Signs Your Mentor is giving you Bad Advice

By | April 28, 2020

[April 27, 2020]  Many years ago, a friend of mine, Bill Johnson, was finishing the U.S. Infantry Basic Officer Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.  An armor Captain that had been a mentor to Bill for many months suggested that my friend ask for an assignment at Fort Polk, Louisiana, after graduation.  The mentor was giving bad advice.

Back in the 1980s, when Bill was a junior officer, Fort Polk had a bad reputation.  A survey of soldiers taken in the early 1990s showed that Polk was the worst military post for soldiers.  The local town of Leesville (sarcastically called Disease-ville because of the prostitutes) was a terrible place, the military post had old, run-down housing, the weather was hot and humid, and the surrounding land was full of critters that made military maneuvers unpleasant.  Fort Polk was not the place to be stationed.

There is a lesson in Bill’s circumstances.  That lesson is that even if you have a great mentor, that does not relieve you of the task of figuring out your own future.  Those being mentored have an active role to play in judging the advice they get.  With that in mind, I’ve included some signs that might show that your mentor is not giving you the best advice:

  1. Your tolerance for risk differs from your mentor. Bill wanted to do well in the U.S. Army, but he didn’t have the guts to take as high a risk that his mentor wanted for him.  Sure, the assignment meant hard work, but the reward was illusive.  Bill was unwilling to take the risk.
  2. You know more than your mentor. Bill was a smart guy and had grown up as an “army brat.”  So he had a lot of information about military installations around the world.  Fort Polk was simply a poor location with no senior headquarters where a good officer could be recognized.  Simply, Bill knew where to be stationed and he didn’t need someone else to tell him.
  3. Your peers know more about you than your mentor. This fact is an important point.  Mentors, by the very nature of what they do, don’t know as much about you as your friends, family, and peers.  Your peers understand what you want and often know the best way of achieving it.  A mentor can never know what your capabilities are and never will know.  Ask them for advice; they will not steer you wrong.
  4. You may be straying from the mentor’s career path. Mentors are more likely to recommend future behavior based upon their path.  If they liked stationed in Germany, they would recommend Germany more than a location they’d never been to.  This also applies to job assignments, the level of staff work, and the balance between family and work.  Mentors view career paths similar to those as being better; that is human nature.
  5. Is there something that the mentor may gain? Their improved reputation and future advancement reward mentors who produce very successful mentees.  The better the mentee does, the better it reflects upon the mentor.

While our first reaction to a mentor’s guidance should not be rejection or great dismay, it should be viewed with some level of skepticism.  The key here is not to take mentoring as a set of marching orders.  Deciding wisely for yourself is a good alternative.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “Signs Your Mentor is giving you Bad Advice

  1. Martin Shiell

    Very good list. Thanks, Gen. Satterfield. We all remain responsible. That is, of course, the hallmark of a leader. We should never abdicate any of our responsibilities no matter how enticing.

  2. Len Jakosky

    Another often overlooked problem addressed in Thanks. I would like to add that mentoring is a time-consuming activity and therefore should not be given short shrift. It is something that has value beyond the obvious. Bad advice by mentors is one that detracts from its value. Mentors should be monitored for effectiveness.

    1. Linux Man

      Bad advice is everywhere. Personally, I think it’s intellectual laziness that causes so much of the bad advice from mentors. That’s been my experience any way.

  3. Jerome Smith

    Excellent article, thanks Gen. Satterfield. I look forward to the upcoming article by Sadako Red. I see that he is back reading your blog. Good news for us all.

  4. Gil Johnson

    Here are the most important leadership qualities and skills to look for in a great leader:

    1. Scotty Bush

      This is where good mentoring comes in handy. No leader ever started out knowing every thing and being able to be good at their job. We all struggled. Good mentors can help overcome these deficiencies.

  5. Sadako Red

    Always remember, in order to avoid these problems, to:
    1. Love what you do
    2. Communicate effectively
    3. Chose your peers carefully
    4. Plan for the future (have a realistic vision)
    5. Be transparent
    6. Be patient and wise ….

    1. Greg Heyman

      And, I might add, to kick butt for those who step out of line. Oh, was I writing what I was thinking? Yep, you have to do all these things “Red” and more. Well thought out. Please provide another article for us. Those of us down in the trenches will welcome it.

    2. monica

      Hi Sadako Red. I’m one of your many fans on this leadership blog. It is always great to read your thinking so please keep writing for us.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        I read somewhere that Mr. Red will be writing another article soon. I surely look forward to it.

  6. Max Foster

    Being a mentor is not always easy. At times, it may require much effort on my part, but the benefits of a successful mentorship far exceeds these small inconveniences. Mentees bring fresh ideas and aid in the progress of research and discovery. They learn skill sets that they can ably to benefit the scientific community at large and that they may later even apply to my own area of research. Being a mentor is part of a the noble process that prepares mentees for their future endeavors.

    1. Danny Burkholder

      Thanks Max for helping put mentoring into perspective and opening the door to why mentors are also deficient. I found that my boss was giving me bad advice the hard way. Gen. Satterfield laid out some of the ways mentoring can go wrong. Good to see you on again.

  7. Army Captain

    The purpose of mentoring is development. It is about learning not teaching and both mentors and those mentored grow from the experience. But it still can go wrong and this article lays out some of those ways.

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      Good comment, Army Captain. If only I’d had a mentor. Most of my career, it was up to me to think thru all the decisions and be on the look out for problems. Oh well, it worked out okay.

    2. Dennis Mathes

      Yes, well said. Most folks don’t have the foggiest idea what mentoring is about and would be insulted if you told them. Why?

      1. Eric Coda

        And that is the heart of the problem behind mentoring. Good mentors are invaluable. Poor mentors are a dime a dozen and they are more harmful than productive. I’ve seen it happen way too many times. There are too many excuses they give like not enough time or the mentee is somehow deficient. But mentoring is the greatest thing you can give to a leader.

  8. Autistic Techie

    Great start to my morning. Enjoyed your first article of the day. Thank you, Gen. Satterfield, keep up the good works.


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