I’ve been to the Ranger Station at Mount Rainier National Park a half-dozen times. My first trip up Rainier was in 2014, just a few months after arriving at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Ranger Station is the first stop for anyone going into the wilderness. Whether you’re filling-out permit paperwork or getting the latest glacier conditions, there is ample reason to talk with these experts of the backcountry before heading off on your endeavor. The vastly experienced Rangers know even the subtle dangers that lurk for the unsuspecting outdoor adventurer and they can help you reach your destination while staying clear of roadblocks.

Unlike Himalayan Sherpas, Rangers and guides can only point the way, not lighten your load. While Sherpas do everything from hauling supplies to setting up fixed ropes and even erecting ladder-bridges across crevasses along the route, rangers help you get to your destination, but it is ultimately up to you to make the journey.

The metaphor for mentors is an obvious one: mentors are not sponsors or patrons; they give wisdom and guidance, not favors or advantage. Like climbers who espouse a purist form of the sport, military professionals do not ride the coat-tails of others and nor should our leaders encourage or even tolerate such behavior. Yes, mentorship is a reciprocal form of professional development, but that should not translate to quid pro quo.

The delineation between sponsors and mentors is a common topic of debate within our professional network. We do not pretend that by-name requests and advocacy are not present in our military – far from it – but we hope that you share our understanding of the dangers that such behavior poses.

The origin of the word mentor stems from the Homeric epic The Odyssey, when Athena visited Telemachus. Athena took the disguise of Mentor, an elderly man, to hide herself from the suitors of Telemachus’ mother Penelope. As Mentor, the goddess encouraged Telemachus to stand up against the suitors and go abroad to find out what happened to his father. Guidance and wisdom, not privilege or advocacy.

In mountaineering, the use of Sherpas is viewed with mixed regard. Yes, they can make the expedition significantly easier, but reliance on them also brings a sense of over-confidence that risks putting inexperienced climbers in situations beyond their skill – therein lies the danger. When a sponsor advocates for a protege, it is often (but not always) with good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with them. How does the sponsor know that she is acting with proper agency? Moreover, what happens when the protege risks failing and thus staining the sponsor’s reputation? The better option is mentorship – the guidance to help proteges avoid mistakes while making their own choices.

In closing, I offer a short poem from the Lebanese-American poet, Khalil Gibran as a piece for reflection about our own goals in professional development. Why do we undertake the task? How does our call to service underscore the need for learning and growth? The poem is titled “On Teaching” and it is from his work “The Prophet” – a book that elevated him to the status of 3rd best-selling poet in history.

No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.

The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.

If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.

The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.

The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.

And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.

For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.

And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

Photo Credit: Rainier Mountain Guides

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