There are three vocations I can think of where we are acutely aware of and regularly engage with those who came before us. Land surveying is one.

The phrase “following the footsteps” is not just a clever word play for land surveyors. When you go out into the field to do a retracement survey, you are literally following the footsteps of the first surveyor and examining the work of those who have come between you and that original survey. If you are good, you will learn from those silent mentors.

In this month’s Traversing the Law, Jeff Lucas remembers one of his mentors. It is a bit of a break from the usual discussion of legal precedent, but it seems particularly appropriate given that the legal profession is one of the other vocations that conducts dialogues with those who came before. In a sense, it follows the footsteps and interprets the work of others in the context of today, just as a land surveyor must do when following a deed to stake out a boundary.

Mentoring has been a hot topic in business circles in the last decade or so. More often, the discussion seems to be about the lack of mentors and resolves into a call for more to take up the role. In fact, we are mentoring all the time, even if we don’t realize it or we don’t call it mentoring. Jeff Turner’s column on your “work credit” score demonstrates that our actions are observed and noted. We lead by example, and those who follow reflect the lessons of that example.

I’ve learned from negative examples like a clueless lieutenant and a bigoted senior executive. I wouldn’t suggest this type of mentoring because the fact that both achieved their next promotion can reinforce the wrong behaviors.

I’ve also been lucky to have friends and colleagues who were positive examples. They didn’t always achieve rapid advancement, but their positive influence had a more lasting effect. They were good mentors.

One of those friends passed away recently, and in describing my relationship with him, I told his family he was an “accidental mentor.” He would have been the last person to say he was trying to teach anyone anything, yet he had the ability — through his example and his words — to convey simple, direct lessons. I have often found myself thinking of him in my day-to-day work, as I would face one challenge or another. I wasn’t always remembering answers he might have given, but I would recall his attitude and focus, and that would allow me to concentrate on the real issue and come up with my own answer.

More of us are accidental mentors than we might believe. One question is, are we teaching the right things? Another is, can we move from being this passive model into a more active and direct mentoring style?

The benefits of being an active mentor are clear. We help to instill the proper values, ethics and skills in those we mentor. The other benefit is the lesson I recall most often from my accidental mentor — we pass on our enthusiasm for what we do.

So, whether or not you decide to be an active mentor, stay enthusiastic and your lessons will be remembered.

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