I recently attended a “mentoring” workshop, one of those day-long “off-sites” at which managers sit around and practice appearing on Oprah. “The answer is inside of you!” “Communication is the key!” “Honesty is the best—the very best—policy!”

I didn’t like it. To be fair, I’m a horrible student; my innate response to an assertion is to seek contradictions, and as they accumulate, my resistance to the speaker’s agenda grows exponentially. (I wonder if this explains my fondness for test-driven development.)

What really galled me, beyond the use of the non-word “nurturance” and an appeal to the authority of Fritjof Capra (the fellow to blame for the New Age abuse of quantum mechanics), was the avoidance of the patronage aspect. It seems to me that the complement to the word “mentor” is “protégé,” but I learned that this word is specifically frowned upon due to its elitist connotations and that the receiver of mentoring is a “mentee.”

But isn’t non-democratic selection part and parcel of the concept? If everyone can be a mentor, everyone a (sigh) mentee, does not the whole thing not smack of toothless “Everyone gets a trophy!” grade-school sports?

Mentoring, as I’ve understood it, is unabashed in its elitism. Club ties, single-malt whiskey and gazing out windows at the city beneath your feet—the whole Gordon Gecko/Jack Donaghy thing. Or, if you prefer, cloaks, lightsabers and clunky dialogue—the whole Yoda/Obi-Wan thing. The sage is not just wise, but powerful and opinionated, and the apprentice’s potential is not run-of-the-mill.

The great value of a mentor comes, I think, not when they are a good friend who listens attentively, draws out your thoughts, and supports you, but when they act in the opposite manner, telling you to shut up, stop whining, and buckle down to the challenge they judge you capable of tackling.

Even aside from the occasional butt-kicking, it seems to me that one looks to a mentor for concrete guidance. To me, a mentor is a person whose talent and character are such that when one asks for guidance, one doesn’t want, “Well, what does your heart say?” but rather, “I faced that rocky shoal and I navigated it thus…” (The best mentors are both masters of metaphor and former frigate commanders in either the British Navy or Starfleet.)

The necessity of continuous informal education is one of the things I love about our profession. The idea of mentoring relations being an important channel makes a great deal of sense. It has become impossible for any single person to track, much less master, potentially useful emerging tools and APIs. And, let’s face it, it’s hard trying to understand non-programmers and navigate in their world, with its “politeness” and non-meritocratic politics.

I mean politics in its general sense of social relations concerning authority and power. While we programmers are faultless in our selflessness, rational actors whose only weakness is believing that television will someday produce a multi-season science fiction arc that answers the questions of the first season, we are surrounded by mere mortals. I may overstate the case slightly, but I think it’s fair to say that within a technical team, people strive for an order that makes at least some concessions to objective reality, which is not necessarily a priority in other teams. Having a mentor who can interpret and advise on the larger organizational dynamics is, I think, something that a lot of developers could appreciate.

The political aspects of mentoring are sticky, and as much as anything, that is why mentoring was presented in such an “I’m OK, you’re OK” way. If mentoring is selective, then not everyone gets mentored equally. And if an organization introduces a performance- or merit-based program that goes around the normal reporting structure, all sorts of uncomfortable situations can arise.

Is there an association between being mentored and being advanced in the organization? If so, is mentee selection subject to HR fairness and diversity policies? Or is mentoring considered an activity separate from normal management duty, in which case, is it appropriate to do it during working hours? If Anne mentors Bob, and then is approached by Carol (who has the same position as Bob), is Anne obligated to mentor Carol?

It’s nice to gloss over such issues, to use the word “mentor” one minute to evoke a profound ongoing tutelage, but then in the next minute to say “the way we mean it” is as a communication technique universally available between any two people. At the workshop, we spent four hours, literally half the day, role-playing what were said to be mentoring scenarios but which seemed to be standard-issue, albeit dramatic, managerial crises (people sobbing that they feel overwhelmed, people revealing that they were having doubts about their career path). We listened closely, asked questions to draw out the issues, and broke for coffee before having to deal with the repercussions. People love role-playing and being asked for advice, so this went over wonderfully with the crowd.

By redefining mentoring into “deep listening,” the presenters may have made everyone feel better, but they gutted the concept of mentoring of its power. Instead of a workshop on how to incorporate a meritocratic practice into organizations (with their inherent tendency to drive towards bureaucratic mediocrity), we got a workshop in which we all discovered that we all agreed that we were all awesome.

I came away from the day disappointed, feeling that “mentoring” is simply the corporate buzzword du jour, that the workbooks would end up gathering dust alongside yellowing Myers-Briggs tests, faded Six Sigma green belts, and coffee-stained mission statements. All in all, I would have rather done a ropes course.

Larry O’Brien is a technology consultant, analyst and writer. Read his blog at www.knowing.net.