Mentoring is obviously not just for the military, although the highly social aspect of military life can create an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to learn from one another. How much mentoring and learning takes place depends on command climate and the way people connect. Mentoring can be mandated, which has the advantage of getting everyone, or at least a fairly high percentage of people in a unit to participate. It can be overdone, like anything, or viewed as a panacea, but it can be very valuable. We are often blind to our own shortcomings and limitations, the gaps in our knowledge, and startling things happen when we listen to each other.
When I taught at Kings Point, the term “mentor” was officially limited to assigned academic mentoring aimed at keeping midshipmen out of academic hot water. I also mentored midshipmen in a more informal and a broader sense. Looking back on it, the one-on-one conversations I had with midshipmen, especially the continuing conversations I had with certain midshipmen, were among the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my 15 years at the Academy. I wish I had been more aware that having these conversations constituted a distinct field of expertise, something to cultivate and get better at. The ongoing conversations would sometimes begin because we had been placed together by circumstance. A conversation might start because a midshipmen was in one of my classes, or on the Honor Board, or connected with one of the clubs or activities that I supervised, like the “Moral Science Society,” a kind of ethics club I started. We’d start talking and then, something would click. We found interests in common, or a way of talking, or the same kinds of things struck us as funny (about the Academy, for example) or we just liked each other. I had some very interesting and sometimes difficult conversations with members of the Honor Board. We discussed how the rules of Honor applied in a particular case, which wasn’t always obvious. Or we’d talk about the psychology behind violations of the Honor Code. Some of the best talks were about Honor education, which isn’t just about informing or even securing compliance but about shaping peoples’ values, combining empathy and firmness, maintaining and even slowly raising the standards. This makes Honor education what some of the people at the Harvard Kennedy School call an “adaptive challenge,” and the greatest leadership challenge of all: getting people to change the way they think about something. I sometimes learned that my expectations of the midshipmen were excessive, although at other times they were way ahead of me.
I think that the great mentors have an instinct for what the protege needs and how to approach the subject. General Fox Conner was mentor to junior officers Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall in WWI and after. Conner recognized the talent in both men, but also what they needed to grow. He made sure consummate staff officer Marshall got out to the field to see things for himself. He introduced Marshall to the technique of having officers work competitively on the same project to get the best out of them. He saw that Eisenhower had an antipathy to military history because of how it had been taught at West Point, so when they began reading together, he started Ike on novels, proceeding later to military history (Civil War biographies were favorites). They also read Clausewitz, the plays of Shakespeare, and the philosophy of Nietzsche. When they were stationed together on Panama in the 20’s, Conner had Eisenhower write a daily operations order for his command, an experience that Eisenhower would later say was invaluable in preparing him to craft operations orders for the organizations that he commanded in World War II. Conner had retired from the army by WWII, but the two men he mentored went on to form a war-winning partnership, and both became post-war statesmen. Maybe it was thanks partly to Conner that Marshall and Eisenhower were both more than highly successful officers and public servants. There is a wisdom, vision, and humanity in these two men that sets them apart. Reading about them, one is in the company of greatness.
If you want to read more about Conner, Marshall, and Eisenhower, try Mark Perry’s Partners in Command or Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship by Edward Cox.