Wherefore Art Thou, Mentor?

Connie Vance, EdD, RN, FAAN


Nurs Econ. 2022;40(4):204-207. 

Mentoring is important – now more than ever – as novice nurses are flooding the work force. Nurse leaders can create developmental, empowering, and mutually beneficial relationships among mentors and mentees. The art of human connection can make the difference between a good nurse and a great nurse.

The desire to connect with each other has become stronger than ever. The isolation and diminishment of collegial interactions during the pandemic made nurses acutely aware of how much we need the camaraderie of colleagues. Dr. Maria Vezina, System Vice President, Mount Sinai Health System, New York City described the unit culture and how profoundly the loss of human rituals and connections affected everyone.

Celebrating each other's birthdays, promotions, new babies – the basic simple human amenities of talking and eating together – were gone due to the threat of the COVID-19 contagion. We missed storytelling and lessons we drew from our stories—poignant, tragic, courageous. Nurses longed for collegial comfort, empathy, touch, and yes, mentoring. Unit cohesiveness and identity were weakened in a time of great stress with our patients. (M. Vezina, personal communication, March 3, 2022)

Vezina stated the influx of novice nurses in patient care areas has created an unprecedented need for experienced nurses, preceptors, and teachers at a time of great scarcity. With students' clinical education being compromised during the pandemic, the learning needs to fill in the gaps are enormous.

This situation is a reminder of the significant influence of workplace culture, collegial relationships, and experienced leadership in our work. It illustrates how deeply human connections are wired – especially in our shared, interconnected role as nurses. Leadership is first and foremost about people: building relationships, influencing, mentoring, and teaching-learning. I like De Pree's inspirational gems, Leadership Is An Art (1989) and Leadership Jazz (1992). His language as a corporate executive is unusual and strikingly human-centered. He speaks of heart, spirit, trust, values, grace, spirit, love, and mentoring. He acknowledges management of the 'bottom line,' profits, competition, and productivity. But as a 'servant leader,' he believes mentoring is a chief responsibility of every leader. Leaders must foster environments where people are encouraged to develop strong support relationships with each other and their teams. "Leaders are also responsible for future leadership—to identify, develop, and mentor future leaders" (De Pree, 1989, p. 14).

Mentoring consists of developmental, empowering, mutually beneficial relationships among mentors and mentees/protégés. These personal relationships may occur one-to-one, in groups, and in association and organizational programs. Younger generations are experiencing mentoring differently – e.g., as short, task-focused, less relational transactions. The delivery of mentoring is also changing. Social media platforms and online communities are assuming important roles in mentoring functions. 'Influencers' are followed for their role modeling, stories, and solutions (Luis & Vance, 2020). In whatever form it takes, navigating a career requires moving through various stages with focused guidance. A popular nursing framework, From Novice to Expert (Benner, 1984), describes how nurses move through five stages of proficiency, from novice to high-level leadership. These crucial career developmental stages present distinct needs that cannot be managed in isolation.

When nursing leaders write about leading, the theme of human connection is clear. Although not consistently used, the term mentor is implicit in the various leadership styles they describe – e.g., transformational, relational, servant, authentic, grateful, compassionate. Through the years, nurse leaders have also raised the 'mentor flag' in the profession's national and international reports, standards, competencies, resolutions, priorities, and policies. These documents influence the profession's clinical practice, education, research, and professional associations. Deliberate mentoring activity is also prominent in educational/academic circles and professional/specialty associations. Here, a broad array of individual and group mentoring is occurring, in formal, planned programs, and informal individual connections. The profession offers an impressive variety of excellent mentoring opportunities we can all benefit from.

Historically, nurses invoked the terms preceptor, role model, coach, and sponsor to describe developmental relationships and activities. These provide time-limited, specific guidance, information and advocacy that promote students' and nurses' professional success. They are important components of mentoring which is a broader concept: longer term, career focused, and relationship centered. Leaders in all sectors of the profession are increasingly naming and highlighting various forms of mentoring in their writing, teaching, research, and organizational work.

Since the profession's early beginning, nurses have mentored each other. Nightingale mentored promising nurses for leadership roles and to expand her nursing model (Lorentzon & Brown, 2003). Nursing practice was learned through apprentice relationships with senior nurses serving as role models and teachers. The ancient concepts of mentor and guru came from Greek, Roman, and Taoist ideals of wisdom sharing, teaching, and leadership selection. This traditional mentor model is elite, exclusive, one-to-one, expert-to-novice, and patriarchal. It has figured prominently in the older, male dominant fields of medicine, law, academia, business, politics, and the military. In the late '70s, mentoring gained wider momentum when women began entering traditional male fields and corporate venues. Women soon recognized without mentor connections they were out of the loop, and their access to vital information, networks, support, and organizational know-how was severely limited. The mantra became 'everyone who makes it has a mentor.'

Over time, nurses adopted mentoring as a significant component of career and leadership success and succession. The first focused mentor study in nursing revealed that many high-level leaders, or 'nurse influentials,' had been actively mentored and promoted by significant mentors (Vance, 1977). They were often 'chosen' and rose to prominence and power through intentional mentoring. One leader flatly stated her survival and career advancement were only possible because of her mentors' sustained advocacy, protection, and guidance. These leaders claimed multiple peer and expert mentors, within and outside nursing, as they advanced in their careers. In turn, they exerted influence in a wide circle of national and global nursing and health venues. Subsequently, nurse influentials developed promising nurses for leadership roles – mentoring a succeeding generation of leaders – who in turn mentored the next generation in a generational legacy that continues today in nursing circles (Vance, 1998; 2011). A significant finding is these leaders' mentoring relationships often differed from the traditional, exclusive, expert-to novice model. Rather, they engaged in significant peer-to-peer mentoring and expert-to-expert mentoring and had several mentors at various career points (Nickitas, 2014). Nurses' new spin on mentorship relationships is developing each other through short- and long-term relationships in a variety of formats.

During the period of 1977–1991, over 80 nursing research studies about mentorship in the United States and Canada were published (Olson & Vance, 1993; 1998); and this line of research continues. Mentoring lessons in books, journals, research, and on social media platforms can also inspire and inform. Almost 25 years ago, over a hundred nurses' stories and reflections of their mentor connections were documented – a historical window into that era of nursing and predominantly female mentorship (Vance & Olson, 1998). Hopefully, these stories are still being told to document and explore possibilities for contemporary mentorship.

In recent decades, a 'revisionist' mentorship model has evolved driven by racial, ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and generational diversity. Nurses are creating a dynamic paradigm of mentorship that is more inclusive, diverse, and equitable, reflecting a changing population, workforce, and clients/patients. The promise and possibilities of enormous diversity in nursing's mentoring are in front of us. This is a great moment to engage in new mentoring approaches – as individuals and collectively.

Dr. Beverly Malone, President and CEO, National League for Nursing, states:

If you want to be successful in any domain you choose, you need mentoring. What do you want to be? What shoes do you want to wear? At the beginning, my goals were small, and belief in myself was not strong. But others saw something and believed in me. Mentoring made me larger and pushed me to bloom. Nurses are now building interdisciplinary mentoring relationships—crossing boundaries, to build bridges, and learn the bigger picture. Multiple mentors are important; you can be better if you're open to many opportunities. Race and color play into the mentor process. Mentors of diverse race and color are important. If you are a member of a minority group, you need at least one mentor who looks like you to find out who you are and what the obstacles of racism are. This also applies to gender. (B. Malone, personal communication, February 15, 2022)

Malone's doctoral dissertation (1981) and her story, "Mentoring: A Song of Power," (1998) provide valuable lessons for understanding diversity in our mentor bonds.

Dr. Diana Mason, Senior Policy Service Professor, Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement, George Washington University, states:

I believe mentoring is a more conscious effort now, and we're actively applying the language of mentoring. In the past, many of us had mentors without knowing that's what they were or what mentoring really was. The necessity for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in nursing has prompted me to actively reach out and offer mentoring to students, junior colleagues, and novice leaders from underrepresented, marginalized groups. We should not wait but step up to mentor the diversity of our colleagues—some who look like us and some who don't. Multiple mentors representing a variety of backgrounds, color, gender, disciplines can open doors to new diverse ways of teaching and representing our profession. My perspectives and teaching have changed, as my proteges go beyond me, and we become peer mentors who transform each other's ideas, attitudes, and actions. At the same time, I hope that the enormous untapped talents of our diverse colleagues will be released to help us address serious racial and ethnic inequities in our healthcare system. (D. Mason, personal communication, March 3, 2022)

Wherefore art thou, mentor? The humanity of mentoring – the positive empowering force of the human connection – has never been more important. Mentoring is the gift of wisdom we can give each other as we navigate our careers and unleash our caring and healing powers for our patients and families.