Mentorship is key in nurturing ‘superior’ leaders

Col. Mike Lewis
U.S. Air Forces in Europe Air & Space
Communications Group commander

***image1***Mentorship sums up the key ingredient in today’s superior leaders. I’m not talking about “good” leaders; I’m talking about “superior” leaders. If it weren’t for the mentorship I received as an Airman, NCO and officer, I wouldn’t be in a senior leadership position today; and if it weren’t for the tremendous mentorship opportunities I now have, I might not stay in the Air Force.
Webster’s Dictionary says a mentor is someone who is a “trusted counselor or guide,” a “tutor” or “coach.” Simply, mentors teach through a special relationship with their mentee.
These relationships can be brief or cover long periods. The mentor having the largest impact on my leadership style and attitude was a boss I worked for for only four and a half months. The common factor appears to be a willingness by both “teacher” and “student” to share and accept, respectively, information and knowledge. There are no rank requirements, but it’s critical the mentor “walks the walk” even better than he or she “talks the talk.”
There are many ways to establish a mentoring relationship. Two good, structured methods are through the Air Force’s new mentoring Web tool or U.S. Air Forces in Europe’s Project Connect. Another tried and true method is a more naturally occurring phenomenon where leaders and subordinates establish “opportunities” for mentoring relations to develop through events that create access to one another.
There are too many opportunities to list here (brown bag lunches, intramural sports, staff rides) and they can occur both on and off duty. Either method produces an environment where mentoring relationships flourish. Additionally, there’s a place that is the single-most logical location for mentorship to occur — at work.
Mentoring involves many concepts, to include leadership, followership, oversight, and delegation. Look at any superior leader in today’s Air Force and you’ll undoubtedly see a superior mentor. Good leaders get the job done. Superior leaders get the job done by “building” superior leaders several levels down. Good leaders put out daily fires in their organization. Superior leaders spend the additional time ensuring not only daily fires are out, but by mentoring subordinates to be tomorrow’s superior leaders … those leaders who establish processes to prevent tomorrow’s fires.
How do superior leaders do this? One method is by creating opportunities for their subordinates by delegating progressively harder tasks and applying just the right amount of oversight. You don’t teach someone to swim by holding them up in the pool, but you also don’t watch them drown or turn your back as they flounder. Neither micro managing, nor ignoring one’s subordinates is good leadership or mentorship.
Additionally, mentoring is more than just assigning tasks and providing direction; it’s providing counsel and guidance regarding all manner of professional and personal life. Some people say, “It’s none of my business what my troop does off-duty.” Those are the same people who know almost nothing about their troops. Finally, mentorship is about communication. It’s talking and building bonds so information shared is information respected and valued.
I urge every Air Force member to become a superior leader; take the time to mentor tomorrow’s leaders.