Before securing a mentor, it’s helpful to take a self inventory. What is it that we most want and need? What are the strengths we have and what are the deficits we seek to overcome? In her book, Lead from the Outside, Stacey Abrams provides significant resources and insights for mentorship that we think you will find helpful.

To begin, she suggests that you consider using the SWOT system to identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. [1] It’s a form of personal review.

Strengths What are you best at in this environment? What are your finest attributes?Weaknesses What are your areas of growth? What causes you worry about yourself?

Opportunities What actions can you take to improve your environment?Threats What could impede your progress or cause you harm in this endeavor?


To begin, she suggests that you consider using the SWOT system to identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. [2] It’s a form of personal review.

One of the reasons why Abrams book is a treasured text is that her Lead from the Outside book focuses on the very concept of creating and sustaining power on the margins. Many of us are tempted to do this by aligning ourselves with those who are high-powered. Though this  has value, to focus only on those who are “centered” in power is short-sighted. If you work in a seminary or university, have you become acquainted with the secretary who can advise you on the personalities involved and help you navigate potentially challenging politics? Have you chatted with the janitors who have access to memos that are tossed but may highlight a new priority within your department that hasn’t been articulated – but would be beneficial for you to learn? As one example, Abrams quotes meeting someone she called the “Black Mata Hari” who cultivated a financial empire because Black janitors passed along memos to her which identified their concerns with her. [3] This allowed her to leverage her positions, climb higher and avoid ambush.

Abrams identified these “invisible workers” are often the ones who know calendars, concerns priorities – things which would allow you to make wise choices to ensure your own success.

Where are you building your alliances?

Our places of worship are similar. If you are a Religious Leader, churches for example, are often notorious for the unexplained rules or the ‘politics.’ I remember serving as an Associate Pastor of a church where I wanted to start a Women’s Ministry. The group decided that Sundays, after church, was the preferred time to meet. However, the church services were two hours long and people were very hungry afterward. I suggested we needed to bring food to the meetings to ensure people would stay.

The first meeting, I brought chicken from a local fast food place but there was no other food provided. People participated but most were uncomfortable even eating the food because they failed to contribute. This went on at the following meeting. I finally asked, “What would it take for you all to bring food?”

Finally, one woman said, “If Ms. X tells us to do it, we will do it.”

Strange as that may sound, this group of mature women were actually intimidated by Ms. X – who was a no nonsense woman and good organizer. Sure enough, she agreed. At the conclusion of each meeting, she stood up to take four names for those who would bring food to the next meeting. The week before each meeting, she would contact them to coordinate what they would bring. We never had another issue with the food!

This was an instance where the women simply were afraid of one of the older women. They knew they wouldn’t dare disappoint her – but as the newcomer, I had no idea about that power dynamic. By asking them about a resolution, directly, I was able to get us back on track!

Self Sabotage with False Humility

While we are encouraging that you take an inventory of yourself, it is not only about your weaknesses but also about your strengths. How can we do that without admitting we have things we do well? The temptation for us to self sabotage often comes from the trap of “false humility.” Let’s explore that.

Many of us are encouraged to self sabotage ourselves, to make self deprecating statements and to downplay our own strengths in order not to appear a threat to those around us. Yet, as Abrams says,

We deflect praise, pretending we don’t deserve it. Worse, we actually think we don’t. Our deference becomes a method by which to dial back aspirations, and we belittle our accomplishments for fear that those around us will laugh at our dreams.[4]

How many of us are actually embarrassed by our own ambition and dreams? Why can’t we simply embrace our strengths without falling into the trap of believing this will make us appear “better than others?”

For some of us, this fear of being seen as “putting on airs” interjects itself into our daily lives. We are told we are “too good” for family and friends based on our speech patterns, the clothing we wear, and our overall deportment. Why not simply embrace that strength as something which makes you wonderful – the same way your weaknesses also make you wonderful! Consider this quote at length from Abrams:

We permit self-doubt to encourage us to downgrade our accomplishments before someone else does or in an effort to make others more comfortable with our newfound position or success. As we tell the revised story, our victory is rooted in circumstances, luck, affirmative action, you name it – anything but our own talents and abilities. This attribution to outside forces is very dangerous because if we didn’t earn our achievement, then we can’t replicate it. And we’re less likely to take the next step and reach beyond our supposed limitations. Like the representative warned me, because our successes are not our own, they become vulnerable to erasure.[5]

Consider that! The danger of false humility is that, among other things, it convinces us that we cannot duplicate prior victories. This keeps us defined by our limitations and not our successes. By contrast, humility anchors us to a sense of self which enables us to try harder while also grateful for the opportunities we have had. [6] Your mentors want to know that you will make the most of every door that’s opened, each opportunity availed to you. And, when you are mentoring you will want the same thing.

Take Internal Inventory

Explore your strengths, your weaknesses, your opportunities and your threats. Some liberationist theologians have identified their reliance on White thinkers as a weakness, for example. In your environment, that familiarity with Barth or with a Foucault, may be the thing which brings White academics in closer to consider your ideas. Opportunities may include networking meetings across various departments and schools, or even in other universities. Opportunities may include the ability to collaborate for research grants with colleagues. Whereas, a threat may be more subtle such as negative comments which allude to your colleagues who do not see you as a “fit” within their environment.

When you have your list, take 2-3 very trusted colleagues and/or friends who can give you feedback on your list. Think of it as a fact finding mission. This research can better position you to identify what you need in terms of the mentors you already have, and whether you are using them as well as you should. It can also help you better identify the additional mentors you need and how you can go about starting those relationships.

Once you know where you stand, you will need to explore the mentor type you have/need and the next steps you should take in your vocational call. Stay turned – and be ready to give your thoughts on the Research Day, Nov 15th, 4-5:30 pm, British Standard Time.

We really need your help to keep M2M going! Please read, like and share the content that we publish. You can do this by visiting the website, and follow us on twitter @gynoir2mishpat and join our Facebook group, “Misogynoir to Mishpat.” We look forward to seeing you there!  

[1] Stacey Abrams, “Hacking and Owning Opportunity,” in Lead from the Outside, p. 63

[2] Abrams, “Hacking and Owning Opportunity,” p. 63

[3] Abrams, pp. 67-68

[4] Ibid, p. 71

[5] Ibid, p. 72

[6] Ibid, p. 72

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