Follow our leaders...and rediscover mentorship

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Donald E. Felch
  • The Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center
Much has been written about mentorship: its importance, how to mentor, choosing a mentor, mentoring subordinates, mentoring peers, reverse-mentorship, and so forth. Attempts to codify, formalize, or in extreme cases, even mandate mentorship often result in the "self-licking ice cream cone" syndrome. In other words, the mentorship "program" becomes a goal unto itself and those involved concentrate more on organizing their efforts, assigning systems and networks of mentors, and mentees (is that even a word?) and documenting their accomplishments than they do on deliberately developing Airmen.

In 2001, I was a technical sergeant, serving as a noncommissioned officer academy instructor. I worked for a master sergeant, who worked for a senior master sergeant, who worked for the 10th commandant of the then Air National Guard NCO Academy. Our commandant's name was Chief Master Sgt. Art Hafner. I rarely went in his office. We didn't go to lunch together and have long talks about my career. I never signed up to be his protégé and he never volunteered to mentor me. Despite the distance between our positions, I learned by watching his actions, listening to his words (even when they were not directed solely at me), and making decisions based loosely upon models he demonstrated. In short, I followed my leader.

Soon after his arrival, I listened to the Chief speak to our team. He spoke of obtaining education. He relayed how important he believed our education was to each of us. He suggested we should each achieve one more level of education than we had when we arrived. I listened and acted--graduating from Tusculum College with my Bachelor of Science degree in 2001. In short, I followed my leader.

Chief Hafner had been a professional military education instructor a decade earlier. After teaching NCOs for a season, he took a career-broadening assignment (although we didn't call it that then) to the Air National Guard Readiness Center in Washington D.C. There, he served in several positions learning about enterprise-level leadership, policy management, budgeting, personnel and a host of other vital concepts. During his tour in our nation's capital, the Chief was promoted several times before returning to Training and Education Center as our commandant. In January of 2002, I departed the TEC for the ANGRC to manage my core career field and learn about enterprise-level leadership. Again, I followed my leader.

Chief Hafner was involved in many activities, both on and off duty. He led in the local Kiwanis Club, in his local church, in the ANG Noncommissioned Officer Academy Graduates Association. He would often tell us, "If you want something done right, ask a busy person." Over the years, I have accepted leadership roles with the Boy Scouts, Air Force Sergeants Association, NCO Academy Graduates Association, several Chiefs' Groups, and other organizations. I attempted to surround myself with "busy people." These experiences have been richly rewarding and I've met lifelong friends along the way. Our commandant taught us by word and deed to serve in our communities; once again, I was simply following my leader.

Exactly how can we effectively mentor others to develop them for positions of leadership in tomorrow's Air Force? How do we "create a bench" for today's total force team? Should we develop elaborate programs and matrices? Do we perhaps re-design assignment systems, force-vector developmental opportunities (huh?), or create a complex set of checklists and dashboards? I would offer a one-word response to all of these suggestions: no.

We mentor and coach the next generation by living life the way we were taught by those who went before us. I chose to highlight one person who influenced my life and my career; there have been many. Most of them had no idea they were mentoring me. They were simply devoted men and women doing what they thought was right. They were people ahead of me in life combining their talents with education and experience and serving. I also chose to discuss education, developmental assignments, and community service; there are countless behaviors core to leadership development. Our leaders provide good and bad examples each and every day.

Developing tomorrow's leaders is not easy. This essay is not to suggest that it is. Developing those who come behind us requires us to be constantly aware of who might be watching or listening as we live our lives and serve in our positions. Deliberate development, to me, is taking care to set the example. It is self-correcting when we make mistakes, and it is being responsible to ourselves and our own values so perhaps someone below us (or several someones) will take notice and decide to follow their leaders. Senior leaders are stewards of the next generation. We are preparing tomorrow's Airmen to replace us. Doing so requires us to perform in a way worthy of emulation. Much has been written about mentorship. Here's one more thought to add to the vast array of published wisdom: Whether you choose to be or not, you are somebody's mentor.