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Helpful Mentors Inspire Others to Play to Their Strengths, Not Yours

There’s a story about the composer Wolfgang Mozart and a young man who asks him how to write symphonies. When Mozart tells the aspiring artist that he’s too young to write a symphony, the youth says, “You were writing symphonies when you were ten years of age, and I am twenty-one.” Mozart replies, “Yes, but I wasn’t asking people how to do it.” 

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of mentoring other leaders, but it’s worth noting that a good mentor doesn’t expect you to mimic their approach; they should be inspiring you to develop one of your own. I like to think that Mozart was dismissing the young man in this story because he was making the point that we’re all originals, and we need to capitalize on our own strengths to discover our place in the world.

Marcus Buckingham has become a household name in strengths-based leadership due to his bestselling books, the latest of which is Love + Work. The essence of Buckingham’s message is that rather than do what you love, find the love in what you do. In other words, everyone has different talents and things they love to do. The key is to choose roles that allow you to perform as many of the tasks you are innately skilled at doing.

What it means to be a great leader is obviously different for everyone. Each of us should be leaning into our particular passions so we’re living and leading genuinely. The best place to manifest this journey and often where it can be most commonly addressed is through mentorship and training. If all we ever did to prepare for leadership was follow someone else’s approach to a tee, we’d utterly fail. No two people share the same professional DNA.

Some leaders are passionate about using conflict to bring out the best in others, like General Electric’s late CEO Jack Welch, while others enjoy broadening their company’s influence with an inclusive approach, like Patagonia’s former CEO Rose Marcario. Each person was successful in their own right because they were leveraging their personal talents.

Helpful mentors and trainers encourage their mentees and students to explore all their qualities and dig deep into understanding their individual preferences and strengths. Once rising leaders have a handle on two or three they feel passionate about, they should focus on honing and using those skills.

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When I was in high school, I loved music. I played the trumpet in a band called Ashwood, and we performed at weddings and parties. We played all sorts of rock music that featured horns, like Chicago; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Tower of Power; and more. Our interpretations of hits by these bands played to our own strengths and ensemble of talents. The same principles of playing someone else’s music apply to rising leaders who are fleshing out their own approach to influencing others.

Musicians who perform cover songs stay true to the melody, but they add their own nuances that reflect their individuality. By the same token, new leaders should aim to honor values that are essential to authentic leadership. They can and should hone their own reflection of those values so teams respond to their genuineness and follow them.

If you’re in a position to mentor another leader, do tell them what works for you but also encourage them to make that advice their own by applying personal talents. No two people are alike, so it stands to reason that no two leadership styles should be either. Whether you’re a mentor or mentee, celebrate great leadership practices that you observe or study by modeling their approaches. Then embed your personal strengths and lean into them. Before long, you’ll be walking to the beat of your own drum and inspiring others to play their own version of your melody.


  1. Gena Burson

    This article hit home. There is freedom in being yourself. Great read!

    Reply to Gena Burson

    1. Walt Rakowich

      So glad you related to it, Gena. Thanks for reading, and letting me know!

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

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