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Mentorship plays an important role in a pride of lions. Here are some of the key success factors for implementation

By Niël Steinmann

Mentorship is a vehicle to assist organisations to develop and retain their intellectual capital, yet very few organisations are getting it right by ensuring that they gain competitive advantage through the process.

Mentoring in South Africa is often a half-hearted attempt at redressing the past because:

  • Our history is characterised by debilitating paternalism:
  • Different cultures have been polarised by diverse views and approaches;
  • Low levels of trust that exist between employees and management
  • The working environment is littered with would-be mentors that are troubled and unsure about their own futures;
  • Mentors often passing on their 'bad management genes' or aspects of the business culture that we want to do away with;
  • Perceptions from mentors are that they are mentoring the person who will eventually replace them.

The Lioness as mentor

The workplace is littered with mistakes, but nature gives us an example of how it can be done right In nature the lioness is the ultimate mentor.

She models the non-negotiable qualities of good mentorship, but also understands that she has a dual role in the pride as mother and hunter.

We can learn a lot from how the lioness mentors her cubs.

First of all. she is patient and invests time to bond and interact with her cubs. often just watching over them.

There is also a point at which she must introduce her offspring to the rest of the pride. This introduction is strategically timed to ensure a safe induction in an often hostile and extremely competitive environment.

Each 'event' in the pride creates opportunity to learn. The lioness purposefully times the raising of her cubs and exposes them at the right moment to the different activities in the pride. It is this opportunistic approach to learning and development that moulds the competence of her 'young adult' cubs.

Finally, she recognises the importance of weaning and encourages the cubs to hunt for themselves. Ultimately, these young lions contribute to the success and the sustainability of the pride.

This powerful analogy with how the lioness goes about developing her young provides guidelines for solving some basic mentorship dilemmas. It also provides us with an innovative approach to the implementation of mentorship programmes in organisations.

The key characteristics of a good mentor

The lioness's instinct is to protect and care for her young, and she shows a passion for their development.

She is successful in her dual role as mother and hunter and is disciplined to invest as much time as necessary in her cubs. often making personal sacrifices.

She models patience and empathy.

She operates with confidence and is respected in her pride.

The lioness recognises the dynamics and politics in the pride and cautions the cubs on misbehaviour or actions that might place them in danger. She knows when her presence is necessary.

She is aware of the challenges and threats in her territory. This gives her the ability to sense risks or possible threats that might jeopardise the safety or survival of the cubs.

Being a competent hunter herself, she knows exactly what experience and skills her cubs will need to ensure their competence.

She sets the right example and models the skills they will need to hunt successfully She encourages the cubs to be inquisitive and opportunistic.

She demonstrates enough maturity to know when to wean the cubs there are stages in the relationship where she deliberately decides not to intervene.

The phases of a successful mentor process

  • Phase One: Intimate dependence
  • Phase Two: Familiarisation in the pride
  • Phase Three: Confidence building
  • Phase Four: Weaning

In each of these phases there is a particular challenge and rote for the mentor to play. The mentor should also demonstrate certain skills to ensure a natural progression to the next phase of the relationship.

The concept of gestation

The gestation period of a lioness is astonishingly short. The lioness's predatory lifestyle allows her to carry the extra weight of pregnancy for only a short period. This short time in the womb results in very underdeveloped young that rely on their mother for survival for two months of their lives.

Compare this to the zebra that has a gestation period of twelve months. The young zebra will only have between 12 and 15 minutes to be up and running with the rest of the herd. It is wonderful to see how nature prepares animals for the challenges they will face.

Using the analogy of a 'gestation period' also helps us find solutions to problems arising in the mentor/mentee relationship.

Confidence building rituals

The lioness carefully plans when to expose her cubs to the rest of the pride. She directs their development through playing, involvement in small kills and finally participation in a real hunt.


Lions illustrate the importance of not just focusing on hunting successfully for today They are conscious of sustainability issues, since the future of the pride lies in raising and developing young talent.

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