New Study: Mentoring can build great leaders

If effective leaders can be made, what is the best way to make them? A first-of-its-kind study suggests an answer writes Steve Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in a web article announcing the findings of a recent field experiment on mentoring (

According to Smith, researchers found that pairing a seasoned pro with a promising prospect in an informal mentorship was significantly more potent in developing strong leaders than formal group training. The process, however, was effective only if protégés fully trusted their mentors and were willing to handle blunt criticism, not just empty praise. This is music to our ears.

The findings reinforce the notion that the more organizations can move away from one-size-fits-all training toward one-on-one mentorships characterized by trust, the better their chances for building strong leaders will be.

“Organizations in the U.S. spend billions each year trying to develop better leaders with mixed results. This study is important because it explains why so many programs may be falling short of expectations,” said Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at UNL and co-author of the study. “Our research demonstrates that if leadership training efforts are to be successful, the targets of such interventions must be ready to develop. And the foundation of such readiness is an atmosphere of trust…”

The research was conducted over six months and involved hundreds of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Researchers randomly assigned cadets to either a tailored, structured mentorship program or a comparison group that participated in group leadership training in classrooms. Results showed that cadets participating in the semi-formal mentorships were significantly more likely to increase their confidence for being in a leadership role than their counterparts.

“The research has important implications for business,” Harms said. “Organizations may want to consider approaching leadership development in new, more systematic ways by using mentors. Prior research has also demonstrated that mentoring relationships have positive benefits for mentors as well as their protégés.”

“Organizations have to decide for themselves how important leadership development is for them,” says Harms and I couldn’t agree more. Our experience with client organizations is affirmed by the results of this study. We know that setting a firm foundation for trust can make or break a mentoring program. That’s why our Mentorship Launch Program can make such an important difference. Both sides of the mentoring partnership learn critical listening and actionable feedback skills, they learn and have an opportunity to practice conversational tools that lead to breakthrough thinking and results. It allows mentors and protégés to hit the ground running.

The study was authored by Paul Lester of the U.S. Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Directorate (UNL Ph.D.); Sean Hannah of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (UNL Ph.D.); UNL’s Harms; Gretchen Vogelgesang of Federal Management Partners (UNL Ph.D.) and Bruce Avolio of the University of Washington. The findings will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Academy of Management Learning and Education.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rocio

    Looking for a mentor. I rnecetly passed the MCTS SQL Development test. My boss just through me into the fire last week by wanting me to move into the role of DBA, which is an area I don t know much about. Needless to say I am cramming to keep up. Also, I have only been working with SQL Server for 10 months so I am still a rookie. ThanksMichael

    1. Susan Bender Phelps

      Rocio, Finding a mentor may not be as difficult as you think. Is there someone in your company who used to do this job? If the answer is yes, then you can certainly have coffee with them to get acquainted and see if they are open to being your mentor. If not, Is there a professional association that belong to or can join, where more seasoned professionals who do what you are now doing are members. These are the first two places I would look if I were in your situation. Let me know how it goes.

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