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 “The first law of leadership is that people do what people see.” –John Maxwell

The older I get, the more I realize how simple human behavior can be.

To a huge extent—people do what people see.

We become like those we watch. 

Whether we meet with a mentor for coffee, read their latest book, follow them on social media , or listen to their podcast—we increase the odds that we will take on more of those thought patterns and behaviors. And these thoughts and behaviors will influence the course of our lives.

Therefore, one of the most important things we will ever do for our personal leadership practices, is to be selective about those we follow.

The BIG Idea: Mentors help us climb higher, and go faster, than we can go on our own.

If you don’t have great mentors, now is the time to get out there and find them.

Be humble. Be intentional. And be selective. 

First year of college

I still remember when my dad and I loaded my 1978 Jeep Wagoneer and headed out on our 800-mile journey for my first year of college in Seattle.

That is where my love for the outdoors was born.

People in the Pacific Northwest are different than Californians in many ways—for starters, they do everything rain or shine, because if they waited for shine, they would never leave their couch!

One of the guys in my dorm introduced me to rock climbing—which would become my obsession for years to come. And when I moved to Santa Barbara to finish college, I was able to climb year-round.

Rock climbing is not an easy sport to get into. The outdoor locations can be tricky to find unless someone takes you there, and the consequences are big if you don’t know what you are doing.

And you really have to trust your partner. One holds the rope while the other person climbs. They literally hold your life in your hands.

But I wanted to excel at climbing, so I posted an online ad for a climbing partner.

That is when I met Tom.

Tom was a firefighter who was much older than I, and every moment he wasn’t working, he was climbing.

In traditional or “trad” climbing, you have to place your own gear—meaning that you actually stick wedges and camming devices into the rock to prevent you from falling very far—and this requires a lot of skill and experience.

Tom would lead the first climb and I would follow his route, removing the carefully placed gear as I climbed up to him. This gave me the opportunity to see exactly how he had meticulously placed each device.

Then it was my turn to lead the next pitch (the next section of the climb). When I ascended a route, Tom would make suggestions for what I could do better. Then, he would climb up behind me while he evaluated how I had placed each piece of gear in the cracks and crevices of the rock.

  • “Never do this,” he would say.
  • “This one looks good.”
  • “This would be a bad fall if you weighted it.”

When he was climbing—I was able to watch a true master at work. His technique was flawless and artful. He used microscopic rock features I didn’t even see. He contorted his body in creative ways to navigate the terrain.

Watching him closely gave me a clear visual example to follow—new things to try.

Needless to say, my time with Tom was utterly invaluable to accelerate my learning curve, and to avoid developing bad habits.

I never could have gone on to climb Half Dome or Mount Whitney without my time with Tom. His mentorship helped me climb higher and go faster than I would have on my own.

When we do life—be it marriage, finances, business, parenting, or leadership—we become like those we watch.

The role models we have (and the friends we keep) have a powerful influence on our behavior.

Remember, people do what people see.

Who are you watching?

If you weren’t blessed with great role models, and you aren’t exposed to better examples, it will put a very low ceiling on your potential—as a leader and as a human.

But there is good news—you can go out and find new role models today. And they have never been more accessible.

Turn information into action now

  1. Humble yourself. You can’t be mentored if your ego is in the way. It might sound silly, but you actually have to allow yourself to be mentored. You want to find people further along the journey than you are and have more experience in what you want to do. Do more listening and less talking.
  2. Have the courage to ask. We often underestimate the drive that people have to pass on what they know. Leaders are often eager to share their knowledge with the next generation—it brings a deep sense of purpose. And you never know unless you ask. Be persistent and keep a list of those you might want to approach. You don’t have to say, “Will you be my mentor?” You can just say, “I’d love to learn from you, do you have time for coffee?” Then bring questions you think they would enjoy answering.
  3. Look for a values match. Your odds of good chemistry are better if you look for someone whose life you would want to imitate. Be selective and make sure your values are aligned.
  4. No mentor is perfect. Don’t get hung up looking for the perfect mentor. All mentors are flawed human beings. They will have quirks and shortcomings just like everyone else you know, so don’t throw out the great things you can still learn from them. Pick the stuff they do really well and focus on that.
  5. Get different mentors. Author and financial expert Dave Ramsey suggests you get different mentors for different things, or different seasons of life. I have friends who have had business mentors, spiritual mentors, and even marriage mentors. All of their lives were profoundly transformed as a result. Mentoring often has a cycle or season to it, so don’t be afraid to look for a new mentor when one season comes to an end. Cherish what you learned and move on.
  6. Think local, and global. You may find someone at your workplace or church, but don’t limit your search to your local area. These days you can be exposed to great role models through books, podcasts, conferences, online classes, or mastermind groups. Great thought leaders have never been easier to access.
  7. Get a paid mentor or coach. A long time ago I heard a great piece of advice that rocked me—“Never leave your growth plan to your workplace.” Your life and growth is your responsibility—and it often has a real price tag, it will cost you something. How badly do you want to reach for your dreams? Hiring a paid coach or mentor is a great way to climb higher and move faster than you would on your own.
  8. You are a mentor for your children. If you have kids, you are the primary mentor. They watch everything you do. Keep in mind, “More is caught than taught.” This is a great challenge. Our habits matter because they are contagious. One of the best ways to influence your kids is to work on your own habits. Be intentional and active in influencing their lives. 

In our culture of rampant individualism, we have lost the appreciation for the wisdom of those who have gone before us. It is a great tragedy to go through life without mentors. Potential mentors long for the sense of fulfillment that comes from investing in future generations—and potential mentees could glean so much wisdom earlier in their journey.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.


Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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