Mentorship is a two-way street

by Lt. Col. Scott Warner
386th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron commander

As a young lieutenant, I had no idea what I was getting into when I joined the Air Force.

I was not a military brat, nor had I had any experience with the military other than my college ROTC. I was assigned a sponsor, who did a great job of getting me settled at the base and into my daily routine. After the first six months, I was comfortable in the job, but not as comfortable with the Air Force.

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing. Should I pursue a master’s degree, get my professional engineer rating or volunteer for deployments?
It felt like everyone else knew what they were doing and what they were to do next. I was uncomfortable and unsure of what I should be doing, so I began to ask questions of the major who was my supervisor. He took pity on the “poor lost lieutenant” and introduced me to what I now know to be mentorship.

To me, mentorship is a powerful type of relationship. It is more than a student/teacher relationship that is more of a one-way relationship where the teacher teaches and the student learns. Mentorship is more of a two-way relationship; a more appropriate example for me comes from the karate dojo.
When I was studying karate in Hawaii, we were required to learn the different levels and relationships in the dojo. The instructor is called a sensei. The senior students in the class were called sempai. The junior students were called kohei. I was considered a sempai in the class. 

The relationship between a sensei and a sempai is more than just that of student/teacher; a sempai is expected to do more than just learn. They have responsibilities to help with the class, to teach the kohei as well as pursuing their own learning. In my case, I spent at least as much time teaching other students their basic katas and positions as I did learning new ones. Mentorship is similar to that.

Mentorship is the responsibility of each and every person to learn from those more experienced than you and to help teach those less experienced than you. Mentorship also implies a special relationship − a personal one that is similar to friendship or that of an older brother/sister to a younger sibling. In the Air Force, we refer to it as the wingman concept.

As a military member interested in your own career, a mentor offers you the opportunity to benefit from someone else’s experience. Ask them questions, get their advice and use them as a sounding board for your future plans, whatever you want advice on. And the real beauty of it is, you don’t have to have just one mentor. Seek those out who you have respect for, who set an example you identify with, or that are on a path you are interested in traveling down. Engage them in conversation, ask their advice and you are well on your way to cultivating a new mentor.

Being a mentor to those junior to you is a responsibility.
As you progress through your military career, you acquire knowledge. I’m not just talking about the kind of knowledge you get from attending school and training; I’m referring to what my Dad calls the “school of hard knocks.” A lot of this knowledge is taken for granted. It seems so basic or maybe the importance fades as the years go by. However, to an Airman junior to you, this might be crucial information that can help them make a tough decision or resolve a difficult situation.

As stewards of this information, you have a responsibility to assist your more junior members by allowing them to learn from your experiences, both positive and negative. Find those more junior to you who could benefit from your experiences and offer them the opportunity to learn from you.