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Here are some of the invisible mentors who have shaped my life

Last week I told you about invisible mentors – those inspirational figures who are present in our lives and prominent in our successes without ever mentoring us formally or practically. Sometimes we meet these people; sometimes they never know we even exist. And yet they leave their indelible imprint.

Think about it: invisible mentors are everywhere in our lives – in our families, in our communities, in literature, in far-flung worlds. In today’s hyperconnected life, you have no reason to think you cannot watch and learn from afar. Let me tell you about some of my invisible mentors.

My first boss was called Rosemary Radcliffe. She led a consulting team in London decades ago, and was one such mentor. Not by taking charge of my life and development, but simply by setting an example of wisdom in decision-making. She never knew it, but she was setting me up for the decisions I would make in future. She did not sit me down and teach me how to do this – I watched her do it and I never forgot.

A thirty-minute meeting in Nairobi with a very busy man, best-selling author Seth Godin, was also an act of mentorship. He quickly showed me how best to channel all my experiences in my life as a business advisor and speaker into content – articles, blogs, tweets. It was a revelation that made me rethink the nature of writing, and actually led to the creation of a book that I hope to publish soon. I was mentored in half an hour, and the power of that focused attention has always stayed with me.

The modern world throws up all sorts of other possibilities for mentoring. On Twitter I follow Tom Peters and I am always inspired by his example. He is a lot older than I am, yet his passion for his work and subject is undiminished. He rocks up on the social media network pretty much every day, pushing his agenda for a better workplace with zest and fervour. He is still travelling the world to deliver his trademark high-energy talks and seminars. When I get tired, I think of Tom.

The author Arundhati Roy is my mentor. She is a peerless novelist, but she is more than that. She fights, agitates and campaigns for a better India all the time. She takes up unpopular causes and puts her body on the line for them. She does not stay silent. Her life is a mission to redress whatever wrongs she can. When I am tempted to let things pass or to accept bad things in our leaders or corporations, I hear her unique voice and start tapping on this keyboard with renewed energy.

My late grandmother shaped much of my early life. Those who knew her will remember a feisty woman who poked her nose into many things and was never short of an opinion on everything under the sun. I remember her for something else: her courage. One of the few words of English she knew was ‘guts.’ You have to have guts, she would shout to all and sundry – don’t be wimps. And she demonstrated guts in her own life. She was full of audacity and determination, and coped with many an injury or reversal unflinchingly. She never sat me down to teach me the value of ‘guts’, but I would feel ashamed backing off from adversity after having had her in my life.

My mother-in-law shapes my life even today. Her absolute commitment to doing things to the highest standard is a great inspiration. The food she cooks is legendary – not just because it tastes so good but because it is so immaculately put together and served. Everything she does has to be just so – and not any other way. She has never discussed this ethos with me, but she has no need to. It seeps into all my work. I too, would not serve up something sloppy or slapdash to any client or audience. I, too, can become pedantic and obsessive. But hey, you don’t joke around with stuff that matters to you.

A final set of mentors in my life: I run a leadership programme, and some of the alumni might well regard me as a mentor. What some of them don’t know is how much they teach me about so many things: style, humour, energy, perspective, generosity. In this invisible reverse-mentoring relationship, a few have made an ineradicable mark – without knowing it is happening.

Invisible mentors are everywhere. Open yourself up to edification, and they will appear. Then watch carefully and learn doggedly.

(Sunday Nation, 11 February 2018)

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