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Coaching vs mentoring? No: the Socrates-Miyagi spectrum

Updated: May 16

The range of coaching offers out there can be confusing, even if you avoid a life coach as obviously dodgy as Jeremy in the Peep Show episode ‘Business Secrets of the Pharaohs’. Adding mentoring to the mix makes it more confusing still.


While coaches and mentors share similar objectives, however, they typically reach that destination by different routes.

Team Miyagi

You’ll find plenty of articles explaining the difference between coaching and mentoring, but this is probably the only one that begins by asking you to think back to the 1984 film The Karate Kid.


Specifically, think about the character of Mr Miyagi, played by Pat Morita. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember that Mr Miyagi teaches karate to Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio. He does so in what at first seems an eccentric and even punitive way, making Daniel wax his car and paint his fence. Only when Daniel is ready to quit does Mr Miyagi reveal that the chores were in fact a way to introduce him to the foundations of martial arts.

Team Socrates

Now shift from fictional Los Angeles to real-life Athens. And turn the clock back from 1984AD to 470-399 BC. Think, not of Mr Miyagi, but of Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy.


Perhaps the most important aspect of Socrates’ philosophy is his commitment to questions. These questions had different functions, including clarification (what exactly do you mean?), evidence (how do you know?) and shifting perspectives (what alternative viewpoints might there be?). He would even question the question itself (why do you think I asked this question?).


Coaching vs mentoring?

Mentors tend to offer advice and pass on knowledge, often based on what has worked for them in the past.


Mr Miyagi is a mentor. He solves Daniel’s problems for him: think of the moment, early in the film, when he actually rescues Daniel from bullies. Even when he teaches Daniel to fight for himself, he does so as a master to an apprentice.

Coaches, by contrast, tend to support clients to solve their own problems, often through asking questions. The relationship is less hierarchical than that between mentor and mentee: knowledge is not passed on but co-created.

Socrates was a coach. He sought to raise self-awareness through powerful questions.


While mentors tend to be instructive, coaches are inquisitive. We could say that mentoring is more like learning from a slide presentation, while coaching is more about learning through reflection.





Solve a client’s problems for them by providing answers

Support clients to solve their own problems by asking questions

Knowledge is passed on from master to apprentice

Knowledge is co-created through less hierarchical relationship

For those in junior roles or senior colleagues making a significant shift

For those in senior roles looking to achieve personal or professional growth

Mr Miyage


The coaching continuum

This table, of course, is a simplification.

There’s a reason the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ are sometimes used interchangeably: in reality, the line between them is far from impermeable. A coach might well veer into mentor territory – or vice versa – even within a single session.


Rather than thinking of coaching and mentoring as completely different, then, it may be more useful, as coach and author Myles Downey has suggested, to think in terms of a spectrum.


While I have a personal preference for coaching, I am in a mentor role too and believe it can be every bit as valuable. My qualification (from the Institute Leadership and Management: even better than Jeremy’s certificate in Peep Show) is in coaching and mentoring. We are talking about a difference in emphasis, not a radical divide.

So... do I need a mentor or a coach?

In general, the right choice for you will depend on your role and career stage.


Broadly speaking, mentorship suits those in relatively junior roles. It can also suit more senior colleagues making a significant shift: for instance into a new sector or new geographical location. The mentor - someone who has been there, done it, and got the T-shirt - can provide not only experience but also access to networks.


A downside of mentoring, however, is that it can create dependency. For this reason, those already in more senior roles are likely to prefer coaching. Coaching is likely to be particularly appealing to those seeking some kind of personal or professional growth – to develop their emotional intelligence, for instance, or overcome imposter syndrome.


One other consideration: mentors, in general, have more experience in a given industry sector. Coaches, by contrast, tend to have experiences in being coaches. What they are bringing is a methodology.

OK, I’ve decided. What next?

If you want to work with a coach, then the Association for Coaching, the International Coaching Federation and the European Mentoring and Coaching Council are good places to start.


As the name suggests, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council covers mentoring too. You can also find a mentor through more informal channels. The first step is simply to ask.

Whether you choose coaching or mentoring, the takeaway is this: make sure you're both expecting to be on the same place on the Socrates-Miyage spectrum.

Good luck.

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