Reflections on Mentoring and #Leadership

The U.S. Armed Forces are in for lean times ahead. Budget cuts, continuing operational demands, and ongoing attempts to re-learn the core competencies of conventional warfare will all come together to make resources scarce. Unit-level leader development efforts will have to function with minimal outside resources and assistance; even the minimal assistance higher echelons provided in the past is likely to look luxurious by comparison. At the same time, we should view this period as an opportunity to re-embrace some skills we’ve allowed to atrophy - or at least lay fallow - over the last decade of intense operational activity. The deliberate practice of professional mentoring is one of these skills that, if thoughtfully applied, can pay great dividends for military leaders in the immediate future.

A word about terminology is important here. The term mentoring gets misused a great deal, both in military and civilian professional circles.[1] A simple definition is a voluntary and mutual developmental relationship between persons of differing experience. Voluntary and mutual are critical aspects of mentoring, primarily because those two characteristics carry a sense of trust and respect between two individuals that isn’t necessarily present in other developmental processes. Anytime someone talks about having a mentor “appointed” to them, you can safely assume that while there may be a developmental benefit, the relationship is not a mentoring one. The differing experience aspect is vital simply because it drives the imperative for learning; without differing levels of experience, a mentoring relationship is nothing more than a friendship.

In terms of conceptual framing, the single most important aspect of mentoring for leaders is to view it as a reflective practice. The idea of a reflective practice comes from David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, which envisions learning as a continuous process cycling from experience through reflection and abstraction to action.[2] In Kolb’s model, reflective practices serve as opportunities to step away from the daily press of activities and ask the hard questions of “How did that happen?” and “Why did that happen?” Examples of personal and group reflective practices include, but are not limited to, meditation, long runs, journaling, coffee groups, Lean-In Circles, and after-action reviews. What matters in a reflective practice is not the physical act accomplished or the product produced, but the space that is created for reflection and personal thinking.

When leaders view mentoring as a reflective practice, they understand it better as a process and not as a series of gates to pass through. Mentoring as a reflective practice means that mentor and protégé alike are using that time to better understand themselves through the experiences of someone else.[3] This involves candid conversations, either face-to-face or via virtual means, where mentor and protégé alike grapple with the career and psychosocial aspects of the profession and how those aspects manifest in their lives. Mentoring is not an “easy button” for the protégé to get that next choice assignment or position, nor is it a cloning factory turning out exact copies of the mentor. It won’t always work perfectly, and it won’t always be linear in its effects. Ultimately, the only people who can judge the effectiveness of a mentoring relationship are the participants, but leaders can temper expectations and set the conditions for success.

Hand in hand with mentoring as a reflective practice should be an emphasis on creating mentoring spaces, not mentoring faces. All too often, mentoring programs are narrowly focused on finding just the right algorithm or set of processes that will produce the perfect mentoring pair. This emphasis is evident in programs like the Army’s now-defunct Army Mentorship Program, which quickly foundered due to poor design and a lack of interest. Another easy trap to fall into is assuming that your first line supervisor is automatically your mentor, as found in a recent Naval War College study.[4] The difficult truth is that it is extremely hard to quantify what factors consistently make a mentoring relationship succeed. To put it another way, think about the level of success your friends and colleagues have had in finding lasting relationships through online dating. Now ask yourself if you want to put your professional development in the hands of those same algorithms. The track record of outside observers is not much better; therefore, the primary agency for the formation of a mentoring pair must fall on those two individuals themselves.

A mentoring space, simply put, is a real or virtual location that facilitates mentoring connections by opening opportunities for individuals to better understand each other’s worldviews and experiences. As those individuals gain those insights, they become better equipped to make their own matches as mentor and protégé, instead of having someone do it for them. Mentoring spaces can be anything from crucible events to beer calls to online forums. What matters is the opportunity for participants to gain insights into one another’s character and knowledge base. That creates an opening for the kind of mutual trust and respect that can then lead to mentoring in more private and personal venues.

Finally, in pursuing these avenues, leaders need to be candid about how gender and ethnicity affect mentoring in their organizations. This isn’t political correctness or double-speak for quotas. It is an acknowledgment that a strong factor in mentoring pair formation is when a potential protégé reminds a mentor of him or herself.[5] That mirror imaging can be based on similar socio-economic factors, similar career paths, gender, or ethnicity. The strength of like-pair formation means that it can be harder for minorities of any kind to find adequate mentors. That reality does not mean that leaders have to make sure every possible combination of minority is adequately represented within a mentoring space. But it does mean being open to the possibility that members of an organization are missing out on mentoring opportunities and thinking about how to address that absence. In the same vein, leaders need to understand some of the factors that impede cross-gender mentoring, including concerns about perceptions of a romantic relationship where none exists. Not all of these need to be fixed by leaders; indeed, some of this is hard-wired into our culture. But leaders should at least help potential mentors and protégés understand that these factors exist, so they can account for them in their own decisions.

When leaders empower mentoring, they create possibilities for the future of the profession. They help future leaders understand the opportunities that are open to them and which they might be best suited for. They allow current leaders to share hard-won tacit knowledge that they might not even realize they have. They foster a climate of trust and sharing within the organization that has impacts in other developmental domains. In short, they make their organization more capable, which ought to be the bottom line of any leader.  

Ray Kimball is a US Army officer and the author of The Army Officer’s Guide to Mentoring. The views expressed here are his own, not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: Airmen in support of a training rotation at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, CA | Jason Koxvold, Bridge Featured Contributor.


[1] Kimball, Raymond A. 2015. "It Takes More than Rank to Make a Mentor." Army.

[2] Kolb, Alice Y, and David A. Kolb. 2011. "Experiential Learning Theory: A Dynamic, Holistic Approach to Management Learning, Education and Development." In Handbook of management learning, education and development, by S.J. Armstrong and C. Fukani, 42-68. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

[3] Kimball, Raymond A. 2015. The Army Officer's Guide to Mentoring. West Point: The Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning.

[4] Johnson, W. Brad, and Gene R. Andersen. 2015. "Mentoring in the U.S. Navy." Naval War College Review 76-90.

[5] Allen, Tammy D,, Mark L. Poteet, and Susan M. Burroughs. 1997. "The Mentor's Perspective: A Qualitative Inquiry and Future Research Agenda." Journal of Vocational Behavior 70-89.