Last fall, the Association of the U.S. Army hosted its annual conference in Washington D.C. with a notable change. The organization is known for its gray-haired membership and for a conference where the only active duty speakers below the rank of Colonel are Sergeants Major. Breaking from tradition, the planning committee invited a panel of five mid-career leaders to speak and highlight the changing dynamics of professional development in a digital era.
The simple act was a powerful statement about the current culture change that is taking place. What could Generals possibly stand to learn from such relatively junior folks? Plenty.
The panel discussion was moderated by Adin Dobkin (Military Writers Guild), and featured LTC Drew Steadman (The Military Leader), MAJ Joe Byerly (From the Green Notebook), MAJ Nate Finney (The Strategy Bridge), and Jessica Scott (author of the Coming Home series). In the digital era, military bureaucracy is too slow and risk-averse to keep up with many of it’s members. As the institution lost influence, instead of waiting for the institution to catch-up, each panelist has created a voice within our professional community and found a receptive audience. Collectively, the panel represented a larger group of young leaders who are driving the cultural change within our profession.
Here at Military Mentors, our mantra is a call to be a catalyst for individual change: “Start a conversation. Spark a transformation.” Although we devote much of our energy towards encouraging one-on-one mentoring, it should be no surprise then that we were extremely glad to see this panel on the agenda. It’s evidence of the power that mentorship plays in culture change.
Peer and group mentoring are two less well-known styles. Mentor relationships are voluntary and not driven by rank, but experience. As demonstrated by Drew, Nate, Joe, Jess, and Adin, it is absolutely possible to lead change without being in charge or the highest pay grade.
They truly are mentors and their remarks from the event consistently echoed this sentiment. As both thought leaders and editors, each of them created their own peer or group mentoring networks which required voluntary engagement, reciprocal learning, long time horizons, and goal-setting. Their passions created new outlets for others to get their voices heard, too (Jim’s first professional article was written for The Military Leader).
None of those panelists became indirect leaders over night. Nor did Mike Erwin or Jake Wood when the launched Team RWB and Team Rubicon. They had a goal for what they wanted to achieve and they were persistent about it and they built communities along the way. Starting from nothing, each of them remained focused on impact rather than authority.
Launching a Group Mentoring Circle
Being a mentor requires passion, curiosity, compassion, daring, generosity, accountability and grit. These qualities attract allies and amplify accomplishments. They are the DNA of 21st-century leadership. If you share this passion for improving a part of our profession, then here are some ways for you to start a peer- or group-network of your own.
- Don’t keep it to yourself – Heed the advice of another young leader, military historian LCDR BJ Armstrong: Read, Think, Share, Write. Or, in the words of Austin Kleon: “Show Your Work“. Start with a book, video, or article that you’re already reading and provide your own analysis. Be the voice that you think is lacking.
- Upgrade from Email Distros – The military is not known for being early adopters of technology. If you’re still using email distribution lists, consider jumping on #Slack. The platform creates a private community with an unlimited number of channels that can be public or private, as well as, direct messaging. The best part is that they archive your discussion so new members can see the entire history.
- Monthly Happy Hour Groups – Before DUIs became the scourge of the DoD, leaders used to host weekly or monthly events at the Officer and NCO clubs. Regrettably, those official events have now become “mandatory fun” and a source of cynicism. Create your own club. You should consider starting your own tradition with your peers and the leaders who are a year or two behind you – this is especially true if you’re a field grade officer. Sources like War on the Rocks or any of the blogs mentioned above are excellent (and nearly endless) sources of inspiration and topics. You don’t need a curriculum or strict rules, just a shared interest.
- Blogs – If you’re ready to add your voice to the conversation, jump in. Unlike social media, blogs are uni-directional, but, they’re also longer than 140 characters. Long form writing challenges you to express your ideas in an organized manner and that will rub off into your professional life, too – not a bad thing. Consider submitting something to one of the blogs mentioned here (or to us!) as a pre-cursor to launching your own site. All of these outlets will work with you to improve your writing and MWG is an entire community waiting to mentor you, too.
Chevy and I started Military Mentors with the hope of engaging with others who share our passion for professional development. It has been in interesting and unpredictable journey for the last 18 months. We have learned to recognize mentor relationships and watched as the culture change within our profession is shaped by the leaders who will be living it rather than those on the cusp of retirement. Whatever form of mentorship you choose, keep at it. Nothing worth doing was easy and building our professional culture is certainly a worthy cause.
“Start a conversation. Spark a transformation.”
Photo Credit: AUSA.org