The word history

The History of Mentoring


Mentoring – we know it plays an important role in lives around the world, but what is the history behind it?

We recently came across an interesting article from IMECH that included a photograph of the first-ever minutes taken at an Institute of Mechanical Engineers meeting in 1847, which put an emphasis on the importance, and relevance, of mentoring.

Within these meeting minutes – the topics of the importance of sharing knowledge, and the value of young members being mentored, are touched upon.  This got us thinking about the history of mentoring and its prevalence in various industries and educational settings throughout history.


The Origins Of Mentoring

The concept of mentoring, as well as the story of mentorship, are taken from Homer’s classic poem – The Odyssey, making the history of mentorship approximately 3000 years old!

A drawing of Homer

Homer’s poem is thought to have been written around 800 BCE, and it tells the story of a 10-year Trojan war (yes, the one with the wooden horse!) when Odysseus, the king of Ithica, abandoned his wife and son Telemachus to lead his army. During his absence, Odysseus requested that Telemachus be placed in the care of a guardian, who would serve as an advisor, teacher, and friend. The guardian’s name was Mentor.

From there, things got a bit messy for Telemachus – as Mentor didn’t always provide the best guidance that was expected of him, eventually – the Goddess ‘Athena’ came to his rescue by morphing into a wise version of Mentor, to provide the required support and advice – and as far as our whistle-stop tour history lesson goes, her support and advice allowed Telemachus to ‘save the day.’

So, as we keep this nugget of history at the forefront of our minds, we can see that the notion of mentorship today is very much the same. A mentor is there to guide the mentee, with the mentoring relationship developing over time.

If you are looking for further clarity on what exactly is meant by mentoring, and who is involved in a mentoring relationship, you can visit one of our previous blogs which cover the basics.

For now, let’s take a look at some further examples of mentoring throughout history and the impact this had on the mentors.


Famous Mentors in History

If a mentoring style relationship was good enough for Odysseus, then it’s no wonder that the phenomenon has stuck around and is growing in popularity.

History not only tells us the origin of the word mentor but also provides further examples and models of successful mentoring relationships, to name but a few…


Oprah Winfrey mentored by Mrs Duncan (4th-grade teacher and Poet)


Oprah Winfrey and her mentor Mrs Duncan

When Oprah was in the fourth grade, the biggest impact that Mrs Duncan made on Oprah’s life was to help her not be afraid of being smart.

Mrs Duncan encouraged Oprah to read, and helped her to reach her full potential by challenging her to select new and increasingly difficult books. Additionally, Mrs Duncan frequently stayed after school with Oprah to work on her homework or school projects.

Oprah, who originally aspired to be “the best 4th-grade teacher in the world”, has been quoted –

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ is one of my best lessons from her.”

Now, a celebrity of great magnitude – Oprah aims to inspire and encourage others to realise their full potential, much as Mrs Duncan did for her.


Mark Zuckerberg mentored by Steve Jobs


Mark Zuckerberg with mentor Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO, served as a mentor to Mark Zuckerberg, who was once a Harvard University dropout before creating Facebook, the social media channel that went on to transform the world and how we connect.

Steve Jobs first opened up about his relationship with Mark in his autobiography – which shocked people at the time due to Apple and Facebook notoriously bashing heads as two big players within the tech and online industry.

Initially developing a mentoring relationship in the very early days of Mark creating Facebook, it is said that the pair would often meet to discuss best business practices as well as management for the company.

Of the mentoring relationship, Mark has said – “I had a lot of questions for him!

As we know, mentoring relationships are all about questions.


Martin Luther King mentored by Benjamin Mays


Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968.

During King’s time as a student at Morehouse College, Benjamin Mays was school president. As part of his role as president, May held weekly morning sermons – which were to be inspirational, yet meant to challenge the students.

King found these sermons to be “unforgettable”, with Mays teaching King how to use the importance of history throughout his speeches. Once the morning sermons were finished, King would stay behind to discuss issues such as racism and integration with Mays, sparking a mentorship relationship that would last until King’s untimely death.

Of his relationship with Mays, King described Benjamin May as his spiritual mentor and intellectual father.


Further examples of mentoring throughout history


These are just a few examples of figures from society and history that you may know of, who benefit greatly from their mentoring relationships. The examples do not end there, some other notable mentoring relationships include:

Hillary Clinton mentored by Rev. Donald James

Helen Keller mentored by Anne Sullivan

Rosa Parks mentored by Alice L. White (headmistress)

Larry King mentored by Edward Bennett Williams


Final thoughts on the history of mentoring

From ancient times to now, it is clear that mentoring has influenced the lives of many in a variety of different ways, all of whom come from different walks of life.

If you are feeling inspired by any of these mentoring relationships and are exploring mentoring programmes within your business or education setting, you can get in touch with the sfG MentorNet team for a free demonstration of our online, secure, mentoring platform.