Sometimes in mentoring, losing is actually winning

By Geoff Tan

SPH Magazines

Singapore, Singapore


In a two-day “mentorship” training workshop that I attended not too long ago, the trainer touched a soft spot in my heart by emphasising that one of the main attributes of a good mentor was the ability to tell “stories” — stories that resonate with the mentee and inspire him or her to reach their full potential.

A story is told about a Norwegian running legend by the name of Grete Waitz. She won the New York City Marathon a record of nine times, setting a world record in her very first attempt at this 42.195-kilometre race way back in 1978. She won the London Marathon twice, the gold medal at the 1983 World Championships, and the silver at the 1984 Olympics.

Beyond Waitz’s athletic achievements and her sports-superstar status, to those who knew her more intimately, she was a super human being. She was known by many to be approachable, giving, and, above all, humble.

Grete Waitz demonstrated the importance of being a mentor even when it means not winning outright.
Grete Waitz demonstrated the importance of being a mentor even when it means not winning outright.

One significant lesson we can learn from Waitz pertains to her decision to run in the 1992 New York City Marathon for the last time. It was made on the basis that she wanted to accompany her old friend, Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon and the man who first invited her to leave her home in Oslo to run in New York City. Lebow was 60 years old and suffering from brain cancer.

Waitz and Lebow ran the entire race together, finishing in 5:32:35 — twice Waitz’s usual finishing time. The New York Times described their unforgettable appearance at the finish line: “They finished with their hands clasped and raised over their heads. She would always call it her 10th victory in New York.” Lebow died two years later.

This story got me thinking: What if I choose to relate this to my mentee? What could be learned in the context of career and professional development?

Here’s my take: The workplace, which can be akin to the world of a long-distance runner, is often a lonely place in many parts. I guess that is why the endless pursuit of work in today’s competitive corporate world is referred to as the rat race!

Twenty-first century practitioners today tend to be an ambitious lot, obsessed by KPIs, and totally focused on voraciously ascending the corporate ladder. To an extent, it can be cold and unforgiving out there … and up there!

But like Waitz, we sometimes need to slow our pace to help someone around us.

I know that in the high-strung environment we live in today, especially with technology contributing significantly to increasing our efficiencies, we get impatient when our staff takes a little longer to get the work done. I plead guilty that, many times when this happens, I have taken the job back to do it myself.

Waitz’s story has taught me there are occasions when we should let expediency take a backseat, and instead take the hand of our subordinate or colleague and complete the task together. Forgoing glory so that you can help someone else shine is a gesture that many of us can afford to do more of.

Life is about sharing — sharing your expertise, knowledge, experiences. It’s a positive legacy you can choose to leave behind.

Waitz was a special kind of heroine — one who was so confident in herself that she was willing to deflect the spotlight onto somebody else. “Losing” in a situation such as this is, in fact, equivalent to “winning” — winning the hearts of the people around you!

About Geoff Tan

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.