My Thoughts on Mentorship


Senior leaders in the Army clearly have the responsibility to serve as stewards of their profession – ensuring the long-term health of their organization; I’ve even heard that stewardship will be one of the themes for this year’s AUSA convention. As an element of stewardship, leaders have the responsibility to embrace and become advocates for mentorship. Mentorship ensures that the Army continues to grow the leaders at all levels necessary to ensure that our nation maintains the means to secure our interests and dominate the operational environment.

The principle of mentorship can be traced back as far as the writings of Homer: Odysseus left the care and upbringing of his son to Mentor, his close friend and confidant. Schools and organizations around the country have recognized the importance that mentorship can play in the development of young boys and girls. Businesses and corporations have identified mentorship as the way to ensure the need for competent corporate leadership is continually met. A cottage industry has emerged full of mentorship coaches and experts, leadership manuals with chapters dedicated to mentorship, and mentorship websites and conferences. But what is mentorship, and how should the Army approach it?

Across the literature, the definition of mentorship varies depending on the audience. Army Regulation 600-100, “Army Leadership,” defines mentorship as “the voluntary developmental relationship that exists between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience that is characterized by mutual trust and respect.” What are common throughout the literature are the two concepts of “development” and “voluntary.” A successful mentorship relationship requires both the mentor and the “mentee,” sometimes referred to as the “protégé,” to voluntarily agree to an informational exchange relationship designed to increase the knowledge, capability, capacity and potential of the mentee while contributing to the leadership capabilities and health of the organization.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes; however, mentors normally take one of three primary forms: peer mentors, subordinate mentors, and superior mentors. When I think of a mentor in a traditional sense, an image of an older, wise, sage counselor – much like Odysseus’ friend Mentor – comes to mind. This is the traditional role of superior mentor. In order for any organization to sustain its long-term health, it must have qualified, proficient leaders capable of steering the organization in the future. The best way to ensure this leadership need is to grow and nurture future leaders for this role, and the best way to grow them is for senior leaders to accept the responsibility of being active, participatory mentors. Senior leaders must seek out, identify and nurture future leaders; they must instill in these future leaders a love for the organization, a desire to lead, and a sense of responsibility so that the future leaders are capable of adopting the mantle of leadership. If, as a former Chief of Staff has said, soldiers are our credentials, then through this aspect of stewardship senior leaders will ensure the health of the organization is sustained.

Mentorship is not always about answering questions. A mentorship relationship often results in more questions or conditions being posed: rather than getting an answer to “what job should I take?”, a mentee might get in return a question such as “what are your long-term goals and how can you best align yourself to achieve these?” Both parties have to master the ability to listen, the ability to be a sounding board, and the ability to give advice that is taken to heart and not ignored. Anyone who has had the pleasure of giving advice and guidance to a teenage child can appreciate the complexities involved with not just giving that advice, but, more importantly, giving the advice in a manner in which it will be taken to heart. The mentor cannot adopt a pedantic, over-bearing approach to dispensing guidance. The communication must take the form of a conversation, one in which listening is just as important as talking.

If a mentor brings wisdom, advice, guidance, and counsel to a mentorship relationship, what does a mentee bring, and what are the responsibilities of the mentee? First, a mentee provides the senior leader a different perspective with which to inform his or her frame of reference. Too often senior leaders become myopic based on their individual experiences, beliefs, and perceptions. A mentee can provide a fresh set of eyes, a different perspective and frame of reference to a problem steeped in complexity and ambiguity, enabling the mentor to better appreciate the operational environment and expand his or her personal frame of reference. Mentorship is not a one-way street: the mentee must take an active role in identifying leaders who they wish to emulate, and – equally important – those who they wish to avoid. Mentees have the responsibility to seek knowledge, to pursue their profession, and to expand their intellectual horizons – responsibilities they share with their mentors. Finally, mentees have the responsibility to be proactive: they cannot wait for a mentor to approach them, just as they cannot accomplish their career goals on their own. Once they have identified a potential mentor, they have the responsibility to approach the senior leader and ask for advice, assistance, or perhaps even to serve as a mentor. The senior leader has the responsibility to respond, and to follow through on the commitment.

Mentees must understand and accept that mentorship is not a form of patronage: the purpose of the mentor relationship is to gain a trusted advisor, not to tie a career to someone’s coat-tails. Mentorship is based first and foremost on mutual trust: it is not solely career counseling, even though that is how the mentorship relationship may begin. It is a give-and-take relationship in which advice, guidance and even camaraderie are shared in a confidential manner, based on trust. An institution cannot emulate this relationship through a web application nor through a Headquarters-managed program. Leaders owe their mentees the time necessary to listen, to understand, and to offer advice – but it always remains a voluntary, informal two-way street.


5 Comments on "My Thoughts on Mentorship"

  1. jennifer713 January 27, 2013 at 12:41 am ·

    I agree with what the author is stating. A great military mentor has certain characteristics that differentiate him from a great mentor to someone who is simply checking the block. For example having empathy is a factor that acts indirectly to leadership developmental success.
    With divorces, post-traumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, and ongoing deployments, personnel serving in combat began to understand and empathize with one another. A mentor should not only help formulate the Soldier’s career but also have an empathetic ear with today’s struggles every member faces today. A mentor should be able to guide and advise in any situation but at the same time provide honest feedback.
    A mentor does not necessarily limit himself to just one person based on his/her MOS. Mentoring a Soldier can be among peers, subordinates, officers and NCOs. Passing knowledge is pertinent in building upcoming leaders and being a great mentor. As mentioned earlier, a great mentor will provide aid and point the mentee towards the right direction if he is unable to offer assistance.
    MAJ Liles
    CGSC Student

    The views expressed in the blog are those of the author and not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

  2. tbrown December 6, 2012 at 7:05 pm ·

    I agree with the author in concept; however, reality in our army today is vastly different from past mentorship relationships. Individual mentors are chosen based on their experience, beliefs, and perceptions just as the author stated. What I have experienced and witnessed is a negative response from senior leaders when a Soldier goes outside of their chain of command fostering a mentor/mentee relationship with another leader. I believe as an organization we must first correct the false or negative impression behind subordinates using leaders others than their local leaders.
    A Mentee must bring the passion, drive, and willingness to learn their craft. They must understand what the organizational goals are within the unit assigned and how it fits into their development. To many young Soldiers and leaders focus on promotion criteria rather than the process of developing the necessary skill sets to becoming a highly professional Soldier and leader.
    Senior leaders must get back to the basics, more individual counseling must be conducted in order to simulate their young leaders questioning about work, career, and family etc. In today’s Army it’s all about the mission and we have forgotten about the profession. We have been quick to tell young Soldiers that if they want a successful career they need to deploy, deploy, and lastly deploy. Now we have Soldiers and leaders who understand their war fighting mission, but cannot teach or guide subordinates under them.
    I believe the Army is heading in the right direction as far vision with the launching of the profession of arms. I also think that young Soldiers must be introduced to the profession through Senior leader example and not their individual opinions.

  3. early32 October 10, 2012 at 11:30 pm ·

    MAJ Jensen,

    All of those are good points. I agree particularly with the point of personality traits. The issue of OPTEMPO and lack of practice can be fixed with a little more focus and dedication by the individual. I like to think that I have received good mentorship through the years but compared to some it seems I’m lacking. I look forward to seeing the Army address this issue and how we get after it in the next few years.

    MAJ Early Howard Jr., Student at Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center Fort Leavenworth KS.

    The views expressed in the blog are those of the author and not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

  4. mattrjensen October 9, 2012 at 8:55 pm ·

    MAJ Howard,

    I would submit to you that there are three reasons why our Army struggles with this. optemp, personality traits and lack of practice seem to be obstacles to improving the culture of mentorship in the Army.

    Proper mentorship requires a time commitment on the part of both the mentor and the mentee. Often, we are so busy that things like taking time to mentor someone or self development take a back seat to managing the day to day operations of our organizations. However, having been fortunate enough to have been mentored by superiors and subordinates at each of my assignments, I can attest that the time commitment is well worth it. Setting aside time to mentor someone, or be mentored yourself, often increases the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. This should help with the challenge of high optempo in the long run.

    The second challenge is the personality traits of the Army leaders. Recent studies suggest that a larger portion of Army leaders are actually introverted, contrary to popular belief. This personality trait can make it more difficult to reach out to someone to be a mentor. Sometimes as a mentor it can be difficult to tell someone what they need to hear, not what they want to hear, especially when mentoring a peer.

    Lastly, I believe proper mentorship is not practiced enough. If enough leaders take time out of their day to mentor someone, they will get better at it. It is just like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get. This will also help someone like myself who can be introverted to overcome that personality trait and be a more effective mentor.

    In my opinion, the bottom line is that we all have a responsibility to promote a strong mentorship program in our organizations. I have been very fortunate to have had several strong mentors in my career and I feel that as stewards of our profession, it is our obligation to mentor others in a positive way. If we all do our part, I think we can develop a culture of mentorship that gets passed on through generations of Army leaders.

    MAJ Jensen
    CGSC Student

    The views expressed in the blog are those of the author and not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

  5. early32 October 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm ·

    I agree with this article. But why does the most powerful military in world struggle with this?

    MAJ Early Howard Jr., Student at Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center Fort Leavenworth KS.

    The views expressed in the blog are those of the author and not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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