Igniting Leadership through Mentoring

Richard Naughton Leadership, Values-Driven Leaders

The mind is not a vessel that needs filling,
but wood that needs igniting.”


MatchesOver 2000 years ago, the Greek historian Plutarch touched on a central theme in values-driven leadership: selfless mentoring. Today, Plutarch’s ideas are still relevant: selfless mentoring informs, motivates, builds trust and develops tomorrow’s leaders. The popularity of mentoring boomed over the past 20 years, rising mostly from technical on-the-job training to a variety of techniques including leadership coaching. This in part, is due to the growing recognition that studying “Leadership” as a separate discipline from management has put the focus on where it is often needed: developing skills that are more of an art than a science. This is a distinction that Field Marshall, Lord Slim made over 50 years ago:

“There is a difference between leadership and management. The leader and the men who follow him represent one of the oldest, most natural, and most effective of all human relationships. The manager and those he manages are a later product with neither so romantic nor so inspiring a history. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision – its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, statistics, methods, timetables, and routine – its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential”

So, accepting the distinction that leadership is mostly an art, I believe the most effective way to pass it on is at a personal level: mentoring. Given that mentoring is personal, it also means it is time consuming. I’m sure if you’re like me, you want to spend as much time as possible shaping your future leaders, but there never seems to be enough time.

Nowhere is leadership more essential than in the military, where good leadership can be the difference between life and death, and yet our busy schedules made mentoring a challenge. In a previous military post, I had five units spread over four different countries. I was faced with a daunting question: how do I bridge the distance so I can provide needed mentoring? After much thought, the answer was to provide leadership guidance in a framework that these budding leaders were required to use every day and that we would discuss during visits. It not only became part of their daily tempo, but as importantly, they were expected to use it in mentoring their own personnel.

A Framework for Igniting Leadership

The framework normally included getting them to dive in and lead something as soon as possible…no matter what their level. We also ensured they looked at themselves as leaders and realized what it meant to take on this role. We provided advice and introduced techniques allowing them to form their own style.

Our framework for mentoring to develop leadership included six key components, which I’ll develop further below:

  1. See yourself as a leader.
  2. Set the course.
  3. Communicate the vision.
  4. Stay the course.
  5. Sustain the team.
  6. Set the priorities.

See Yourself As A Leader

First and foremost, see yourself as a leader and accept the responsibilities of: 1) putting the organization’s mission and team ahead of yourself; and 2) continuing to develop your skills by practicing different methods; reading on leadership; reflecting on what works for you; and when necessary, correcting your approach. This will be an ongoing commitment for the rest of your career. Once you know your role and have committed to it – then it’s time to set the direction for your team…whether it be the one person you now supervise or the several hundred later in your career – you must view yourself as a leader!

Setting Course

Develop Your Mission, Vision and Intent: You now have a unit to lead but where are you going to take it? This will require considerable thought and should be based on the organization’s mission and contained in the vision you develop. The mission is where you’re going…the vision is how you see your unit getting there. For example, the mission of our organization is “to provide the highest level medical service and field rescue in all environments each and every day!” Given this mission, the vision we’ll develop must create focus; set direction; synergize resources; and inform the unit where it’s going. A clear vision of a worthwhile purpose, combined with your commitment, is one our greatest motivators.

While developing your team’s vision, ensure you include others up and down the organization. Once you’ve factored in this advice, then you – the leader – develop the vision and stick to it. Get this initial part right and it will save a lot of time later. Based on our mission of providing top level rescue, our vision is “We will ensure our units are structured, resourced, and trained to achieve the highest level of readiness – our focus is their success – our team and those they rescue depend on it!”

Given this vision, there is an additional tool that should be used to ensure the vision is actively worked. This is the leader’s intent and allows your personnel the freedom to operate within your guidelines when you’re not there. For example, our intent is: “If we are not rescuing or maintaining, we will be training!” This allows all to prioritize their work along the lines you expect.

Communicate the Vision

Once you have developed these concepts, you must get the word out to every level. You must wear your vision like the clothing on our back. When your personnel look at you, that vision should be an intricate part of your expression. Each day, bring it up through conversation, asking questions, in feedback sessions, at unit meetings, in newsletters, posted signs, etc. Never let it fade!

Stay the Course

Once the course is set, your team will expect the unit to stick to the plan. If you continually change direction you’ll undermine your credibility and the mutual trust your unit needs. Flexibility is important but changes should be small course corrections that better enable you to meet the original objective, the vision leading to mission accomplishment. As time goes on, variables not previously seen may appear and you’ll need to adjust. The freedom of movement your intent provides will allow your personnel to take action quickly and independently, and within the objectives you set. Your team has a right to know that all will stay the course – this ensures accountability and predictability. In a phrase, they “trust your leadership!”

Sustain the Team

In many organizations, we spend a lot of time highlighting individual achievement. This is important but we would do better to reward teams. It is the team that accomplishes the mission and ultimately gets the patient back. Therefore it is helpful to view your personnel as a team and let them know every day that they are part of a greater effort. Their professional goals should be tied to team performance. When organizing tasks or training, you’re actually impacting the entire team. In building capability, put teams in stressful, well-planned exercises that will mold a team and build camaraderie, confidence and mission capability. Finally, when your teams are successful, reward them as a team.

Setting the Priorities

“3Ms”: Now that your personnel understand the mission, vision and leader’s intent, how do they settle competing priorities? One answer is to follow the “3Ms.”

This means taking care of the Mission first, Members second and Me (yourself) third. You must sincerely believe in this order and ensure this mindset throughout your unit. If you are not sincere, you risk a plummet in your credibility. You must also practice the art of balancing the “3Ms.” The mission is always first, but that doesn’t mean every time “mission” is mentioned you surge your personnel: you must pace your unit to accomplish the mission. Secondly, you must take care of your personnel as they get the mission done. They are your responsibility and do not forget it! Finally take care of yourself and “recharge your batteries,” otherwise your effectiveness will dwindle and your unit will suffer.

By reviewing this framework in every meeting, highlighting pieces of it in every communication, and encouraging our people to do the same with their teammates, we created a flexible mentoring framework that developed leaders across geographic boundaries. We ignited leaders. I think Plutarch would be proud.
Naughton thumbnailRick Naughton is a senior international affairs advisor with the US Air Force and a doctoral student with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.



Matches photo credit: Jonno Witts via Compfight cc

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