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In Extremis Mentorship Pt II

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

This is the second of a two-part series on In Extremis Mentorship. The first part defined in extremis conditions and leading within those contexts. Having been a member of special operations for over a decade as well as teaching an upper-class elective entitled “PL471: Leadership in Combat” in West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, Military Mentors co-founder and Executive Director Chevy Cook continues the discussion and presents a developmental model here..


In extremis leaders today find themselves in an era of 4th generation warfare (4GW), characterized by the use of political, economic, social and military networks to destroy the will to fight through less face-to-face combat and more convincing of political structures and their populations (Hammes, 2006). Networks, be it technology or pockets of people, embolden today’s aggressive, thinking, non-linear enemies. Developing the capacity to mentor leaders who will operate, fight, and survive during in extremis circumstances can appear to be a riddle inside an enigma. However, a planned, tailored and holistic developmental approach, which is to be presented here, will more often than not be the answer for mentors, their dyadic relationships and the learning organizations they create for in extremis leaders. The challenge of designing, executing and evaluating complex leader developmental systems that are able to not only contest 4GW threats but highly perform in various conditions, to include in extremis contexts, produces more professional forces at both the individual and collective participant levels (e.g., in situ), as well as at the observer/controller level (i.e., the trainer, instructor, mentor, etc.).


Upfront, the so-called ‘learning organization’ is an overused term de jour. While important, learning should be differentiated from development. Learning is an increase or change in knowledge or skill as the result of a process, whereas development is an ongoing, longer-term change or evolution that occurs through many learning experiences (Palmer, Hannah, & Sosnowik, 2011). Furthermore, leader development focuses on individual competencies, whereas leadership development focuses on collective social capacities, roles and processes (Day, 2000). Leader and leadership development are misunderstood as processes even at the highest levels of the armed forces, as each includes more than just operational experiences (Lebouf, 2002). Mentors who understand developmental processes, for both leaders and their leadership capability, can craft crucible experiences to fill these gaps and can greatly impact performance. Improved performance stemming from developmental efforts, especially in organizational developmental efforts, can then only be sustained by appropriate changes in training and task-specialization subsystems (French, 2001).


Coaching, teaching, and mentoring in extremis leaders necessitates specialized approaches and systems for development. Constructing developmental experiences for those who will endure dangerous or in extremis contexts requires an adroit understanding of individual, leader, group, and organizational development. In addition, the in extremis leader themselves must also become an educator in developing team-level competencies, taking it beyond the mentorship dyad; team dynamics change as high-performance teams mature and develop new competencies and trainers, mentors or instructors simply will not be on the battlefield, objective or at the dangerous site (Dyer, Dyer, & Dyer, 2007). These competencies are both task-related and relationship- or process-related types that build toward a meta-competency of team building which adjusts said task- and process-related competencies on the fly to quickly identify how to fine-tune, develop and solve problems regarding improving and sustaining team performance (Dyer, Dyer, & Dyer, 2007). One of the keys to both individual and unit growth comes from explicitly operating together under combat-like conditions just short of war, through realistic and evaluative, but semi-controllable environments (Hammes, 2006). As such, since mentors must use a specific approach, a specific model must also be used.


Like an in-extremis scenario, a developmental model for in extremis is certainly is complex, but at its basis is the developmental experience. The Center for Creative Leadership defines a developmental experience encompasses three key elements: assessment, challenge and support (Van Velsor & McCauley, 2004). A variety of these experiences couple with other leader/leadership developmental aspects and a fostered ability to learn within an organizational or environmental context to create a developmental process. To be clear, development is a process and not an event or circumstance; no single developmental event, no matter how robust, is enough to create lasting change regarding leadership (Van Velsor, Moxley, & Bunker, 2004). Additionally, the individual cannot be stricken from his/her context and vice versa; there is a bidirectional relationship between the individual and their environment developmentally, within and across further social, cultural, ecological, and historical modifiers (Lerner & Overton, 2008). Linking developmental experiences together should also not be seen from a linear perspective or sequence but should be seen through a lens of interrelated psychological capacities at both these previously mentioned individual and contextual levels, consisting of various skills and traits. As seen in Figure 1 below, five psychological capacities in particular – self-awareness, self-regulation, agency/motivation, social awareness, and worldview – should be viewed from a systems-based perspective due to the inherent interconnectedness of the individual, group and organizational level and make up the core of the In Extremis Mentorship Development Model offered here (Sweeney, Hannah, & Snider, 2008).


The components of the model are a combination and synthesis of three separate but related constructs (Kram, 1985; Sweeney & Matthews, 2011; Van Velsor & McCauley, 2004). The five psychological capacities are chosen from research into the unique demands required to build higher trustworthiness, more psychological hardiness, tighter cohesion and stronger leader-follower partnerships in comparison to leaders of non-dangerous contexts (Sweeney & Matthews, 2011). Worldview is seen as foundational to all the others, encompassing one’s core values and beliefs, identity and character. Self-awareness is understanding one’s personal perspectives, identity, role(s), and purpose both introspectively and reflectively. Social awareness is related to self-awareness but focuses more on connectedness with others and how these relationships make meaning and provide feedback to oneself. Self-regulation is the ability to not only monitor and control one’s emotions, but also one’s behaviors, thoughts, and foci. Finally, agency/motivation is associated with self-regulation, but concerns the desire, drive, and self-efficacy for individual action.


The five capacities are fluid, interactive and are embedded within the previously discussed construct of developmental experiences and are also embedded in the three mentoring functions (e.g., career, psychosocial and role modeling) as defined by long-term workplace mentorship scholar Kathy Kram, tying it back directly to the mentor’s role in facilitating the developmental of these core attributes. The career mentoring function deals with duty, challenge, and job skills, the psychosocial deals with personal competency, identity, interpersonal skills and mental well-being, and role modeling involves observational learning and example setting (Kimball, 2018). As displayed, there will be some mentorship that happens outside of the context of an associative specific developmental experience (i.e., discussions about family), as will some developmental experiences happen that do not directly involve mentorship (i.e., unit-based training) that are both still relevant to the five psychological capacities.


Unlike other mentorship situations, mentoring for in extremis leaders must never separate the team or unit context. At a basic social and organizational level, French (2001, p. 448) tells us that most people desire to be accepted and wish to “interact cooperatively with at least one small reference group” and “one of the most psychologically relevant reference groups for most people is the work group, including peers and the superior.” He goes on to say that “most people are capable of greatly increasing their effectiveness in helping their reference group solve problems” (French, 2001, p. 448). In extremis conditions are the ultimate leadership problem to be solved by a cooperative and highly effective reference group. As shown in the model the psychological capacity for social awareness, the significant influence that membership in a variety of social constructs, be it unit, team, profession, etc., have on the developmental experiences of leaders and followers is accounted for, as is the interconnectedness within the process.


A final thought clarifies the importance of mentorship for in extremis leaders, and it deals most with the high-stress contexts and their inherent psychological effects. There are three phases in the temporal progression of dangerous contexts; 1) anticipatory, 2) in situ and 3) post hoc (Palmer, Hannah, & Sosnowik, 2011). Mentorship is a significant matter within the context of in extremis leader/leadership development because of a mentor’s role in two of the phases, namely the anticipatory and post hoc portions. Of the three mentoring functions described earlier, the anticipatory and post hoc phases require the psychosocial function the most, as this particular function and its components help develop the behavioral skills and interpersonal abilities needed to reflect, understand and process the complexity of in extremis events with someone who cares and is invested (Kimball, 2018). Dangerous context leaders have the greatest need for support networks to assist in the management of stress and making meaning of their experiences (Sweeney, Matthews, & Lester, 2011). Care is one of the three unique psychological demands (alongside character and competence) that facilitates both effective performance during and after high-stakes contexts (Sweeney, Matthews, & Lester, 2011). In sum, mentors help mentally ready and recuperate in extremis leaders – the psychosocial function is displayed separately in Figure 1 to acknowledge this importance.


Additionally, it should be emphasized that a leader’s adaptability across all temporal phases allows for the preparation for, functioning during, and recovery from in extremis contexts. As such, mentors who recognize the primacy of psychosocial functions to the anticipatory and post hoc phases should not discount how these functions will surely impact in situ, as development of worldview, self-awareness, social awareness, self-regulation, and agency/motivation will most certainly affect in extremis leadership, and in turn, the outcomes of dangerous or high-risk scenarios. In sum, just as a mentor may not be literally beside one in front of a command, on a run, or at a meeting, the in extremis mentor does not have to be on the battlefield, on target, or even in theatre/area of responsibility to have a major influence on high-stakes outcomes.


As today’s in extremis leaders face asymmetric threats, current and most likely future enemies are subnational (i.e., like a Somali clan or separatist movement), transnational (i.e., similar to an ISIS or al-Qaeda), and international (i.e., drug cartel or crime/terror syndicate) (Hammes, 2006). None of these adversaries are easy challenges and each problem set requires the best from our defenders. Synthesizing lessons learned after one is in an in extremis circumstance is critical to development, but it is tantamount to deliberate and holistic developmental approaches a priori to the onset of danger or chaos – the key is to develop leaders and their leadership beforehand, given that the stakes are so high. Mentorship has largely been excluded from the conversation surrounding in extremis leaders and their associative dynamic situations. Given the threat, risk, and the potential traumatic circumstances that can arise, a tailored, innovative and robust mentorship approach like the one presented here can be just the competitive edge our in extremis leaders need to achieve victory in preparation, under pressure and beyond.


References Day, D. (2000). Leadership development: a review in context. Leadership Quarterly 11. 582.


Dyer, W., Dyer, G., & Dyer, J. (2007). Team Building: Proven Strategies for Improving Team Performance, 4th Ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


French, W. (2001). Organizational development. In Natemeyer, W. & McMahon, J. (Eds.), Classics of Organizational Behavior (pp. 446-465), 3rd Ed. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.


Hammes, T. (2006). The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press.


Kimball, R. (2018). The Army Officer’s Guide to Mentoring. West Point, NY: The Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning.


Kram, K. (1985). Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.


LeBoeuf, J. (2002). Case no. 3: the 2000 army training and leader development panel. In Snider, D. & Watkins, G. (Eds.), The Future of the Army Profession (pp. 487-504). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.


Lerner, R., & Overton, W. (2008). Exemplifying the integrations of the relational developmental system: Synthesizing theory, research, and application to promote positive development and social justice. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23(3), 245-255.


Palmer, N., Hannah, S., & Sosnowik, D. (2011). Leader development for dangerous context. In Sweeney, P., Matthews, M., & Lester, P. (Eds.), Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for Armed Forces, Emergency Services and First Responders. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.


Sweeney, P., Hannah, S., & Snider, D. (2008). Domain of the human spirit. In Snider, D. & Matthews, M. (Eds.), Forging the Warrior’s Character: Moral Precepts from the Cadet Prayer. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.


Sweeney, P., & Matthews, M. (2011). A holistic approach to leading in dangerous situations. In Sweeney, P., Matthews, M., & Lester, P. (Eds.), Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for Armed Forces, Emergency Services and First Responders. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.


Sweeney, P., Matthews, M., & Lester, P. (2011). Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for Armed Forces, Emergency Services and First Responders. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.


Van Velsor, E. & McCauley, C. (2004). The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Van Velsor, E., Moxley, R., & Bunker, K. (2004). The leader development process. In Van Velsor, E. & McCauley, C. (Eds.), The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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