The Right Attitude to be a Mentor

, 2010-01-06

When I first reported to my duty assignment with the US Air Force, there were 3 sergeants in my shop. One was away on a special project and I wouldn't see much of him for the next six months. That left a staff sergeant I'll call James and a technical sergeant I'll carry Harry. Those weren't their real names, but they'll do for this post. If you're not familiar with USAF rank structure, a technical sergeant outranks a staff sergeant.

I come from a Marine dependent background. My father and one of his brothers, the uncle I was closest to, were both retired Marine enlisted. And I had heard numerous stories of dumb things new officers did thanks to these two men. As I approached graduation from The Citadel and pinning on my new second lieutenant rank, those stories only got worse. Finally, there was a break as my dad gave me some plain advice, "Find yourself a good staff NCO, tell him you know you need help, and if he believes you and he's a good NCO, he'll help you." For those not from a military background, NCO stands for non-commissioned officer and is generally used to mean anyone who isn't an officer. In the US Marine Corps, once one attains the rank of staff sergeant, he or she goes from being an NCO to a staff NCO. The US Air Force doesn't have that clear distinction, but I knew what he meant.

So naturally, when I got to my base and checked into my shop, I talked with both sergeants. I wanted to find a good NCO who could help me navigate my initial time with the US Air Force so I wasn't your stereotypical "butter bar." In talking with both James and Harry, it became apparent very quickly that Harry didn't want any part of helping anyone else. But James threw his arm around me and said, "Don't worry, Lieutenant, you stick with me and I'll take care of you." And James was true to his word. Even though we both changed shops during my four year tour, for the three and a half years James was still in, he looked in on me. If I didn't know the best way to approach something, I could ask James. Don't get me wrong, I had peers and more senior officers I could talk to, too. But for those I came into contact with a lot, James had more experience, especially when it came to the way the US Air Force and specifically my base worked. Plus, there's a different point-of-view from the enlisted perspective. And that view is valuable. So I found myself talking to James a lot over the years. And I was better for it.

Now for those keeping score at home, technically as an officer I outranked both James and Harry. But from an experience perspective, I started with virtually none. We often think of mentors as being someone who is higher up on the chain, but that's not always the case. I know that I learned a lot about the right way to do things and about leadership from James. The way he talked about taking care of those he supervised, the way he prioritized different tasks based on the real mission, and the way he looked to preserve a balance between mission and people (mission is always first, but you've got to try and take care of your people or you won't have anyone left for the next mission) was demonstrated in real life, in front of my eyes. When I had to make certain decisions about my own duties, about how to approach something, James always had solid advice for me to consider. He was also very willing to say, "I don't know," when he didn't know something. James was a great mentor for me. And I'll always respect him for it and be in his debt. When I am mentoring someone else, I try to take the same sort of approach James did with me. He had the right attitude and the right heart. I want to try and do the same.

But before I close the post, there's another guy in the story, and that's Harry. Harry wasn't interested in helping anyone else. He outranked James and had been in longer than James. I would be working more with Harry over time, and Harry knew it. So it was actually in Harry's best interest that I do the best job possible. But Harry only cared about Harry. I never saw him extend a hand to anyone else unless he was ordered to. Sad, I know, that he had risen to the rank he had (and he would be promoted further) with that kind of attitude. Harry was probably in the best position to mentor a young lieutenant, especially in that shop. But his attitude prevented him from doing so. I've seen folks like Harry over the years and every time I do, I shake my head. Yes, it takes time and effort to be a mentor. Yes, sometimes someone you're mentoring will let you down. But when you get that person who is eager to learn, willing to try, and wanting to get better, all that time and effort is worth it. James understood that. Harry didn't.

So if you're looking for a mentor, make sure you find not only someone who can help you grow, but someone with the right attitude. You want someone like James, who will throw his arm around you and say, "If you stick with me, you'll be okay," and means what he says. It's not just about who should be the most capable. It's also about whether or not the person is willing. And if you want to be a mentor, remember that your attitude is part of being a good mentor. It's not just about knowledge transfer. It's also about caring for your protégés and wanting to see them grow. You have to have the right attitude to be a mentor.

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