Throughout my time in the Army, I have always heard the phrase “mentor” thrown about. While I understand the traditional meaning of the word, its always seemed much more fetishized in the military. I remember hearing cadets at West Point say, “I need to go see my mentor” or “I’m grabbing dinner with my mentor”. This always confused me and made it seem more like a strange marriage than a senior member of the organization providing guidance or “sage wisdom”. I felt so turned off by this concept that I never found myself with a mentor while at the Academy or even during my time at Ft. Benning. It wasn’t until I finally became a Platoon Leader that I truly understood what a mentor should be and found one my own from an unlikely place.
Spoiler Alert: It wasn’t my Platoon Sergeant. If you’ve read my earlier blogs, then this should be no surprise. While my first PSG was outstanding and would have perfectly mentored a young 2LT, he only stuck around for a few weeks before leaving the unit. The person I ended up seeking the most counsel from, and remains one of my closest friends, was the Lieutenant I inherited my Platoon from who we’ll call LT X. If this seems atypical, then it shouldn’t because guess what? A MENTOR IS RANK IMMATERIAL. There’s no “right answer” as to what or who a mentor should be. What does matter is how you and this individual professionally connect to one another.
Reflecting on this, I realized why I never found a mentor at the Academy: I had zero understanding of what the “Big Army” was. Once I had graduated Cadetland, left TRADOC, and to an actual unit, my contextual understanding increased tenfold. Finding a mentor starts with seeking out SOMEONE’S WHO’S ACTUALLY DONE WHAT YOU ARE DOING. I’m not saying limit yourself to a peer but rather to learn through shared experiences. By the time I had taken my Platoon, I at least had a solid understanding of what an Armor Platoon did compared to as a Cadet not even knowing that Scouts were part of the branch. The nuances of garrison life as an officer are immensely vast from property to maintenance to UCMJ. Why not seek wisdom from the guy or gal that just did it? Having only moved to the next troop as an XO, LT X was around enough where I could ping with any questions I had. It also didn’t hurt that he was willing to offer advice.
Mentoring should not be a one-way conversation; in fact, it should almost never be short of the purpose being disciplinary. Both parties have knowledge to impart which in turn leads to CANDID DISCUSSION. No one likes a “yes man” and if you find a mentor dismissing constructive opinions, it may be time to find a new one. I have learned as much from a Private First Class as I have from a Brigadier General. The difference is the type of knowledge and the vehicle that delivers it. One taught me how strategic leaders think at the highest level through listening to conversations, meetings, and forethoughts as I offered opinions of my own after the fact. The other informed me how my own leadership style affect an organization through honest feedback on the back ramp of a Bradley. Neither of which would have resulted in learning if one half of the equation refused to accept the views of the other.
Serendipitously, LT X and I had similar personalities leading to our friendship down the road. We found ourselves enjoying talking about anecdotes and lessons we had learned that day, week, or month. You won’t always end up with a relationship like this, especially if the mentor outranks the mentee substantially, but the key here is relatability. MENTOR-MENTEE MUST HAVE A PERSONALITY HARMONY. Simply put, it’s difficulty to process and accept insight from someone you find unrelatable. It’s the difference between calling something a lecture versus counsel, a discussion rather than a debate. Humans are emulators hence the common expression, “monkey see, monkey do”. We observe and process ideas and actions that we agree with and either swallow in entirely or break down into the bites we want to chew. These are then digested and become something new to practice for ourselves. But this can’t happen seamlessly without the desire to take that first initial bite. Food metaphors aside, there remains one final piece to mentorship that seemingly contradicts the rest.
Just as human are natural emulators and repeat what they enjoy, they also know what they don’t – which brings the concept of the ANTI-MENTOR. This was the first teacher I had as I saw what actions some of my fellow cadets or senior officers would do and vowed to never repeat them. I firmly believe, my leadership style was founded in things to never do. Unfortunately, most of us have probably served with or under “toxic” leaders. Individuals who outwardly display traits or make decisions we fundamentally disagree with. Although suffering may occur in the interim, it at least allows for the observation of bad practices. Pulling lessons from these instances can be equally as valuable as those gained from a well-respected mentor.
Leadership is a team sport and will fail to grow without building off the players that take part in it. Much like any other relationship encountered in life, no one should ask for a mentor but rather let it occur organically. An organization lives and dies by the lessons passed on to those above, below, and laterally to it.