Mentoring…the toughest job in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John C. Martin
  • 22nd Maintenance Squadron commander
There's a well-known tradition in the Air Force for different specialties to argue over whose job is more important to the mission or tougher to accomplish. Whether operations, maintenance, medical or mission support, each organization vies for the title of world's most difficult profession.

Perhaps it's just human nature to want to be the top dog. Despite convincing arguments each occupation brings to the table, they're all wrong...and they're all right. Each can lay claim to performing daily what is truly the toughest job in the United States Air Force - the job of mentoring.

What is it about mentoring that makes it so difficult? I believe the answer lies in another aspect of human nature - humility.

From the earliest days of our childhood, we're taught the value that society places on humility. To be humble is to place yourself on no higher level than those around you, to recognize no superiority within yourself.

On the other hand, mentoring requires an acknowledgement on the part of the mentor of both their experience and wisdom. For most people this is a difficult task, but it is a step which we all must eventually take for the long-term good of the Air Force.

How do we go about making the job of mentoring easier? One way is to develop a system for mentoring which will take us beyond our inclination to downplay our worth. The Air Force provides numerous aids in this regard -- all we need to do is take advantage of them. Foremost among these aids are AFPD 36-34, Air Force Mentoring Program, and the accompanying AFI 36-3401, Air Force Mentoring. The policy directive gives the broad strokes regarding mentoring, assigning responsibilities and establishing procedures, while the instruction fills in the details right down to specific examples such as reading lists based on rank and topics for professional feedback. For anyone in a supervisory position, I strongly recommend this guidance, it provides the tools and tips needed to become a first-class mentor.

Another source of support is professional organizations. In the KC-135 maintenance business, both the Airlift/Tanker Association and the Logistics Officer Association are exceptional sources of professional knowledge and mentoring expertise as well. On a more generic level, the Air Force Association, the Company Grade Officers Council, Top 3, Route 56, The Airman's Council and Toastmasters, all offer opportunities to improve ourselves both personally and professionally.

Another tool a person can use to improve their mentoring skills is to tap into the power of questioning. It could be our natural instinct to prefer our own conclusions over those of others or simply an aversion of being told what to think. People are more likely to respond positively to a question than they are to a declaration of fact.

Why is it important that as Air Force professionals, we practice mentoring? I like to think of it this way - leadership is the art that affects the here and now, while mentoring is the art that develops the leaders of the future. So make a commitment to become a great mentor - the Air Force of 2020 is counting on you.