Lighting Up the Sky: Lessons from Mentoring Research

Orin Davis
4 min readAug 30, 2016

What Ignites You?

For each and every one of you, there is something that charges your passion. When you think about it, when you do it, and when it is on your mind, you come alive. If someone were to ask you what you are really like, you would point to moments where you experience your passions.

Do you know what ignites you? If so, do you remember how you found out? Do you remember how you developed it?

For almost all of us, there was someone special who was part of that process — a person who lit the spark or fanned the flame, and suddenly we were burning brightly. It reminds me of lighting sparklers on the Fourth of July in the backyard — we would pass the flame from sparkler to sparkler, everyone’s fireworks being lit by someone else’s in celebration of independence. It is an idea that Katy Perry highlighted beautifully in her recent song and music video Firework.

Igniting Others

While Perry’s message was about finding one’s own inner voice, part of what we do as professionals, family members, and friends is enable others to do and be their best by igniting their sparks. This is similar to one of the roles played by a mentor, as described by Kram as well as Bozeman and colleagues. According to Nakamura, Shernoff, and Hooker, research on mentoring can suggest ways of helping others to find their voices.

Some of my own research with Jeanne Nakamura involved developing a theoretical model of how mentors can enable protégés to make the most of having a good mentor. This has implications for empowering others to find and use their passions. We found that a mentor-protégé relationship should be guided by six principles:

  • Emotional Safety — a non-threatening environment in which people can feel comfortable asking questions, trying out ideas, and receiving criticism
  • Responsiveness — providing honest and clear feedback, and making time for the other person
  • Support — fostering self-efficacy and self-confidence, and providing trust, empathy, and protection
  • Protégé-Centeredness — tailoring advising and teaching to the other’s needs
  • Respect — treating the other as a future equal, and being willing to entertain the other’s ideas
  • Informality — the relationship is not formally assigned — both people are voluntarily involved, and not necessarily in a prescribed context

What Are Your Own Best Mentoring Experiences?

Think about the relationships that have helped you to do and be your best — odds are good that the six principles above described many of the hallmarks of those relationships. Because of these foundations, you were probably able to engage in several key developmental behaviors, including:

  • Reflecting — thinking about prior actions and experiences and using them as a basis for improvement, developing self-awareness
  • Synthesizing — integrating old and new knowledge, skills, and attitudes
  • Extrapolating — applying knowledge, skills, and attitudes, in new ways
  • Exercising Independence — being able to act independently while knowing that there is someone more senior with whom you can consult

As one of the major roles of the mentor is to enable others to do their best and to be themselves, perhaps the model of how mentors can enable protégés to make the most of the mentoring experience also suggests ways of enabling others to find their voice, their passion, and their spark.

Light up the sky!


Bozeman, B., & Feeney, M.K. (2007). Toward a useful theory of mentoring: A conceptual analysis and critique. Administration & Society, 39(6), 719–739.

Davis, O.C., & Nakamura, J. (2010). A proposed model for an optimal mentoring environment for medical residents: A literature review. Academic Medicine, 85(6), 1060–1066.

Kram, K.E. (1985). Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.

Nakamura J., Shernoff, D., & Hooker, C. (2009). Good Mentoring: Fostering Excellent Practice in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, Katy,Firework music video

Red Flower — Fireworks courtesy of ShutterSpark
Lighting Sparks courtesy of Iwan Wolkow
A Mentor, courtesy of the US Navy

Originally published at



Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab ( Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.