Mentorship, leadership not always the same

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Randall Sparks
  • 55th Communications Squadron commander
"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Isaac Newton

I believe there are misconceptions among our Airmen about mentoring and what it means to be mentored. I don't believe many recognize mentoring when they see it, nor do they truly understand what it means to have a mentor. More often than not, I see that Airmen confuse leadership with mentoring. The two are certainly closely related but, in my opinion, different activities.

Webster's Dictionary defines leadership as "the capacity to lead" or "the act or instance of leading." Conversely, it defines a mentor as a "trusted counselor or guide." In other words, leaders induce followers to action, while mentors advise and nurture. A leader might be a mentor--a good leader is certainly a mentor. Yet a mentor might not necessarily be your leader.

According to some experts in the field, "mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé)."

I like to think of it this way: A leader is a positional relationship such as a supervisor to a subordinate or a captain to a team; but a mentor is a personal, one-on-one relationship willingly accepted by both the mentor and the protégé regardless of formal titles or positions.

For example, an NCO in charge is an Airman's leader by title and position but he or she is the Airman's mentor only if both individuals accept their respective roles as mentor/protégé. Further, the leadership/subordinate relationship ends with a PCS move but the mentor/protégé relationship can and should carry on beyond a single assignment. Leaders may conduct many of the activities of a mentor but it is only mentoring if it is a true and trusted relationship that outlasts the direct leader/subordinate structure. Mentors help protégé's deal with day-to-day concerns as do leaders. Yet mentors will also advise on career and life-changing issues and do so over the long term. The most valuable mentoring relationships last for years.

For real mentorship to occur, the following are required:
1) The mentor and protégé must both accept and commit to the relationship.
2) Mentors must give without expectation of payback--their reward is the success of their protégé.
3) Mentors must get to know their protégés well, help them set goals and communicate.
4) Protégés must respect the mentor's time and expertise, and be willing to act on given advice.
Additionally, a truly thankful protégé will pay it forward and become a mentor in their own right.

There's a saying in our Air Force that "Everyone has their sergeant story." Everyone seems to have a person or persons who made a lasting impact in their lives--someone who took the time to advise, nurture and develop, and who was trusted enough to be heeded. This person was and is most likely a mentor and more than just a supervisory leader. Thank goodness so many of us have our "sergeant story."

What is your "sergeant story"? Who is your mentor? Our Air Force has always relied on outstanding leaders--but our true success comes from our committed mentors and their willing protégés.

Who do you mentor? Will you pay it forward?

"The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it." William James