Mentors should invest themselves in subordinates

  • Published
  • By Maj. Erik Bruce
  • 28th Security Forces Squadron commander
In a word, mentors are helpers. They are people who care about us and what we try to accomplish. It seems almost intuitive to me that an Air Force which embodies core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do also encourages mentoring amongst its members. Professional Military Education schools are very efficient at providing mentoring tools and processes, but it is only through application that we realize the significant contributions mentoring can have on our mission.

Over the past five weeks I've had the privilege of one of the most memorable experiences of my 14-year Air Force career. I was afforded the opportunity to be the class advisor for Ellsworth AFB Airman Leadership School. As class advisor, my primary role was to offer a commander's perspective on the lessons taught, and to answer the compelling questions raised by the 28 professional Airmen comprising Class 07-3. After a very practical lesson on the mechanics of mentoring, one student asked, "Why is mentoring important?"

"The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." - Albert Einstein

Our problems are often a result of our lack of experience, while the solutions may require perspective or experience that we do not yet have. Occasionally, even our supervisors may not have the necessary experience or training to help solve our problems.

As a young second lieutenant, I was tasked to lead a 47-member team to defend Khobar Towers in the immediate aftermath of the 1996 terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 19 fellow Airmen. My significant problem became leading a team into combat with virtually no experience in the security police career field. My mentoring needs had been quickly established, but were the proper conditions present to ensure mentoring success?

"When the student is ready, a Master shall appear." - Zorro in The Mask of Zorro.

A mentor and a student will only be effective if the student is ready, the mentor is willing, and they sense it is right for both of them. My top five most critical conditions indicating a student is prepared to be mentored include a clear vision for themselves, an eagerness to learn, an ability to listen, a willingness to work hard and respect.

Then, as a first lieutenant heading to a combat zone for the first time I was not just in need of a mentor, I was fully prepared to benefit from the experience. I was young but also energetic, ambitious and eager to succeed in my assigned mission. All I required was a capable mentor to step forward and help guide me to that success.

"With great power comes great responsibility." - Uncle Ben Parker in Spiderman.

Our Air Force has vested more responsibility in our enlisted corps than has any other in the world. As a result, our non-commissioned officers possess a unique combination of experience and authority making them exceptionally qualified mentors. A mentor must possess desired knowledge, expertise and experience, be a skilled communicator, be able to diagnose a student's needs, have access to a network of resources and be concerned with the student's goals.

I was fortunate to have known and to have been known by a particular master sergeant in my first squadron who would become one of my very first Air Force mentors. His nearly 20 years of experience took him to places where his extensive knowledge of air base defense tactics, techniques and procedures had very likely saved the lives of the Airmen and Soldiers he dutifully protected. He immediately recognized my need for a mentor, the preparedness of the student, and most importantly understood his capability and accepted his responsibility to step forward and invest himself in the success of the mission by filling the mentor's role. The master sergeant's encouragement, expertise and timely advice during training and over the course of the deployment became the fountain from which I would draw strength when needed and ultimately experience success.

"I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it." - Morpheus in The Matrix. 

The students reading this article will recognize that a mentor can only assist them with reaching their goals; the hard work is up to them. However, acknowledging there are always more students available than mentors, my hope is that the mentors reading this will take the challenge, whenever and wherever the opportunity arises, to invest themselves in student's goals and help all of us to achieve our mission.