The simple word “mentoring” does not remotely evoke any sense of cool, sexy, or badass. Most young people like me hear the word mentoring and scoff. Ralph and I actually tried hard to keep mentoring out of our brand name because of this. Few people aspire to be a good mentor compared to the number of people who want to be seen as exceptionally talented, athletic, or appealing to others.
In sports, athletes commonly refer to their talents and physical attributes as “gifts”. Sure, being born 7’1” helps, but as David Epstein discusses in “The Sports Gene” and Malcolm Gladwell writes in “Outliers”, success requires both nature and nurture. Excellence and expertise are developed, not endowed.
For some reason, however, formal and informal development almost never occur in the military. Instead, we expect people to learn by doing and we rely on institutional development and self-development. Perhaps it is because we don’t have a dichotomy between players and coaches. We’re all in the fight together and the tyranny of the daily constantly trumps the pursuit of the remarkable. Could that be why?
Everyone wants to be cool, sexy, or badass and that’s generally a good thing. A healthy dose of narcissism drives us to improve and gives us confidence to be bold and innovative in battle. But, by focusing on ourselves, our success, and our own careers we perpetuate this failure to develop others. As COL David Crissman describes in an article in Military Review, mediocre leaders get stuff done, good leaders get the important stuff done, and great leaders focus on developing others. Despite how uncomfortable it is to admit, I know that I’ve certainly fallen victim to this.
As I’ve written before I’ve looked at the leaders above me and wanted to be developed. We’ve all known leaders who fell into COL Crissman’s excellence trap and so the gift of good mentors and good leadership is something that we all want to receive. But, that’s wrong. If we view good leaders or mentors as a gift to us, we are taking from the system with nothing in return. We are not valuing the gift in front of us and the problem perpetuates.
As behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman writes in “Thinking Fast and Slow”, humans tend to view losses, bad experiences, and poor examples five times that of how we view good examples. In a military context, we cannot simply keep a balance of above and below average leaders. Rather, we must show an overwhelming majority of leaders who get it, who are invested in their subordinates, and who are actively preparing the next generation to take the helm.
Organizations that constantly win or excel do this habitually. Duke Basketball coach Mike Kryseski often speaks of two things that makes his team successful. First, “I always wanted to teach.” He didn’t want to be cool or great, but he got that. He continues: “That’s what I do now: I lead and I teach. If we win basketball games from doing that, then that’s great, but I lead and teach. Those are the two things I concentrate on.” Who among us prioritizes leader development?
In sports and the military, a common refrain is that “Experts do the basics well.” SOF drill magazine changes and basic tasks to the point of monotony and then drive each other to get better. They are a team of professionals who all speak candidly to each other and who seek constructive feedback. This is a community of professionals and a community of practice. Here, individuals experience traditional mentoring, peer mentoring, reverse mentoring, and group development. The fluid dynamic is beautiful to watch and it makes teams that win consistently.
Ralph, Chevy, and I know that not everyone subscribes to our vision for professional development. We won’t change the military overnight. The tyranny of the daily will still weigh heavily. But we are starting here and building a community of military professionals who care deeply about improving themselves, their teams, and others. Military Mentors is creating a community of people who value the gift of mentoring and leadership and we are tapping into the vast pool of experience and expertise that is hidden away within our force behind our organizational silos, hierarchy walls, and computer screens.
If you’re an officer reading this, there is a good chance that your current responsibility extends to a laptop, some weekly slides, and some OPORDs. For NCOs, this is less often the case, but for officers, less than a third of a military career is actually spent leading teams – and this is exactly why Military Mentors exists. We want to connect you to the leaders who can learn from you and we want to connect you to people who can develop you.
You’ve spent years as a squad leader, platoon commander, or company commander and have a wealth of experience and expertise that can do so much good. Our network lets you connect to other military professionals to get you prepared for your next role or who can learn from you. Changing professional development in the military starts here with our network. You have the gift of mentorship inside you – you just need to open it. Join Military Mentors today and tap into the network of professionals just like you.
Photo credit ArmyTimes.com