03/12/2009 01:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Being President Obama's Mentor

There is an art to advising leaders. It involves timing, trust, and tone. Careful listening is required to get these three artistic elements just right. The old saw that it is lonely at the top is just wrong. It's crowded. Advisors of all stripes flock to guide the new leader. Their advice is often unconsciously tainted by their own unique experiences and self-interest in ways that they may not even recognize.

When Bill Clinton tells the current occupant of his old office to be more optimistic he is recalling how good that felt when he did it. But Clinton never faced a financial crash as abrupt and wide spread as the current one. Being smart and knowing stuff is not what makes for proper and useful mentoring.

What President Obama needs is a small stable of trusted mentors not a roomful of consultants. Here are some differences between the two:

Consultants have strong points of view forged by their own experiences, which may or may not match current circumstances. Consultants hate failure, are risk averse, especially when their own reputations are on the line. Watching Enron sink was a great study in how fast armies of advisors and consultants could get off a sinking ship.

Mentors care about and support the whole person regardless of the problems at hand. They are more broadly experienced often lack narrow training and expertise. Mentors are fully aware that great problems require bold, high-risk intervention and help prepare the leader capture the learning that flows from a good faith failure. Rule one - the leader must take full responsibility.

Leaders like President Obama require caring mentors and self-aware consultants. The temptation when a new leader arises from the ashes of the melt down created by the previous office holders is to surround himself with trusted old friends and glamorous new advice givers. This admixture of the saving remnant of the past and the dashing figures who leap on board the new train can lead to disastrous infighting, factionalism, and poor advice.

Bill Clinton suffered a lack of wise mentors. Instead he tried to blend from Little Rock old cronies with high-powered, high status Wall Street types like Robert Ruben. He got lots of advice on many topics of importance and got no real support and guidance where he needed it, his own personal comportment.

The lovely, satisfying aspect of serving as a mentor to many leaders over the years is watching them grow and prosper as persons behind the masks they must wear in their public rules. I recall working with South African leaders from diverse backgrounds who Nelson Mandela wanted groomed for longer responsibilities. He sent his Godson Mayo to watch over one so I wouldn't "step on a snake". I enjoyed every moment of his mentoring sweetness and deep wisdom. It also gave me more strength in my own mentoring role with the assembled young leaders.