Mentorship: Our unwritten core responsibility

  • Published
  • By Col. Don Bacon
  • Third Air Force
The Air Force grows its military leaders from within. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz started out as a lieutenant, and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Roy as an airman. None of our leaders are hired directly from the corporate world into their current positions.

Thus, all airmen need to embrace that mentoring other airmen is one of our core responsibilities--the future of our service depends on it. Furthermore, airmen will receive a great sense of satisfaction when they see the positive fruits of their investment in others.

To appreciate the impacts being and having a mentor, consider how one mentor had a huge impact on a junior officer, and how that investment eventually shaped the outcome of World War II, the Korean War, the birth of NATO and 8 years of a presidency.

Most know Dwight Eisenhower started World War II as a lieutenant colonel and within three and a half years was a five-star general, leading the Allied war effort in Western Europe. He later became the first Commander of NATO and then sworn in as President in 1952. What most don't know is years earlier, he was not considered competitive enough to get into the Army's Command and General Staff College, which is where the Army sent majors with the most potential for senior leadership.

When Major Eisenhower was assigned to Panama, he served as the executive officer to Brig. Gen. Fox Conner. The general saw potential in Major Eisenhower and invested significant time mentoring him.

He had the young Eisenhower read Clausewitz's "On War" three times and also had him study Plato, Tacitus, Nietzsche, Polybius, Xenophon and Vegetius. He quizzed him on battles Napoleon and Caesar fought, as well as on the Greek and Roman wars. He also had him study the major campaigns of the Civil War, analyzing the strengths and weakness of the leaders and their decisions. He taught him how to develop strategy, to adapt tactics to different terrain, and to write effective and concise orders.

After Eisenhower was not initially selected to attend the Army's CGSC, General Conner arranged for him to be assigned to the recruiting command, where they still had quota slots available for CGSC. With this, Eisenhower was selected to attend CGSC... and he aced the program as the top graduate of his class. Following school, General Conner helped Eisenhower get a job with Gen. John Pershing, which later led to working for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George Marshall.

General Conner had a tremendous impact on one of America's most important leaders in the 20th Century. But don't let this story mislead you. You don't have to be a commander or a superintendent to be a great mentor.

I remember when I was a second lieutenant, a Capt. Rick Donalson took me under his wings and helped me get a great start in the Air Force. What I didn't know was he was passed over for major and the Air Force was removing him from the service. But yet, Captain Donalson was selfless with his time and had a great impact on my early career. I admire his example.

We all have a responsibility to prepare future leaders--the quality of our future Air Force leaders depends on it. When we invest time in others we change the world for the better.