Behind every great leader is a great mentor. From Aristotle to Arianna Huffington, mentorship has been behind every success story. Oprah Winfrey took inspiration from the great poet and activist Maya Angelou. Sir Richard Branson was personally mentored by British airline entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker. Bob Dylan’s musical journey was shaped by the guiding hand of Woody Guthrie. Bill Gates often turned to Warren Buffet for advice on business and philanthropy.

But what exactly is mentorship? The word “mentor” takes its origin from the Greek tale of Odysseus who, while generally off fighting in wars and consulting oracles for about a decade, entrusted his good friend Mentor to raise his son in his absence. Mentor was such a natural at this that his name has remained with us for millennia – describing an individual who serves as a trusted guide to someone younger and less experienced.

Mentorship has been with us since time immemorial. It’s that ancient contract between the wizened sage and the eager apprentice and, in many ways, you could argue that it’s really at the heart of all human culture and relationships. It’s that subtle process of lifelong learning where the elder, who has travelled down the road of life, acts as a guide and guru for the beginner, the novice. This relationship is really built on a matrix of mentorship, where wisdom is dispensed with and is then tested, refined, rejected or passed on.  

We all need to remember that our very first mentors appear naturally, and often unremarkably, in our lives – these are our parents and grandparents, and those teachers who turned dull lessons into exhilarating journeys of discovery. Even our friends – often without our full awareness – have mentored us through challenging times in our lives.

The truth is that mentoring is always a two-way street. It’s not just some bright-eyed youngster sitting at the feet of some beloved elder, lapping up the wisdom. Mentorship delivers value for the mentor too – a very real sense of personal agency and public service. They discover that they can give back and make a difference.

Because what is the point of amassing a wealth of skills and insights, if you’re not prepared to pass this on to others and pay it forward? That’s just leadership in a vacuum. As philanthropist and businesswoman Germany Kent puts it, “If you're not reaching back to help anyone, then you're not building a legacy.” 

But how do you implement mentorship in a concrete, meaningful and productive way? Redefine Properties has recently launched
The Mentorship Challenge with Marc Wainer where legendary leaders are invited onto the weekly television show to unpack the concept of mentorship. But the most exciting part of the show is where the host, Redefine’s executive chairman, Marc Wainer, gently “pressures” his guests to pledge several hours of mentorship in their area of expertise. Behind the scenes, the show is supported by a microsite (www.mentorshipchallenge.co.za) where mentors and mentees and mavens and novices connect and schedule face-to-face time together, through two-hour sessions. Just think of the power of those two hours! It’s those nuggets of wisdom and nuanced lessons that you won’t find in any business manual, right from the seasoned source.

The Mentorship Challenge is not just for entertainment value. The hope is that it will serve as a catalyst towards creating a culture of mentorship in South Africa, where the mentorship hours accrued online will provide a bank of beneficial hours to help build future leaders and businesses. Because behind every great leader is a great mentor. Now who’s your mentor?