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Coach, Counselor, Mentor: Separate and Distinct

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

“In my 30 year career I had 17 raters and 19 senior raters. By the time I became a Major, only 3 were Mentors. Decades later I can tell you where they are and what each is doing and each knows where I am today. That is Mentorship and a lifelong relationship.”

COL Dwayne Wagner, Retirement Ceremony, June 2008.

Military leaders are responsible for the professional growth of their subordinates and do so through coaching, counseling, and mentoring. Whether tactical field problems or garrison administrative missions, leaders observe, provide feedback, and help their teammates become better, and coaching, counseling, and mentoring are key. Are the three the same? Does it matter? Why is each important?

Several years ago the Army tried to formalize the roles of coaching, counseling, and mentoring by insinuating that commanders or first line supervisors were coaches, counselors AND mentors, with mentor being a historical departure from the norm. In general, most understood the roles of the coach and counselor, but some struggled with the role of mentor. The popularization and evolution of mission command may have contributed to the belief that commanders would mentor and become mentors to everyone in key leadership positions. The Army’s intent on formalizing a relationship that defies formalization created a vibrant discussion within Army circles and within social media. Army doctrine and language conflated the three terms, thereby confusing a generation of officers, and sometimes leading to unrealistic expectations from juniors about their seniors’ role in mentoring.

There are proponents who say coaching, counseling, and mentoring look the same and have identical outcomes. This belief too many times leads to erroneous use of terms and examples. All three roles may look alike, as some believe the roles to be interchangeable. However, pancake batter and waffle batter look alike but are very different — waffle batter has more oil, additional eggs, a tad more milk, and baking powder. Whereas coaching, counseling, and mentoring involve observation, communication, and feedback, each occurs in a different time element and for a different reason. As with both cooking and leading, seasoned practitioners should be able to talk to likenesses and dissimilarities.

I believe that coaching, counseling, and mentoring are not the same and will provide several examples by using real world vignettes.


All soldiers are required to be coached and counseled by their rater, senior rater, and others in the chain of command. Army culture, doctrine, PME, and regulations outline how and when coaching occurs. Whether an Infantry squad, medical detachment, or Pentagon branch, the rater works with the subordinate and guides the soldier toward mission accomplishment. Coaching is a current activity of observation and feedback and the rater or supervisor “walks with” subordinates, sometimes providing specific feedback and other times using a mission command model of allowing the soldier to learn from failure or negative outcome. Coaching is a balancing act of knowing when to remain silent, when to provide feedback, when to intervene, and when to take over the activity or give it to someone else. Coaching can be hands-on, from a distance, via video conferencing, by telephone, or email. Important is understanding that coaching is real-time, with dynamic interaction, and expectation of observable changes or outcomes.

Coaching War Story:

A Platoon Leader worked with nine different Squad Leaders from September 1978 to September 1980.

The Platoon had a dual mission of law enforcement and preparing to deploy for worldwide contingencies. The dual-focused mission meant that some Sergeants were strong in garrison law enforcement and others were strong in combat support MP missions, but few were good in both. Coaching required observing the Squad Leaders in both garrison and mock field exercises and then providing the specific feedback or help the Sergeant needed, face-to-face and with examples if necessary. All nine Squad Leaders were coached, because the Army leadership doctrine demanded and professional responsibility required. Along the way, the Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant determined what needed to be included in later counseling, a process that would involve each Squad Leader. Only one of the Squad Leaders developed a Mentor-Protégé relationship with the former Platoon Leader. The last time they talked was in July 2018, 38 years later.


Coaching leads to friction—operational, event, and relationship—and over time, a leader must sit with a subordinate to provide the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding the mission, unit, and troops. Counseling typically occurs after coaching. In fact, the best counseling occurs after the leader and the led have worked through several operational problem sets (training, field exercises, and deployments) and personnel situations (promotions, awards, disciplinary actions, emergencies). The friction of working together and the coaching given/received sets the stage for counseling.

The Army requires leaders to formally and informally counsel each soldier in their down-trace rating chain. So, a Company Commander with five Platoon Leaders is going to counsel each one. This same Company Commander may later become a Mentor to one or two of the Platoon Leaders.

War Story: A Company Commander worked with eight Platoon Leaders from June 1983 to August 1985. The Company reported to three different wartime headquarters (Fort Riley, Fort Bragg, and Fort Hood) and had wartime missions in three different operational environments, meaning, the Platoon Leaders were required to be knowledgeable, flexible, and able to rapidly prepare for deployment, almost anywhere and for any mission. Army doctrine and basic leadership led to the Company Commander counseling all either Platoon Leaders during the command period. The face-to-face counseling was formal and in writing and informal counseling was conducted verbally when the opportunity presented itself. Regardless of officership strength or potential, each Lieutenant was counseled. However, only three of the Lieutenants later became Protégés or Mentees and developed a lifelong relationship with the Company Commander. The Company Commander talked to each of the three former Platoon Leaders in April 2018, 35 years after meeting.


Mentorship historically has been described as a special relationship between an older and more experienced leader and a younger follower who has great potential. Conventional wisdom says that mentorship is a mutually-agreed upon relationship and leads to the senior serving as a role-model and providing advice and guidance to the “Protégé.” Conversely, the Mentee proactively seeks to learn from the Mentor in order to grow and prosper. Whereas some will claim that a Mentor-Mentee relationship can exist within a operational chain-of-command, most understand the relationship to exist outside the formal chain of command and to be one of longevity and both professional and personal underpinnings. A Battalion Commander is going to coach and counsel all nine Company Commanders during a two-year command tour. If she does a good job, all nine will receive the amount of time and energy required to help them become better officers. However, typically, only 2-3 will later become Protégés or Mentees and enter a long-term professional and personal relationship.

War Story: A Battalion Commander and nine Company Commanders worked together from 1996-1998. The Company Commanders did not have Platoon Leaders, causing them to be more involved in training than normal. The Companies supported a 24 hour mission and working on weekends or holidays was taken for granted, as the Brigade conducted a zero-defects mission execution: no prisoner escapes, no inmate riots, and no prison suicides. Several of the Company Commanders exhibited future Battalion Command potential. Several deserved to be Lieutenant Colonels. Two deserved to make Major and retire. All were coached along the way. All were counseled during the command tour. Only three of the nine established a long-term relationship with their Battalion Commander that would fall under Mentorship.

Another War Story:

Below is an email from an ADA Colonel to a FA 59 Colonel:

“—–Original Message—–

From: Army Colonel 1

Sent: Friday, June 23, 2017 9:17 AM

To: Army Colonel 2

Subject: Raymond Kimball, The Seven Deadly Sins of Army Mentoring


“Mentorship typically occurs over time as the senior takes notice of the junior AND the junior observes and learns from the senior. It blossoms over time and is a unique and special relationship. You can be very successful in life and the Army without a Mentor. But, a Mentor can help you see blind spots or explain what is happening around the corner (next year, next phase, next decade). Do not feel compelled to go out and search for a Mentor. Allow your life and work experiences to give you opportunities. Be patient. You have several Coaches or Counselors in your life and career already.”


Tomato, tomaato. Tomaato, tomato.

Potato, potaato. Potaato. Potato.

Naming conventions are important. Definitions matter. Or do they? At the end of the day leaders and the led want communication and feedback and a vision for the future. We are less concerned about names and labels as long as leaders are positively involved with their subordinates and communication flows both ways. Yet, we want to be precise with our naming conventions and operationalizations, for this is the only way we ensure that all parties have a shared understanding. If we understand that coaching and counseling is a chain of command responsibility for all, then we expect to see leaders coaching and counseling all their subordinates. Conversely, if we understand that mentorship is an informal relationship not tied to the chain of command, requiring both parties to commit to a future and long-term relationship, we start seeing the similarities yet differences between coaching (current), counseling (a look back), and mentorship (focusing forward).

In 1987, LTC Monte Pickens (Battalion Commander) coached Captain Dwayne Wagner (Battalion S3) toward being a more competent and capable officer. Monte Pickens was a coach, at this point.

In 1988, LTC Pickens counseled Major Wagner and directed that he teach a junior college Criminal Justice class to improve verbal communications and briefing skills. LTC Pickens was wearing his counselor hat.

In 1990, LTC Pickens made a phone call so Major Wagner would be assigned to the Army Staff after CGSC graduation. In 1993, COL Pickens coordinated with COL Pete Hoffman so MAJ Wagner would be selected as the next MP Branch Field Grade Assignment Officer. From 1993- 2013 Monte Pickens served as a Mentor and personal friend.

In 2013, COL(R) and Edna Wagner flew from Kansas to West Virginia to bury Monte Pickens: Coach, Counselor, and Mentor.

#StartAConversation #SparkATransformation .

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