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Army Training, Coaching, and Mentoring: It’s a Development System, Stupid

Mike Wiehagen has just over fifteen years of experience in the US Army as an Engineer Officer. He is passionate about leader development, cookies, bourbon, and Venn Diagrams. Life is perfect when those items match up in the perfect picture. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

One of my all-time favorite quotes from “The Office” is from Dwight K. Schrute: “K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Great advice hurts my feelings every time.” As a fellow sensitive soul, I, too, appreciate the advice from Dwight. The goal here is to distill the complexities of the individual and leadership development outlined in Army doctrine and put it in a picture to help us to visualize the system and use it to best develop others and ourselves.

The Army Way: Simple Pictures

The Army system for leadership/individual development flows through three roles: the trainer/counselor, the coach, and the mentor. Each role contains unique elements, overlaps with the other roles, and provides critical feedback to the person receiving training, coaching, and mentoring. In different contexts, each of us can fulfill any one of these roles. As we try to understand where we stand in each of the systems, the Army model will help us see the lessons we can glean, the guidance we can provide, and methods for delivering those lessons. The figure below graphically shows the roles and actions of the Trainer/Counselor, Coach, and Mentor roles within the Army.

The Trainer: Build the Skills

The Trainer/Counselor is the direct, formal relationship between a Trainer and Trainee, much like a student-teacher relationship. Examples include the Drill Sergeant/Trainee relationship, the Sergeant/Private relationship, or the Company Commander/Platoon Leader relationship. It is an instructive role in which the trainer/counselor directly supervises the trainee. Primarily focused on skill development, it is a one-way relationship in which the trainer/counselor provides feedback to the trainee to help them develop. In this relationship, the trainer/counselor establishes trust on the basis of their superior technical or tactical knowledge. This relationship is ideal for new Soldiers and leaders that require skills and knowledge.

An excellent example of the student-teacher relationship takes us to the current Netflix series, “Cobra Kai.” In this series that catches up with the Karate Kid characters decades later, the former bad-boy/sometimes villain/tragic hero, Johnny Lawrence, restarts the Cobra Kai dojo. In the first season, as he starts to train his new students, he starts with: “You wanna learn how to kick ass? First you gotta learn how to kick.” Johnny teaches his students the basics and teaches them the skills they require to fight are an excellent example of the student-teacher relationship. He demonstrates a skill (kicking), then expects his students to observe and learn that skill. He then has them repetitively practice that skill until they have demonstrated mastery of it. Once they have mastered the skill, they can apply it in a fight.

The Coach: Build the Team

The coach is charged with developing the plan, improving the team and the individuals, and allowing space for the seasoned team members to develop techniques to improve the plan as required by the situation. The coach transitioned to the sidelines to predict future, develop the next plan, develop talent, and be the model for the next generation of coaches. Practically, this means that we must be able to recognize talent, understand strengths and weaknesses of the team members, and to help and guide them to become better teammates. The coach is also become more tolerant of mistakes and become more focused on meeting intent rather than a prescriptive approach to problem solving.

I am going to hop on the Ted Lasso bandwagon, so fair warning, you might want to immediately watch this show. We also cannot write a paper that deals with coaching and pop culture without mentioning this show. Watching Ted Lasso may have been how I spent my October 2021… “Ted Lasso” is about an American Football coach hired to coach a premier league soccer team in the United Kingdom, while he knows very little about soccer. In the first season of the show, Ted pulls one of his players that is struggling with their mistakes to the sideline and coaches him, “You know what the happiest animal on Earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? It’s got a ten-second memory. Be a goldfish.” Coaches must make room for their team members to make the wrong decision(s), fail in a situation, and come back to coach them again the next day. It also means that having a short memory when it comes to personal mistakes or shortcomings can yield long term success by giving team members space to grow. Ted Lasso, while fictional, provides a great example of coaching through a series of challenges, and growing a team.

Mentor: Build the Person

Mentoring is a longer-term relationship that focuses on whole-person development (see figure below). Moving back to the ADP 6-22, mentoring generally involves a more experienced person working with a less experienced person. It also involves more of an approach that can move beyond the strictly professional to the personal development as well. This forms a deeper relationship over time and provides perspective to the mentor and mentee. As the mentor, we can help someone beyond the confines of the strictly professional, and can provide more meaningful, long-lasting individual improvement. As the mentee, we can understand the whole person of our mentor. We often can see them at their best, and to understand and observe them at some of their lower points. This leads us to see our future career and personal life goals as attainable.

Moving from the United Kingdom to the small town of Pawnee, IN with “Parks and Recreation,” we have the experienced yet gruff boss of Ron Swanson and his Pyramid of Greatness. It was a whole life approach that featured personal development (body grooming, cursing, buffets), character development (honor, discipline, self-development), and professional development (fishing, woodworking, various protein preparedness, weapons). His whole-of-person approach was aimed at assisting his mentees in becoming not just better junior basketball players, but also on becoming better human beings as he sought to develop them holistically. He also utilized the pyramid for the long-term development of mentees. He could use the pyramid framework to assist with mentoring people over time.

Training, Coaching, Mentoring: Never Just One Thing

There is a significant overlap in outcome and methodology when all three roles are pulled together. The final figure here shows the overlap between each of roles. Training and Counseling overlap with Coaching, and Coaching overlaps with Mentoring. However, there is no overlap between Training and Mentoring, the two roles are fairly discrete. A leader can have the role of being someone’s trainer and mentor, but they will never be occupying the role of trainer and mentor at the same time. This is critical in understanding that we can move from trainer/counselor to coach, and from coach to mentor. However, training/counseling is separate from mentoring because of the nature of the formal/informal relationship between the two parties. The overlap and distinctiveness between the roles will help us navigate our relationships and maximize our learning and our impact on future generations of leaders.

Parting Shots

In our organizations, we find ourselves constantly in shifting roles. As we move between each role, we gain a different perspective or provide a different perspective and value to our teams. As we better grasp where we stand in this system of development, we can better develop ourselves and our team. The development system in the Army is not complex – it is fundamentally simple, but it is difficult for us to master it and make our interactions more meaningful and impactful for our teammates. Furthermore, the system stays the same, but the environment, the people that occupy the system, are constantly changing forcing us to change and adapt to our environment within the system adding complexity. On any given day, we can find ourselves occupying any of the three roles (trainer/counselor, coach, mentor) with different teammates. As we better understand when we are in each of these roles within the development system, we are better able to capitalize on the moments provided to us.

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