Mentoring Leaders: “What Are You Reading?”

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Over the past several years I have the privilege of meeting with a friend and mentor of mine, Eboo Patel.  He is the founder and executive director of one of the fastest growing and most influential non-profits in the world, the Interfaith Youth Core, which is based in Chicago.  Occasionally we will get together to catch up and talk about what is going on in our lives.  As we’ve met over the years I’ve noticed a pattern.  Every time we get together he will always ask me, “What are your reading?”  And usually there is a series of follow-up questions:  “What are you learning?  How are you applying those lessons?” and so on.  During these conversations he always listens intently, offers his own insights, recommends other resources, and encourages self-reflection and growth.

Eboo is a visionary and an entrepreneur, but more than this, he is an excellent mentor for young leaders.  As I’ve observed him in his interactions with me and with other young leaders, he routinely asks this question.  “What are you reading?  What are you learning?”  Through these conversations he models a couple of principles that I think anyone who mentors leaders should emulate.

First, Eboo exemplifies what it means to be a life-long learner.  He has a passion for always encouraging people to grow as independent and sophisticated thinkers.  And so he wants to know what the young leaders under his care are reading.  In a world of tabloid media, Twitter, email updates, and blogging, young people are bombarded by a lot of junk.  As such, Eboo knows that intake is just as important as output.  Our minds are shaped by what we read, watch, and listen to.  So he takes time to encourage the life of the mind in those whom he leads.

And this leads to the second principle:  Eboo knows that integration is key.  He is always encouraging me to read from writers who represent a wide array of perspectives on various subjects.  But more than this he challenges me to think about how to apply the lessons I’m learning from those various writers to my own life and leadership.

And this is where the lesson lies.  When it comes to mentoring leaders, we should care just as much about the forces shaping them as what they themselves produce.  When we learn to ask the question, “What are you reading?” we take a direct interest in the shaping of their minds.  But more than this, we need to encourage them to integrate and apply those lessons to their own lives and leadership.  Leaders are those who learn to apply the knowledge they’ve gained in a way that shapes not only their own behaviors and practices, but in ways that serve and benefit the communities they lead.  Eboo understands this and mentors with this vital lesson in mind.

So, the next time you are mentoring someone, it might just be worth asking the question, “What are you reading?”

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