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Mentorship: Lifelong Learning When You Throw Out the Book

Check out our latest article from the first Army warrant officer that we had in our eMMissary program, Ted Haeg. There are some great lessons here regarding mentoring. If you'd like to share one, write us at to let us know!

“Well, what do YOU think?” asked the Master Sergeant (MSG) while eating. Together with us at the dinner table, a Warrant Officer (WO1) and a 2nd Lieutenant (2LT); travel partners of mine for this particular military training course. The question is lost to me now, I recall it being about Joint Fires, or some other topic in the ‘Fires Realm’ that only those who passionately (or obsessively, or crazily…) care about their craft would converse over Italian food and wine on a Friday night in Vicenza, Italy.

That question came as a response to my statement: “I do not have the ‘book’ answer”.

There were flashbacks of a time, years ago where this MSG, a Staff Sergeant (SSG) at the time, was one of a few NCOs that prepared me, and guided me through my deployment to

Afghanistan in 2010. Moments of being ‘smoked’ (i.e., intense ‘physical training’ due to failing to do something and/or doing something that usually results in rigorous, imaginative, exhausting muscle failure) for not knowing the book answer. Incorrectly reciting the order of the sub elements of the Method of Fire for a Fire Mission. Sometimes being smoked for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. At the end of it though there was never any animosity, nor hatred; simply learning. An understanding that we needed to learn more and quickly for the rigors we were about to enter into.

Fast forward to this question, years pass from these ‘smokings’, I went from a Private to

now a senior Staff Sergeant myself. I learned the foundation of my craft by the definition of the book. I taught in similar styles and ways that I learned. I counseled and, in reflection now,

mentored dozens of Soldiers and Lieutenants. But I didn’t see myself as having a mentor nor

being a mentor. I realized at the moment of this question that this MSG was a mentor to me this whole time and I didn’t even know it. Eight years in the US Army, 30 years old, and I realize I have a mentor.

In the military we focus on foundational doctrine and ways to do things. There is a manual, regulation, etc. on how everything is done and/or expected to be done. But what happens when situations or experiences arise that don’t fit in these ways? The American military is classically famed for not following our own way of fighting when it comes to it and has the ingenuity to be successful. Mentorship is similarly done in this way; though there are books and articles on mentorship there is not cookie cutter, step action drill, step by step way to conduct mentorship, and nor should there be.

The beauty in mentorship is that at its essence it is impairment of wisdom and experience for another human being to be successful. The mentee is critical in this shared experience as well. The mentee must be a lifelong learner and willing to not only receive mentorship but eventually know what it looks like. That constant rigorous training I experienced early on in my career was teaching, coaching, and mentoring. Teaching is the instruction and learning moment. Recall in your youth at the simplest levels your elementary school teacher taught you how to write; not what to write a thesis on. Coaching can often appear to be a seamless transition but is the maturity of the relationship into guiding that individual towards a goal or objective. Back to our example of the elementary school teacher this could be a college thesis or dissertation, wherein your professor has likely coached you through a particular topic and guided you to a possible answer. Finally, mentorship is that ‘final’ stage of true sharing of wisdom and experience. Some individuals that you look at as coaching or teaching you now may not eventually become a mentor to you. Those stages, teaching and coaching, are critical in their own right, but the mentorship stage is where you start to throw out the checklists and drills, and focus on the growth of the individual, in ways you cannot read on.

Since that night, I have developed and learned a lot. There is more to learning than college or manuals and regulations. That some of the most important knowledge is gained from

the experiences you gain and by listening to others. Finding a mentor is difficult. It is a long

growth process that may not actually grow into anything. The relationship could simply be a

friendship, a teacher, a coach, but for a small number of individuals in your life they may just be your mentor and you don’t realize it yet; and that is just fine. The reverse is true for the mentor and the potential mentee. You could be that leader that is developing that Soldier, or employee for a specific job. As you both grow in your life, and you stay in touch that relationship could develop further. Enjoy your lifelong learning as you travel and gather experiences and wisdom. Because before you know it you may run into your mentor or be one yourself.

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