What Robert De Niro Taught Me About Leadership

10 Traits of Highly Effective Mentors

I’m always surprised by what I learn at the movies. I go to be entertained. But many times I walk out of the theater with insights I can put to work in my life.

Over the weekend Gail and I saw the new Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway comedy, The Intern. It was great.

The Story

De Niro’s character, Ben Whittaker, is a seventy-year-old, retired executive whose wife has died. He is bored and feeling stir crazy. He’s lost his sense of purpose and desperately needs something to do.

Through an internship program for senior citizens, he begins working with Anne Hathaway’s character, Jules Ostin, a young wife, mother, and founder of a online startup called About the Fit that is growing faster than anyone expected.

The problem is that Jules’ investors don’t think she has enough experience to run the company. This creates tremendous self-doubt for Jules. She wonders if she has what it takes. This is amplified at home, where she struggles to meet the needs of her stay-at-home husband and her young daughter.

This is where Ben comes in. He’s impressed by Jules and really believes in her. He gives her a plan: Don’t cave to the investors. Instead, she should trust herself and her instincts. Ben’s experienced and kind involvement is just the mentoring Jules desperately needs to save her company.

The Takeaways

But one thing that stands out about The Intern is how Ben’s ability to mentor affects everyone in the office. As I watched, I counted ten traits of highly effective mentors demonstrated by Ben toward Jules and the rest of the team:

  1. Be a servant. Remember the mentee is the hero. You, the mentor, are the guide. Your job is to support, never to undermine, supplant, or steal the limelight.

  2. Be observant. Notice everything, even details that don’t seem particularly relevant. Your advice is shaped by what you see. Make sure to see enough to have beneficial advice.

  3. Be nonjudgmental. Listen to your mentee without sizing up and judging them. This doesn’t mean you have to approve, but influence takes access and judgmentalism will close the door.

  4. Be curious. Ask good questions—this is more important than having the answers. A mentee will often come to the right answer on her own if she has the right questions.

  5. Be authentic. Be who you are, even if it feels a bit old fashioned. Remember, as a mentor your most important asset is you—everything you know and have experienced.

  6. Be calm. Cooler heads, as the saying goes, prevail. A good mentor can keep the temperature down. This is especially important when things get chaotic and others freak out.

  7. Be confident. Mentees need wisdom and insight, not tactics—which they can get practically anywhere. Realize your experience is relevant, even if you don’t understand the nuances of the mentee’s industry.

  8. Be reassuring. In the midst of challenging times, it’s easy to lose sight of our value and what we’re capable of. When the stakes are high, remind your mentee of what she has already accomplished.

  9. Be courageous. Call on your mentee to make the difficult decision or have the difficult conversation. This is sometimes the only thing that separates success from failure.

  10. Be generous. When the mentee achieves the desired result, give her the credit. Always interpret other’s actions in the best possible light.

If you see The Intern—and I recommend you do—you’ll watch these characteristics in action.

Everyone Is a Mentor

Some of my readers are “leaders of leaders.” They might want to take their leadership team to the movie and then have a discussion about what they learned about leadership or about mentoring.

Almost everyone I know is either a mentor right now in some capacity or will eventually become one. What kind of mentor will you be?

Have you ever had a mentor who made a big difference in your life? If so, who was it and what did you find most helpful?

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