Dysfunctional Mentorship

A few years ago we took our daughter and her friends to Imire Game Park, near the small town of Marondera in Zimbabwe, for her birthday party. It was an exhilarating day, which was capped by a game drive. We saw an interesting phenomenon when we met a herd of buffalos. This herd included a towering elephant who acted as the matriarch. This elephant grew up with the buffalos and thought that it is a buffalo. It protected and defended them. It refuses to associate with elephant herds. At one time a bull elephant was introduced to her for mating. They were kept in the same pen. It attacked and killed the intruder because it felt that its turf was being invaded and its authority undermined. This elephant thought that it was a buffalo. Psychologically it was improperly nurtured and was not exposed to mature elephants and therefore its thinking is warped. It has lived its life below par. Though it protects the herd of buffalos, it aggressively attacks any would-be threat to its authority. Its strong nurturing instinct when coupled to its warped sense of identity made it a menace to any potential champions in the herd. She was happy as long as the buffalos and members of the herd were in their place and no one dared to rise to championship.

Sadly there are dysfunctional mentoring relationships with mentors who act like the matriarchal elephant among buffalos. They will support and encourage their charges as long as they do not outgrow the matriarchal elephant. Any growth beyond a certain level of influence poses a threat to the mentor who then seeks to destroy the protégé. Although mentoring is a force for good, if abused it can destroy rather than nurture champions. Mentoring can build you or sow seeds for your destruction depending on the spirit and character of your mentor. Mentoring is excellent but it has its pitfalls.  There are some dysfunctional mentoring relationships.

Consider this biblical case. Eli, the priest, had problems restraining his children who abused women and sacrifices at the temple in ancient Israel. He mentored Samuel, the prophet who was brought to the temple by her mother. In later years he also had problems restraining his children who became unruly. Samuel mentored David who subsequently had problems restraining his own children. It appears to me that mentoring has potential to pass on the weaknesses of the mentor as well. In biblical language this could be considered as a form of transference/impartation of spirits. It is known psychologically that when we communicate intimately we communicate our words as well as our moods, attitudes and our spiritual demeanour. Is it possible that we can also pass on our negative character flaws as well as what could be called generational iniquities?

I know an organisation where people complain about certain characteristics, mannerisms and dysfunctional leadership styles of the founder. Yet the majority of the middle managers in that organisation behave exactly the same way towards their subordinates.  One day I said to one of the middle mangers, “Do you realize that you are repeating the leader’s behaviours that you disdain?” He was shocked. What they detested in their leader, they replicated in their own lives. By relating to that mentor they inherited his weaknesses as well. When you relate closely to a person the spirit that works in them is transferred to you as well. That’s why you eventually have intimate people behave in very similar ways.

One way to control for the weaknesses of mentors is to have multiple mentors, in which case one will cover for the other. In certain critical areas you must have a number of people you are accountable to. That protects you.  Proverbs says, “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety”. The good thing about multiple mentors is that it restores the responsibility to make the final decision to the protégé. The mentors give different perspectives but it is the responsibility of the emerging champion to analyse the diverse views and then take an informed decision. Too many people substitute mentors for their own decision-making responsibility. It’s a fear of being responsible for the consequences of their decisions and so they look for mentors who would carry the risk. The Makoni amplified version of the Shona proverb says, “For maximum benefit from counsel, have the ability to think independently about the counsel given.”

If a mentor is uncomfortable with you consulting others, it is likely that he is seeking control. You should be able to have brainstorming sessions with both mentors sometimes.  It does not have to be adversarial. They are on the same team whose brief and mandate is to facilitate your achieving maximum impact.

I want to state categorically that in a mentoring relationship the control remains with the protégé.  If you believe that your mentor is too controlling, it’s up to you to draw the boundary. It is your life that is being built. It is your life that can be destroyed. You can start with a relationship that is sound and solid and get to a point where your mentor is intimidated by who you are. When you continue in that relationship, you will self-destruct. You should be able to say, “Thank you very much. I really appreciate what you have done. I will always respect you but I think at this stage I am moving on”. You control the relationship and never the other way.

I start with the premise that the function of leaders is to produce more leaders not more followers. Ralph Nader

You cannot stand before the throne of God or any court of law to say, “I am not liable for my actions since my mentor counselled me to do this”. At the end of the day you are accountable for all the decisions you make.  It does not matter how much counsel you get – it is your life and destiny at stake, and therefore you have the final responsibility over all decisions affecting your life. It is your responsibility to live your life according to your understanding of the revelation of the will of God, not according to your mentor’s understanding. However you are also liable for the consequences of that understanding should it prove deficient.

I take in counsel but I retain the final responsibility. Similarly business executives have final responsibility over the recommendations of consultants. They cannot shirk responsibility on the basis of the consultant’s opinion. They still need to assess the consultant’s input and then make a decision whose consequences they will live with. My pastor always says we are not guided by prophetic words. They are not the rule of thumb for the way we live. I seek to understand them and interpret them and make the final decision. I am finally accountable for every decision I make. Even if it’s my mentor who told me to do it, if I am not in agreement I am able to tell him that I am still weighing my options. I should be able to engage my mentor and let him explain his reasoning and the assumptions of his counsel. I do not have to do it simply because he told me to.

I led a young man to Christ in 1984 and mentored him. By God’s grace he qualified as a medical practitioner.  At some point I caught him trying to recruit some of my staff away from me. Such is life. Mentoring relationships do not always work out the way you think. You have things like that. You will develop people and they steal your business or customers.  Some of your star sales people whom you have groomed will turn around and hurt you.  But you need to have the capacity to forgive and keep blessing people because your call is to influence people for God and to touch the world for him. He never said everybody will appreciate you, neither did he say there will be no challenges. So as mentors, you will be hurt but you need to move on and keep building people. That’s life. You will not stop nurturing though others disappoint you. It is therefore apparent that dysfunctional mentoring can also originate from the emerging champion.

Dysfunctional mentoring does not occur as often as good relationships. However it’s important to recognise that dysfunctional mentoring does exist and can have severe consequences. There is potential for mentoring relationships to change over time and become dissatisfying and destructive as individual needs and/or organizational circumstances change. It is therefore possible for a perfectly sound mentoring relationship to turn dysfunctional. Since mentoring relationships are often intimate, the consequences of negative interactions could be detrimental to both mentoring partners and other related parties.

Previous Post Next Post

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Tb mpofu May 12, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Very good analysis of dysfunctional mentoring relationships.taken to heart.much appreciated.

  • Reply Revolution Senda May 13, 2010 at 4:22 am

    Dr makoni thank you for shedding light on the dysfunctions of mentorship. It shows that you intend to produce a balanced people who are fully aware of pitfalls that can befall them. This is essential as it enables individuals to avoid pits so that they do not fall into them. You raised the subject in a manner that captivates the reader in a way that engages broad thinking. It is this kind of articulation of facts that remains in the minds of people owing to its relevance to our day to day encounters.

  • Leave a Reply