Leaders vs. Mentors: Traits and Differences
Both leaders and mentors are people with the ability to guide and develop others, and relationships they maintain with their juniors or mentees rely on trust. Both types of figures are key to inspiring personal and professional growth in employees, but they differ in how they serve that function. If you're in a role that involves supervising employees, you can incorporate elements of both leaders and mentors to get the most out of your group. In this article, we define both leaders and mentors and examine some key points of distinction between the two.
What is a leader?
A leader is an individual who leads a group such as a team, department or business in what they believe is the right direction. The leader tries to make decisions that benefit the entire group and address problems at the organizational level, allowing the group to advance toward its overall goals. Leaders also assign tasks to group members based on individuals' strengths.
Effective leaders often motivate their juniors to improve by offering encouragement, recognizing work well done, rewarding successes and offering feedback. They may also promote a sense of camaraderie so individual group members desire to benefit the group.
Related: What Does Leadership Mean?
What is a mentor?
A mentor is an experienced and knowledgeable person in a field who undertakes an instructive and advisory role of a mentee, who has less experience. The mentor can guide the mentee toward growth by offering advice, helping to identify problems and being an encouraging figure. In business settings, mentors may also train and develop employees, and it's not uncommon for mentors to advise leaders or be leaders themselves.
The mentor-mentee relationship is often long-lasting, similar to a friendship or parent-child dynamic. The mentor's function is to be a source of support while letting the mentee ultimately make their own decisions about the directions they take.
Related: How To Be a Good Mentor
Key differences between leaders and mentors
Though there are areas of overlap, and it's possible for leaders to be mentors as well, there are some key differences between the concepts of leaders and mentors considered in isolation from each other. Areas of distinction include:
Formal vs. casual
Leadership is more of a formal role within an organization, with a definite hierarchical difference between a leader and their juniors. Because of this, discussions between leaders and juniors are likely to relate to professional matters such as progress on an assignment or questions to clarify instructions. In contrast, mentorship is more casual. The mentee is likely to feel freer about approaching their mentor about personal issues and professional issues alike. In this way, the casual nature of the mentor-mentee relationship is more holistic, addressing a larger range of qualities to grow within the mentee.
Group vs. self
Leadership focuses on advancing the group in the best, most beneficial way, and allowing the group's success to improve each individual's position. For example, the director of a film might be more concerned with the overall quality of the movie than with any one actor's personal advancement, but a well-received end product can also increase demand for the actors involved.
Mentorship has personal development as its aim. By improving the individual, the mentor-mentee relationship contributes to the group's success. In the film example, the mentor is like a seasoned actor advising an inexperienced one. The seasoned actor may have worked with the director before, so they can give advice on how to interact with this director and create scenes how the director likes.
Development vs. advocacy
Leaders and mentors help bring the best out of others in different ways. Leaders motivate their juniors to meet goals that show they can handle certain responsibilities, whereas mentors express enthusiasm or belief in their mentee's abilities. In a business setting, a leader needs to know their juniors meeting key progress indicators before they can allow them to take on greater responsibilities, so they develop employees by asking them to complete milestones and deliverables. A mentor, however, shows support through encouragement, imbuing the mentee with the confidence to develop on their own.
Instructions vs. guidance
Leaders and mentors can both influence others' actions, but their manners of doing so may differ. Leaders are more likely to direct their juniors to perform specific actions, such as by assigning tasks or roles and detailing expectations. Mentors, however, set an example, relate wisdom gained over years of experience and allow the mentee to reach their own conclusion. The direction that the leader wants their juniors to take is explicit, but the mentor implies an ideal direction and allows the mentee to realize it themself.
Authority vs. confidant
There is a key difference in how a leader relates to their followers and a mentor relates to their mentee. In a leader-follower relationship, the leader is the authority from which directions flow. However, a mentor-mentee relationship is bidirectional and more intimate. A mentor can share experiences to enrich the mentee, but so can a mentee voice their own experiences with the mentor, who functions as a confidant. The dynamics of a mentor-mentee relationship are also more open, allowing the mentee to approach the mentor to seek advice or air out ideas, whereas a leader is normally less approachable.
Answers vs. questions
Leaders often have a well-defined idea of what they want and how to achieve it. Asked about a subject, they may provide you with a definite answer. For example, during a performance review, a leader can outline an employee's strengths, areas of improvements and measures they'd like to see the employee fulfill by the next review.
Mentors are more likely to ask questions than provide clear-cut answers. For example, if a mentee asked about their strengths and weaknesses, their mentor might ask about the mentee's recent accomplishments, their own opinions about their work and what their personal goals for improvement are. Through this line of questioning, the mentor can train the mentee into developing their own answers.
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