The word mentor comes from Greek mythology. Mentor was an older man entrusted by Odysseus to guide his son Telemachus while he went away to fight the battle of Troy. (The goddess Athena often took on the appearance of Mentor to assist in the process of guiding Telemachus. I like this because it proves that even in a male-dominated world, females can rock!). In many ways, my work in the mentoring program was motivated and guided by a very special man. In the last post, I discussed the second mentoring project as it was beginning. In this post, I discuss the inspiration and guiding light for the project.
There would have been no mentoring project for me to coordinate at all but for the persistence of the general counsel of our leadership organization. His legal career had been devoted to protecting the interest of government employees and in grooming new government leaders. His commitment to promoting public service and enhancing the options of public servants extended to his volunteer work after business hours as well. His conviction for mentoring the next generation of public servant leaders was truly inspiring.
Unfortunately for each of us who had crossed his path, this wonderful man passed away in September of 2013. Our General Counsel had suffered from cancer for a few years. Even so, he stayed as highly engaged as he could until the cancer finally took him from us. During the ending days of his life, his continued energy for his vocation, and his enthusiasm for bringing out the best in people was nothing short of amazing.
As I write this post, it occurs to me that the mentoring partnership was a natural fit for our General Counsel because mentoring was in his DNA. He was an empathetic and concerned man who also had a tenacious manner. I can speak from personal experience about his enthusiasm for the causes he pursued, his generous nature and his mentoring style. I met him when I became a member of the board of directors of our leadership organization and I attended my first annual board retreat.
I remember how hard it was for me to be the new kid on the block on the board. It seemed like everyone else had been on the board for years and I wasn’t sure how well I fit into this group. But his encouragement kept me focused, and as I continued to interact with our General Counsel, I gained confidence and I began to feel comfortable being a board member. He made me feel like I contributed something of value.
Our General Counsel and I almost always attended the board and other organization events in person. A number of us would walk over to the subway with him after the meeting ended and talk about any number of subjects, to include our jobs, recent events, the challenges for being an executive in the government, and how we would groom the emerging generation of leaders.
I recall many conversations that clearly reflected our General Counsel’s strong commitment to mentoring the next generation of leaders. It is as though we just had the conversations yesterday. But the conversations actually began in 2011, when our General Counsel began to lobby our board to agree to a mentoring partnership with an organization of up and coming young government leaders.
In mid-October of 2011, our General Counsel attended a national meeting of this organization of young leaders. He participated in a discussion about how young federal employees could partner with senior leaders to build bridges between the generations. He encouraged these young leaders to send him a formal proposal for a mentoring program which he would present to our board. After receiving the proposal, some of our board members, including me, participated in numerous meetings with our General Counsel and with board members from the organization of young leaders.
In the spring of 2012 both groups sent out notifications seeking mentors and mentees. Soon thereafter, the first phase of the mentoring program was launched with approximately 20 mentors and 20 mentees. Our General Counsel actively monitored the progress of the program and attended our opening and closing events. He loved getting to know as many of our mentees and mentors as possible.
In the summer of 2013, a few representatives from our leadership organization were scheduled to meet with a retired federal career senior official who lived in Leesburg, Virginia, a city a distance away from where I lived. This man was well known in federal government circles. He had served the nation as a career civil servant under seven presidents from Truman to Reagan in high-level policy-making and advisory capacities. The list of projects, programs, overhauls and negotiations he led during his career is long and notable. I really admired this man and desperately wanted to attend the meeting. But while I was now able to drive, I was leery about driving to an area of Virginia that I had never visited before. So our General Counsel offered to give me a ride both to and from the meeting.
We talked about many things on the way – the issues occupying our leadership organization, his church, my church, his family, my family. But what sticks in my mind is our General Counsel’s eagerness that we get the second phase of the mentoring program up and running. He asked me for the status of the second phase of our mentoring program. I explained that the application period for mentees was still in process. He expressed a concern that we were late in starting the second phase of the program. Even then, with his health failing rapidly, he was like a terrier and was not going to let me slide on getting the program up and running. And so once the applications were in, my young leaders’ counterpart and I diligently pursued the process of matching up mentors and mentees so we could kick off the program.
Our General Counsel passed away during the period where we were waiting for the mentors to make their selections, and still recruiting some additional mentors. I never had the opportunity to let him know that we tripled our mentee population from the first program. He would have been so proud, and he would have loved to meet and get to know each and every one of our mentees and mentors. I believe our car trip in the summer of 2013 was a gift to me, a chance to have one last, meaningful chat with him.
His passion for life in general, and mentoring in particular, was beneficial to a wealth of people. First, it gave me the determination and the newfound energy to step out once again and lead this project, but on a much expanded level. It benefited our mentor and mentee population because I knew I had big and empathetic shoes to fill, and I could not let them down.
I dedicated enthusiastically my weakened heart and a strong spirit to our mentoring project. As I devoted myself to the project, I kept in mind the General Counsel, my good friend and mentor. Even in a weakened condition from cancer, his influence on humanity was so positive, and he continues to be an inspiration to me in terms of compassion and in terms of keeping a positive attitude regardless of where heart failure takes me. And because of this, I truly believe he has become as remarkable and powerful to me as any figure in myth and legend.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.