The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas is one of the best-loved classics of all time. A swashbuckling adventure story of camaraderie, subterfuge, romance and honour, it’s ironic that there are actually not three but four musketeers, and the one who isn’t technically a musketeer is actually the leader of the band.

What that means is that when people work together for a common purpose, who’s in the spotlight isn’t as important as getting the job done. These guys are famous for their willingness to lay down their lives for each other and for their King. Their motto encapsulates it all:

~ ONE FOR ALL AND ALL FOR ONE ~

They had big picture thinking in abundance. They were prepared to stick their necks out for each other, working together with commitment and loyalty for the betterment of the kingdom they served, rather than for personal glory.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve been privileged to work with and observe a lot of leaders within a church context, and I have seen the very good, the very bad and the very ugly. I’ve probably been all those as well because we tend to do what we’ve learned by observing others. A fish doesn’t know what water is, and in general, whatever environment a leader emerges from is the kind of leader they become… until God begins to deal with them, from which point they realise they have a choice to emulate those around them or forge their own path, whether it be right or wrong.

One of the least celebrated but often most effective shaping tools we can embrace to develop as good leaders is mentoring by our peers. As illustrated on previous posts, there are four positions on the mentoring spectrum – being mentored, mentoring others, and then the two peer-mentor points which are based within your organisation or outside of it.

Internal peers are in a similar position to you in your own organisation. These are people who understand the organisation’s culture and are therefore aware of your possibilities and limitations within that culture. Having people you can be transparent with about the difficulties you are experiencing, and from whom you are willing to receive honest feedback, is absolutely vital for any of us. (N.B. This doesn’t mean gossip sessions about the senior leader or other staff members; it’s about your challenges, not everyone else’s.)

External peers are people whose roles are similar to yours but they work in a different organisation. These people are so important because they don’t have the blind spots your culture may have, so they can challenge you over issues you may not even be aware of. It may even be, if these people have proven themselves to be confidential, that you can talk about the pressures of relationships within your own organisation. Because they don’t work with those people themselves and therefore are not emotionally involved, they are highly likely to give you a clearer perspective.

However, in order to be mentored by a peer, the fear of being vulnerable has to go. If a person’s sense of identity is based around their leadership status, they will find it very difficult to be transparent and honest about their fears and failures, even and maybe especially, to a peer. Letting your guard down is a vital aspect of peer mentoring.

When people are concerned about how they look to the people around them, they use a certain language. They don’t meet with people; they ‘minister’ to them. They tell all the good news, and sometimes beef it up a bit, but they don’t talk about the failures and discouragements. They live in terror of being seen to be somehow ‘less than’ in the eyes of the people they perceive to be their competition and for that reason they find it difficult to acknowledge when they’re wrong, to say sorry, or that what they felt was right turned out to be completely different from how they saw it. They may play mind games of one-upmanship in which they struggle to establish that their role is more important than their peer’s, utilising their titles and opportunities to reinforce their superiority. They tend to excuse their unwillingness to relate with peers by spiritualising their reasons – they want to ‘hear from God’ rather than lay down their pride enough to talk it over with someone who may be able to help them.

All these modes of behaviour are sub-optimal, in that life will still work for them, but not as easily or smoothly as they would had they been able to let their guard down. People who engage in this kind of game playing will never trust anyone else enough to be real and vulnerable with them, and they won’t believe that others are being real with them. The sad thing is that they will never know how much they’ve lost out because their pride kept them from the encouragement and comfort and insight that peers are so good at giving.

And yet, peer mentoring is one of the most powerful forms of mentoring, if the leader can let go of their ego and embrace it. Its effectiveness lies in reciprocation. When a leader takes the time to develop peer friendships, something fantastic happens. Not only has that leader found a friend to pour their heart out to, but their friend will have found the same, and everyone’s better off.

That means one day I may be able to help my friend to work through some of her issues, and the next day she may be able to help me. Neither of us has a greater status – we’re peers, and that’s what peers are for, to befriend one another in the good and the bad. We both have wisdom and experience, we can both hear from God on behalf of the other, and we’re helping each other to establish the Kingdom of God in our own contexts.

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour.
For if they fall, one will lift up his companion, but woe to him who is alone when he falls. For he has no one to help him up. Ecclesiastes 4:9,10

A few years ago in a forum for leaders, I oversighted a demonstration of ‘Group Peer Mentoring’ to show how small groups of people who have similar challenges and contexts can help one another to find the way forward out of difficult problems – and all in just one hour. If you’re interested in having me work with you to establish a Group Peer Mentoring session, feel free to contact me for more details.

Next week will be Number 6 and the last of our mentoring series. Let me know what you have gained from them, and also if there are any other leadership issues you would like me to profile. Feel free to post below on reply, and I’d also appreciate you reposting on Facebook or Twitter any of the series that you found particularly helpful.