What My Ma Taught Me about Mentorship & True Leadership

My Ma was a science teacher. For decades she taught the subject to secondary 1 to 3 students (12 – 15 years old).

At the start of the first day of the first year, she would say:

“Students. By the end of 3 years, your knowledge in Science must be as good, if not, better than me.”

Her students would normally have a mix of reactions – some shocked, some tensed-up, some just don’t give a shit.

Once, I asked her, “Ma, isn’t it unfair? You had almost 30 years of learning and teaching Science. To expect your students to be your equal or even better than you in three years… that’s just not fair. I mean, how can your students surpass you as a teacher?”


My Ma, in her wisdom, would calmly say,

“Then I wouldn’t have done a good job as a teacher.”

I was confused, eyebrow raised. Her answer just didn’t make sense.

As any good teacher, she went on to explain,

“You see. If I can’t make them better than me, how can I be their teacher? Isn’t the function of a teacher to impart knowledge so the next generation can be better?”

Frankly, I too was 12 at that time, and I just rolled my eyes.


It’s not until years later, when I see “teachers”, “mentors” or “leaders” who consciously make sure their people can’t be as good as them, that I fully appreciate my Ma’s philosophy.

You know teachers/mentors/leaders like that. You’ve seen them, probably interacted with some of them.

In a 12-step kung fu, they would teach only 11.

I’m not sure what motivates that behavior. Insecurity and scarcity mindset were my closest guesses.

I had always assumed that the reputation of the teacher/mentor/leader is only as good as the results of the students/mentees/followers. If that is the case, wouldn’t they want to operate from my Mom’s belief?

Photo Credit: https://nexianigeria.com/


In his bestselling book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, America’s premier leadership authority John Maxwell states this about the first law:

The Law of the Lid – Leadership ability determines a person’s level of effectiveness.

Here’s an experiment by a group of researchers that you’ve probably heard of:

  • A group of fleas was placed in a jar and the lid was closed.
  • The fleas, which could have easily jump our of the jar, kept hitting the lid.
  • A few days later, the fleas adjusted to the environment and jumped just slightly below the lid, to avoid hitting it.
  • The following week, the researchers took the lid off the jar.
  • The fleas did not manage to jump out.

Essentially, what John meant is that the highest a leader can bring his or her followers, is up to his level. For their followers to grow, the leader has to either grow him/herself, or let them go. That’s the trademark of a great leader.

The teachers/mentors/leaders I mentioned above?

Seemed to be using the law of the lid to stop their students/mentees/followers from raising above the bar. The smart ones would eventually leave, but those that were intimidated? They will stay where they are, without much growth.


Thinking back of my Ma’s philosophy, she genuinely wanted her students (or mentees) to surpass her, because in them, she saw great potential.

Far greater than she could achieve.

She was the pedestal to raise them up, so they can reach the ledge that was earlier out of reach. Some students, upon reaching the top, occasionally extended a hand, wanted to pull my Ma up.

She would just smiled at them, waved them off, and looked at the next bunch of students, eager to start their three years with my Ma. My Ma knew her place, and without great teachers like her, we would forever be kept under a lid.

p.s. If you do have a “mentor” that has kept you from spreading your wings, it’s no disrespect to move on. You deserve better, not because you can be better. You owe it to yourself to be better. And forgive, for sometimes the mentee becomes the mentor, and frankly, the world needs people like you to stretch the limits of what can be done, so we can dream of what we can truly become.