Formal education has come to occupy a central place among Western nations, indispensable for professional and political advancement. It would be difficult to find a president at a major American university without an advanced degree like a Ph.D. or a first professional degree like law or medicine. Candidates for CEOs of major corporations normally possess not only a bachelor’s degree, but often will have a master’s degree in business management, a law degree, or both. Similarly, legislators and other politicians often have a university education and many are trained lawyers. While this situation varies from nation to nation, the norm increasingly is toward higher levels of literacy and formal education in a domain as a necessary condition for holding a position of authority and responsibility. In the United States and other western nations, there are age minima for school attendance and students must stay in school until they reach their early to mid-teens as recognition, at least in part, of the notion that a well-educated citizenry is necessary for the proper functioning of democracy and civic government.
For economic and social reasons, formal schooling is concentrated in students’ earlier, rather than later, years. During their formative periods, children, teenagers, and young adults learn from masters in various disciplines and are exposed to increasingly sophisticated notions about people and science, and more generally, about the world and its functioning. Travel and exposure to different cultures and the corresponding need for translation, literally and figuratively, is also associated with future extraordinariness and leadership.44
Important relationships are also developed during this time of intense learning and exploration with teachers, professors, and others, or as Erikson says, with “leader figures outside of the family.” 45 These “leader figures” are exceptionally important to a young person’s future as they can provide models of behavior and action and, more importantly, can open the doors to the guilds. The process of mentoring is in fact not well understood and only beginning to be studied and examined. It is clearly a reciprocal process between mentor and student, one that requires approval and consent from both parties. The mentor has to be attracted by the student and the student must be “coachable” in the eyes of the mentor. Some mentors, because of their reputations as great teachers or coaches, are actively sought out by potential pupils, and in certain cases are paid well for their services. Examples of “professional mentors” in sports are Nick Bollettieri, a tennis coach with a reputation for training stars such as Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova and Bela Karolyi, the Romanian emigrant who has coached Nadia Comanice and several other Olympic gold medallists in gymnastics.
Pay is not limited to famous sports mentors: successful researchers at prestigious university labs and centers are able to take their pick from among dozens of Ph.D. students and post-doctoral students who willingly “pay” them by conducting valuable research for minimal or even no pay in order to obtain a good job after completing the “training” under the distinguished professor. Clearly, to be accepted by the great mentors, whether in a sports camp or at a great university laboratory, pupils must exhibit great talent and attitude, even if they are paying or providing valuable services for the mentoring.
In less extreme mentoring situations, where mentoring is less formal and more voluntary in nature, many of the same elements have to be present. The mentor has to want to mentor the pupil and the pupil must seek out and accept the mentor. The mentor has to bring certain characteristics to the relationship, either career contacts, professional reputation, or expertise in some area, and the mentee has to be easy to work with, with an appropriate personality, and must possess the appropriate skills or intelligence level.
Bill Smithburg, CEO of Quaker Oats during their highly successful run in the 1980s and 1990s, was himself mentored by the previous company CEO as a young man. He describes the importance of mentoring this way:
Not everyone has a mentor, but this is usually crucial in getting an opportunity and in recognizing it. You first have to be ‘mentorable,’ which means you have to have talent and skill and the right attitude. You also have to be in the right place at the right time. I was mentored by a former president of the company and we disagreed a lot and he turned me down, but always explained why. He empowered me and encouraged me. Every young person gets an opportunity, a shot, some time early in their career; some get more than one. The successful people recognize their shot, their opportunity, once they see it and they have the talent—and perhaps the luck—to do something with it.
Regarding specifically the case of extraordinary women—and related to the issue of their separateness or nonconformity when growing up—is the phenomenon of confluence. A term from psychotherapy, confluence refers to a blending or a flowing with other people, to the point of losing one’s identity. Barbara Kerr highlights the importance of mentors as young women are making their bids to enter and succeed in male-dominated fields.46 Due the relative absence of female role models, mentors might be especially important to women in opening the doors to the professions and to the business world. Eminent women seem capable of connecting in mentoring relationships without giving up their own identities and personal goals. 47 Successful women resolved the problem of confluence by the time they started their life’s work. While there is not much research on the topic, the importance of mentors to other minorities might be of equal prominence, and in the absence of such mentors, families might take on greater significance. Put somewhat differently, talented non-minorities might be able, for example, to weather a troubled family situation more easily than could minorities or women because they might have access to a greater variety and number of potential mentors.48