Home All Lighting Up the Sky: Lessons from Mentoring Research

Lighting Up the Sky: Lessons from Mentoring Research

written by Orin Davis 5 May 2011
lighting sparklers

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in Positive Psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He runs the Quality of Life Laboratory and is a freelance consultant. Orin's Web site. Orin's articles are here.



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

lighting sparklers

Lighting sparklers

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?

A Mentor

   A Mentor

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

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Ryan Niemiec 5 May 2011 - 12:14 pm

Good article with good ideas, Orin. I was surprised by the omission of strengths, particularly character strengths. As someone who has worked with staff, e.g., mentors at Boys & Girls Club, I can’t imagine a more important framework (a strengths-based one) to help create a safe environment, to help individuals open up, to shift the focus from deficit-base, to ask the most precise & beneficial questions, and most important, to help them “see” and develop what is best in them.

As in Marty’s new PERMA theory, character strengths underlie each component and probably underlie each of the six principles you mention. E.g., how can we “respect” others without knowing and honoring their core character strengths? How can a mentor create a genuinely “emotionally safe” environment without being true to who they are (their character strengths)?

I suspect research will bear out that it’s much easier (and more effective) to train or guide a mentor (or protege) through discussion of strengths (activating, exploring, and using) than by most other processes.

That said, I do think you are heading in the right direction when you speak to “sparks” and what “ignites” the person. Again, inevitably, the response will be one that is synonymous with character strengths.

I do appreciate that you have written this piece and I hope you take my comments as an appreciative critique.


Orin Davis 5 May 2011 - 2:59 pm

Hi Ryan,

I really appreciate the comments and the viewpoint! In principle, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The requisite body of empirical research, however, has yet to bear it out sufficiently. Great work is being done at the VIA Institute, and I am champing at the bit for the opportunity to incorporate it into my work. For that matter, I would love to have the opportunity to run some empirical experiments involving VIA (I designed some more than two years ago)!

In my research on the medical field, the number one objection that comes up whenever someone mentions “strengths” is that “there’s no time to deal with that stuff.” No amount of suggesting that they don’t have time to ignore it has been effective to date, because they just ask for the empirical work and evidence. We know such evidence is probably low-hanging fruit, but we need the funding and opportunities to grab it, and until we do…



Scott Asalone 6 May 2011 - 4:52 pm

Thank you. Working with many corporations I’ve found there is a strong drive to establish mentoring programs, yet there are a plethora of methods and many of them are unsuccessful. Your six principles is an effective benchmark to examine some of the programs and perhaps to help them run successfully. Many times I experience companies who never “trained” their mentors, nor examined the “fit” with the individual being mentored. They just placed individuals together and let them figure it out. However a well developed mentoring program can have some powerful results. I can’t recall the name of the paper, but Locke and Latham acknowledge the importance of mentoring in developing self-efficacy.
Thank you for a clear, concise, and applicable article on mentoring.

Kathryn Britton 7 May 2011 - 3:22 pm

Like Scott, I encountered a corporate push for mentoring, but I also saw that some people took to it naturally, and some didn’t. One of my dear friends at work mentored so many people that she ended up having to create little groups because she just didn’t have enough hours in the day to meet individually with them all. What she found was that peer mentoring — where the members of the groups listened, responded, and helped each other — was a surprising benefit.

In the spirit of growth mindsets, I think people can learn to be good mentors — or at least better mentors, given the will. Your 6 principles are a great starting point. Underneath them, there runs a thread of just plain being interested in other people. That one might be hard to jumpstart.


Orin Davis 13 May 2011 - 1:48 am

Hi Scott,

I’m glad you find the six principles helpful! I have been finding likewise when I am asked about developing mentor programs. Like so many things, good mentoring can’t be forced, and yet that’s exactly what a lot of companies do (and then claim that they have a mentoring program!).



Orin Davis 13 May 2011 - 2:02 am

Hi Kathryn,

What that leaves me wondering about is what the difference is between those who take to it naturally and those who don’t. Is it a function of the dyad, or of the mentor? For what matter, what does it take to incite/inspire someone to be interested in others? Very interesting questions that we will need to answer!



Tom Brady 7 March 2012 - 4:25 am

Thank you, Orin. I like the way this important subject is presented without the verbal, flowery bells and whistles that often detract from the true message.

We use mentoring at several different levels within our organisation and are seeking to use Positive Psychology as an evidenced based platform upon which we will develop our future stragies.

Your work will be an inspiration to us.

Orin Davis 7 March 2012 - 4:58 am

Many thanks, Tom! I hope my work does meet that standard!




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