Mentoring: Not just a program, a way of life

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ron Perrilloux
  • 560th Flying Training Squadron commander
As professional warriors, we work hard to lead our Airmen in the right direction. We accomplish the mission, no matter how scarce the resources or daunting the task. We use the authority inherent in rank and command to direct actions, set policies, and manage resources. We express our visions and set examples with our own actions and behavior. We write reports, give feedback and try to get our folks to the right assignments so they can be promoted when the time comes. But even with all that on our plates, the job isn't complete.

One responsibility often overlooked in today's fast-paced environment is the need to mentor our Airmen so they are successful in their military careers and beyond. Air Force Instruction 36-3401, Air Force Mentoring, formalizes how senior leaders think we should mentor our people and provides a pathway for assisting their professional development.

What we sometimes fail to realize is that mentoring is not just an Air Force program in which we are obliged to participate; it is a critical part of the way every member of a unit, circle of friends or family learns to excel. It is a huge part of how we take care of each other and take care of the Air Force.

Webster's dictionary defines a mentor as a "wise and trusted teacher." Whether you know it or not, you are a "trusted teacher" to someone. In fact, we mentor others all the time without even realizing it.

For parents, your children learn from everything you do, positively or negatively. They see how you act, speak and behave in your daily life and emulate it in their own. They learn which actions lead to which results, and will choose the course of action most likely to bring a desired result. This happens every day in every relationship. Friends, coworkers, subordinates and supervisors all learn from each other and derive their concept of normal behavior from that interaction.

That is why it is absolutely essential to understand how our actions affect those around us, and how it directly impacts the success of any Air Force unit. If we set a good example for those around us and teach them to do the right thing, they will see the success they deserve and so will the squadron.

If you are an Airman, no matter your rank, you can be a mentor. Rank and position may affect the number of people you mentor, and some of us have a formal responsibility to provide guidance. However, even the youngest servicemember is looked upon as a teacher by someone.

No matter how long you've been at your duty station, someone has less experience than you. You can make a difference in that individual's personal and professional life by simply passing along the lessons you've learned. It doesn't need to be an elaborate or groundbreaking lesson; something as simple as teaching another Airman the best times to visit the chow hall to avoid crowds can have a positive effect on someone's quality of life.

Perhaps you will have the opportunity to speak at a local school during career day or a Veteran's Day remembrance. Maybe there is a tour of your base for at-risk students from an inner-city school, by stepping up and passing along your experiences, you not only represent the Air Force, you provide someone else with some of the tools they need to be successful in a world full of challenges.

Of course, mentoring also helps the Air Force develop the leaders and warriors we need to fight and win our nation's wars.

Leading by example is an easy thing to see at a training base; every operation is focused on teaching new Airmen how to wear a uniform, fly an aircraft, defend against an attack, or accomplish a technical task. However, teaching doesn't stop after training is complete and our folks move on to their gaining duty station. Everyone needs to learn the Air Force's unique culture.

There is no formal training program to teach our folks where they fit into the big picture of the mission to fly, fight and win. We don't hand Airmen a book that teaches them how to manage their careers or how to deal with situations in their duty sections.

Our history, our heroes, and our heritage are all taught through experience and exposure, and we are the teachers. We have a responsibility to arm each new Airman with the tools he or she needs to be successful as a warrior and a citizen. Formal training programs provide a strong foundation of military and technical expertise, but a culture of mentorship teaches the skills Airmen need to put that expertise into practice.

So be a mentor to your folks - read the AFI, set an example with your own behavior, and pass along your experiences whenever you have the opportunity. Your people will be better Airmen and better citizens because you set them on the right path. The Air Force and this nation will reap the benefits for an entire generation.