Mentorship is a two-way street

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Kelly
  • 38th Reconnaissance Squadron commander
General Dwight D. Eisenhower was once asked, "How does one develop as a decision maker?" His response was, "Be around people making decisions." Gen. Eisenhower's answer reflects his belief that successful leaders are shaped by those around them.
Mentorship is one of the primary responsibilities of every leader in the military and it's our duty to identify and create future leaders. 

If you study military history, you'll find that every successful leader had at least one mentor who helped expand his or her capabilities. They had bosses who did more than tell them what to do. They had people who were interested enough to take the time to teach, advise and counsel them. Mentoring, if done right, requires a substantial investment of time and effort. Because of this large investment, young leaders must earn the mentorship of superiors. 

As a young leader, you must demonstrate your dedication to excellence and your drive to improve. Your willingness to accept a tough challenge and your ability to show the confidence needed to succeed will prove you deserve the attention of a mentor. If you can do this, you can help spark a professional relationship that will make you a better leader and present you with opportunities that will expand your abilities in the military. 

In his book American Generalship, Edgar Puryear breaks mentoring into two components. The first is giving guidance, counsel and advice. The second is opening doors; or better stated ... giving opportunities. Have you ever been told that you were being given "a chance to excel?" It usually involves some task or assignment that you'd rather not be doing. It will probably be demanding, stressful and require more of your time than jobs given to your peers. To a mentor, it's a chance for you to show your ability and learn by doing; to prepare yourself for greater responsibilities. Very few mentors would give you a challenge if they didn't think you were up to it. When you succeed, your confidence will grow. 

Successful decision making in the complex and dynamic environment of the military requires more than reading textbooks or attending training courses. It's necessary to see it in action and have it explained. A mentor explains the thought process behind good decisions and more importantly, allows (or requires) a young leader to work through difficult decisions on his or her own. It's the idea of teaching a person to fish instead of giving them a fish. As a mentor, be patient and tolerant. As a young leader, be thoughtful and thorough. You'll probably have to execute and live with your decision. 

Whether you're a crew chief or a section chief, an aircraft commander or a squadron commander, it's your obligation to train those who will eventually replace you. Not just train them in the technical skills, but prepare them to lead and make sound decisions.
As a future leader, it's your responsibility to prove yourself worthy of the investment. When you're the recipient of the counsel and guidance of a superior, listen closely and soak up what you're being told. This exchange is more important than you might imagine. 

As military professionals, we all have a greater responsibility than the leaders in the business world. We aren't teaching efficiency and effectiveness to maintain or improve the bottom line; we're investing in the human capital that gives our nation the ability to remain free. Good leadership is the key to our success. Eventually, we will all pass the torch and step aside while the next generation takes up the challenge. As leaders, we must enable them with the tools to be successful future leaders. As the future of our Air Force, we must work hard to rise to the challenge. Mentorship is more than a task; it's our duty ... and it's a two-way street.