The Good (and Bad?) of Mentorship

Mentorship in the military is one of those concepts that everyone agrees with but almost no one does. Plenty of up and coming leaders get advice from commanders, senior leaders, and enlisted advisors, but seldom does the intensity of influence extend beyond the time served together or delve into areas of personal development.


U.S. Army Pvt. 1st Class Jo Marie Rivera, left, and U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Rebecca Hamby provide security in the Tarnek Wa Jaldek district in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, Sept. 18, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins

Here is the Army’s definition of mentorship, from ADRP 6-22:

7-67. Mentorship is 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 (AR 600- 100). Mentorship is generally characterized by the following:
  • Mentoring takes place when the mentor provides a less experienced leader with advice and counsel over time to help with professional and personal growth.
  • The developing leader often initiates the relationship and seeks counsel from the mentor. The mentor takes the initiative to check on the well-being and development of that person.
  • Mentorship affects personal development (maturity and interpersonal and communication skills) as well as professional development (technical, tactical, and career path knowledge).
  • Mentorship helps the Army maintain a highly competent set of leaders.
  • The strength of the mentoring relationship relies on mutual trust and respect. Protégés carefully consider assessment, feedback, and guidance; these become valuable for growth to occur.

I view someone as a mentor if I can go to them outside of normal duty interactions to seek advice on both professional and personal matters. Over months and years of this interaction, a “father-son” connection forms, whose benefits far exceed what was possible through official roles.

The difficulty with developing lifelong mentoring relationships is that once the individuals move on to other assignments and commands, connecting becomes a deliberate effort. (It’s easy for a commander to mentor his deputy when he sees her every day and they have common issues to discuss.) This is where mentoring takes a back seat to official duties and administration, and why so few service members have enduring mentor input.

Junior leaders are also hesitant to ask senior leaders for a mentoring relationship, typically for fear of adding to an already taxing work schedule. It’s easy to assume that senior leaders won’t have “extra” time to give to the younger generation. As a result, not only do the junior service members forgo quality mentorship, the senior leaders are rarely challenged to make time for a mentoring relationship.

Endstate: mentorship wanes.

A Comparison

There is much to discuss about this topic, but for a primer on the concept of mentorship, I’ll recommend two articles today:

Mentorship Done Right” by Nathan Finney and posted on Beyond the Objective, posits that the military needs more public advocates for mentorship.

No matter what sanitized version of mentorship the military vomits into its doctrine (page 7–11), or even worse, the personnel technocrats warp into an “official” program, mentorship is a relationship.

And “Why I’m Glad I Never Had a Mentor” on Fast Company asserts that having a mentor would have actually inhibited the author’s business success.

I never had a traditional mentor. I know people who have been successful with a mentor but I’ve never understood why I should limit myself to the knowledge and expertise of one person.

Take a look at both…and at your own organization’s development on mentorship…and leave a comment below.

Questions for Leaders

  • Do you consider mentorship to be part of the daily interaction you have with your team? Or is there another level of connection you develop with select service members?
  • Look back on your career. Are there people who have served as a mentor for you? If it was beneficial for you, are you now providing that kind of input for someone else?
  • In what ways could you increase the mentoring relationships at all levels in your command?

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3 thoughts on “The Good (and Bad?) of Mentorship

  1. One shortfall on the part of (some) leaders is that they do not know how to be a mentor. They do not recognize when a subordinate either requires mentorship, or is asking for mentorship – short of coming right out and saying “I want you to be my mentor”. Perhaps they feel unqualified by their personal assessment. Or maybe they did not have a mentor themselves and are either bitter or do not see the value. Some leaders shy away from the responsibilites inherent in being a mentor or pick and choose what aspects of the mentee’s life and career the mentor is willing to offer advice on.

    The person being mentored should respect personal and professional boundaries, and understand the mentor has a day job and possibly others to mentor. A mentor however should be ready and willing to go all in. Mentorship should be a continuous dialogue, not a checklist, that both mentor and mentee can learn and grow from. Just the fact that someone is asking, whether overtly or covertly, means that one has been recognized by an impressionable subordinate for their mentorship potential and should be prepared to act accordingly.

  2. I think one of the big problems with Army mentorship is we confuse what is teaching, coaching, counseling and mentoring. “Teachcoachmentor” is treated like one word, in the same way my 3 y/o thinks LMNO is one letter.

    Understanding what we are doing, and deliberately aiming for a specific outcome will make the experience better for everyone. I also completely agree, that as soon as you assign a mentor or force the relationship, it’s not mentoring. It’s an arranged marriage that may be developmental, but it’s not a mentor.