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.