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This week’s blog is a guest post from CPT Bryan Fisher, an Army Engineer Officer.  He brings us a unique reflective look on the story of the original Mentor from Greek mythology, followed up with it’s relevance to our current thoughts on teaching, coaching and mentoring in the military. If you like what you see, let us know, but better yet, write for us and join in on the conversation! 

Somewhere near the 8th Century B.C., Homer wrote The Odyssey. During the story, the goddess Athena disguises her herself as a man named Mentor in order to guide Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, during his time of difficulty ten years after the events of the Trojan War. Through Mentor, the goddess becomes the guiding light for the young man of Ithaca as he journeys to honor his father’s legacy. This character originated the word that most seeking success in life are trying to find. Teach…coach…mentor; as young leaders, we hear these words over and over, but we’re always left with many questions about what they truly mean. What is their real importance to our careers? What is the difference between these terms? Or better yet, why do we need to know the difference?  MilitaryMentors touched on this differentiation in a our blog post “Teach, Coach, Mentor… Wait, You’re Saying They’re Different?” back in October 2015, so it’s probably a good time to revisit those thoughts again.

If you look up the definitions of teach, coach, and mentor, they almost seem synonymous. Merriam-Webster defines “teach” as to give lessons to a person or group. The same dictionary defines “coach” as one who instructs or trains and “mentor” as someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person. In my opinion, the use of a few examples will foster an easier understanding of these terms. A teacher lays a foundation. They provide a basic understanding to allow the student to make his own decision afterwards with little to no input from the teacher. Once the lesson is taught, the teacher’s role possibly finishes. The student must use what is taught to make their future decisions. Every sports team has a coach that builds the basic concepts for a team. They determine line up and plays that lead their team to victory. Most teams do not get any input in what the coach determines. They simply execute the plan. Coaches use their expertise to lay out an exact plan of execution with very little contribution from the players. A mentorship relationship allows for the more experienced individual to make an investment in the less experienced individual. They coach and teach while allowing the receiver to make their own decision, but a stark difference appears when a decision is made – the mentor continues to give advice. Their role endures and, over time, grows with the mentees life. A mentoring relationship involves more than just talking; it involves caring and much more of a time commitment. In a 2014 newsletter the Management Guru helps us parse this understanding out in a succinct graphic (below).  This is why knowing the difference between a coach, a teacher, and a mentor is important – they each require a different level of commitment.

This, however, begs another question: how do we know when we have found what we really need? A teacher will tell you how to they got to success. A coach will provide you the road map on how they got to success. A mentor will be there to tell you their thoughts, allow you to make a decision, and then support you throughout your journey. The mentor may not agree with the decision, but they will respect it. In other words, not only does a mentor stand in line with you waiting on the roller coaster and give a pep talk before getting on… they board the roller coaster and encourage you throughout the trip. A mentor rejoices in your highs, and pulls you out of your lows. A mentor embarks on the journey to success with their mentee. Professional development guru Jim Rohn stated “my mentor said, ‘Let’s go do it,’ not ‘You go do it.’ How powerful when someone says, ‘Let’s!’” Whether it be a parent, a friend, a supervisor, or a colleague, every successful person has someone that he credits their success to. Someone who guided her to success: a mentor.

Academy Award winner Denzel Washington reminds us of this idea in a great statement on success. He once said “show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had a real positive influence in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living – if you do it well, I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” This may seem like a blanket opinion, but why is this opinion feel more like a statement of fact? Many people have captured his thoughts in their views. Noted energy expert and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Donald Sadoway proposed that “in a battery, I strive to maximize electrical potential. When mentoring, I strive to maximize human potential.” Known as the father of physics, Sir Isaac Newton said “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Renowned poet Maya Angelou stated “in order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care… know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.” All of these pioneers’ thoughts frame the importance of having the sage advice of someone who has been where you are trying to go.

While my career is just beginning, and I am nowhere near the definition of success, I can proclaim that I would not be where I am today had it not have been for those that came before me. Their words have encouraged me, but their actions serve as the ultimate example to follow. Homer wrote the classics The Illiad and The Odyssey to tell the story of a war that has become legend, but the character of Mentor has also left a mark on history. Anyone can talk you through the path to success; it takes a different kind a person and a special kind of relationship for someone to walk along the path with you. It takes a mentor.

Start a conversation. Spark a transformation.


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