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Commentary: Teaching an Airman to Fish

Airmen at a computer, teaching and education.

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland. – The old Chinese proverb, "Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day - teach a man to fish, you feed him for life," succinctly demonstrates the impact an involved mentor can have on an individual. While the concept of mentoring and the value of the mentor-protégé relationship is nothing new, the Air Force could benefit from a renewed emphasis on the benefits of mentoring. In order to realize this goal, all Airmen, officers, enlisted and civilians, must realize they have something valuable to share and continually look for opportunities to fit mentoring into both the workplace and their community.

True mentoring benefits both the mentor and the protégé while also improving the organization. Mentors provide support, advice, reinforcement and constructive examples to help others succeed. It is important for Airmen to realize mentoring can occur at any level. A staff sergeant can be just as valuable a mentor to an airman first class as a colonel can be to a captain. Mentoring isn't a role only filled by field grade officers, senior NCOs and civilians in upper management positions. Just by being a member of today's highly competitive Air Force, you made a quality cut and have something valuable to share with those around you.

The dynamic and uncertain world of today's Air Force makes the mentor relationship more relevant now than ever before. In her Jan. 9 town hall meeting, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James stated that the No. 1 thing we can do to help each other through this downsizing period is to be good mentors. Individuals who experienced these force shaping measures in the past are best primed to help others going through them for the first time. Additionally, as funds for educational temporary duties and professional military education opportunities continue to dwindle, this one-on-one interaction becomes even more important. Distance learning can't replicate the mentoring process' intrinsic value. 

There is no simple formula or set guidelines for being a mentor. Each individual is unique and requires a unique mentoring style. Simply sitting an Airman down and telling them to do PME and get their education isn't mentoring. Yes, these things are extremely important, but the mentor must first understand the protégé's needs and goals. Ask, "Where would you like to be five and 10 years from now?" Plan out that roadmap and discuss what is right for the individual. That roadmap most likely will include things like PME and education, but make sure they are properly tailored and timed to work with the protégé's needs. Don't fall into the trap of believing that just because something worked for you, it must be the only correct answer. 

Unfortunately, some individuals developed a negative connotation for mentoring as it is often equated to politics and sponsorship. General Hal Hornburg, a former Air Education and Training Command and Air Combat Command commander, gave a speech on mentoring to the Virginia Military Institute Cadet Corps. He specifically addressed this perceived notion. He stated, "Mentoring isn't about a 'good old boy' network. It's about helping people grow and think for themselves. It's an opportunity to connect with the past and contribute to the future." Mentoring isn't about playing favorites and creating unfair advantages. A protégé should never be dependent on their mentor for success. 

With more requirements being put on the plate every day, it can be difficult to find time to mentor. What many individuals fail to realize is, like it or not, their actions day in and day out make them mentors in the workplace. Young Airmen look to the mentor as a role model for successful behavior. Being an active mentor doesn't mean you need to set aside large blocks of time. There is no need to schedule formal calendar appointments. One of the best opportunities for mentoring is during lunch. Every so often, invite an Airman out to lunch and take some time to discuss their plans. This relaxed environment is much more conducive to open dialogue than the formal confines of the workplace. 

Finally, don't limit your role as a mentor to the work environment. There are numerous opportunities to get involved within your local community. One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was volunteering as a mentor through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and seeing the positive impact I was able to make on a young man's life. Organizations such as scouts, church youth groups and sporting leagues all provide outstanding opportunities to be a positive mentor in someone else's life.

Being a mentor is one of the highest returns on investment you can get for your valuable time. Today's Air Force needs strong mentors to grow the leaders of the future. So, is it about time for lunch? Sounds like a great opportunity to grab an Airman and teach them to fish.

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