one of the most common across our social structures. Yet history shows it has also been regularly misapplied. The colonial presumption of cultural superiority, for example, was rooted in this very way of thinking.
But in the past two decades, something remarkable happened. The birth of the Internet represented the first time that a younger generation understood more about and knew better how to manipulate something of dramatic, cross-generational economic value than their parents. All of a sudden you had young people teaching old people about how to use this ... thing ... which was dramatically reshaping their economic and cultural landscape. What's more, you had young upstarts creating the new companies and new products that were accelerating that shift.
In the process, I believe a more natural and authentic dynamic began to emerge between millennials and Gen X. They started to actually have context to recognize the mutual value they offered one another. In one moment, a CEO could be "mentoring" a college student about how to build a sales and marketing pipeline, and in another that younger person could be teaching the CEO about the new dynamics of advertising in social networks.
The point is much broader than just mentorship, and it is about the way people recognize that, fundamentally, ever person has ideas, talents, knowledge, and resources to contribute, just as every person has those same things to learn and gain. This attitude that treats life as a series of continuing learning experiences, and assumes that everyone has something to teach and something to learn, is at the core of the authentic relationships that a new generation of leaders craves.
Special to the Globe and Mail
Nathaniel Whittemore is the founder of Assetmap, a platform for sharing and leveraging the social capital that exists within every community. Assetmap has been used by the Skoll World Forum, MacArthur Foundation, and will be released to the public in mid-2010. He is also the lead blogger for Change.org, an online media and action hub for social good. Before that, he spent three years building the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University, a global program design center for students passionate about leading lives of commitment. He lives in San Francisco. M r. Whittemore will be speaking at re:Vision2010's Earth Hour Event at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto on March 27. For more information visit the re:Vision2010 website .