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Mentoring, What Matters Most?

June 2, 2020 | By Rear Adm. Alvin “Bull” Holsey


What matters most when it comes to mentoring? The answer is simple: You just have to give a damn! After 30 years in the U.S. Navy, some thought and reflection, I am convinced we have to be better mentors.



Throughout history, successful leaders across numerous fields have said that a mentor or two, maybe more, helped them along the way. Adm. Nimitz credited Rear Adm. Samuel S. Robison, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. credited Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg credited a former college professor, Larry Summers.

Former U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Army General, Colin Powell credited his father, Luther Powell. Powell goes on to say, “All… of us have the ability to serve as a mentor – to step forward and say, ‘I’m going to be a mentor, because I want this next generation to take America to a higher level, a better place.’” These mentors provided guidance, words of encouragement, reinforcement and perhaps even some stern criticism at times. Bottom line – they gave a damn!

Mentoring requires leadership, yet we continue to struggle with this simple nurturing concept that can make our Navy better. So why do we struggle? We struggle, in part, because we get lost in minutiae: Should mentoring be formal or informal? Should we assign mentors? Should they be male or female? But frankly, all of that doesn’t matter. What matters is a leader’s willingness to engage. Successful engagement at any level in a Sailor’s career makes a difference. It just has to be genuine. Don’t tell me who I can or cannot mentor. I should be able to mentor a seaman, a chief petty officer, a female, or a surface warfare officer – regardless of my designator or title. True leaders engage, and part of that engagement is getting to Know Your People and making a positive difference in their lives.

Throughout my career, I have had several folks that I would call a mentor. Some have been there from day one and others only a few years, but their influence endured. They made an impression. Some preferred to watch from a distance and engage only when necessary to keep me on glideslope. There are varying degrees of engagement where mentors can provide just the right impact at the right time. It doesn’t have to be all consuming. I think the role of the mentor should be: C-L-E-A-R:

My first Navy mentor was the professor of naval science at my NROTC unit. I have reached out to him a few times over the years, and he was always there to share insights and provide Counsel when needed. He has been an important part of my life and career. He even attended my winging ceremony and my change of command ceremony some 25 years later. I never asked him to be my mentor, but years ago he took an interest, and I felt comfortable enough to reach out when I needed advice.

I met my second mentor when I started training in the fleet replacement squadron. He just walked up and introduced himself, coincidentally, he was headed to my fleet squadron as a department head. It may be worth noting, that he was a test pilot, which I aspired to be one day, and we shared the same racial background. I am sure he felt compelled to engage since I was one of only a handful of minorities or maybe because I looked shocked in my new surroundings. Hands-down, he was the best pilot in the squadron and he spent time to make sure I knew what it meant to bring your “A-game” every day. I haven’t spoken with him in a few years, but he was there in the beginning to help Reinforce what “right” should look like for me as a junior officer.

I met my third mentor at an affinity group function when I was a young flight instructor. That was over 20 years ago and he has been there ever since. He was a great Example and played an active role in my career at a distance and sometimes up close. He did not pull any punches and he kept challenging me to push ahead. We have often heard that there are no defined career paths, but I probably followed mentor number three’s path the closest. It has been said that, “imitation is a catalyst of achievement”. When you are a role model or mentor, young people take note and follow your lead. You just have to set the right example. Mentor number four – the Great Tuntini. My mother and father taught me the value of hard work, and I always thought that I gave the proverbial “110%.” In fact, I naively believed that everyone else did the same. How could they not?

Mentor number four was quite refreshing as a commanding officer because he challenged the entire command to give more and he did not tolerate oxygen thieves. Of course, I felt great because of my “110%.” He was the first leader who asked me to give more, “115%,” like that was even possible. He set the bar higher and helped me to Assess my own potential. In doing so, I realized there was nothing like “120%,” especially when you are having fun. He also helped me to realize I had a lot more to offer the Navy.

Mentor number five was my detachment senior chief who retired a few years ago as a Master Chief from the world’s greatest Navy. First impression, we could not have been from more different backgrounds or beliefs. We were products of small town Georgia, born in the sixties and yes, different races. I think we both learned to Listen and embrace our differences to lead our team. We shared several talks about family, growing up, life, dreams and more. Ironically, we had more things in common than we had different which is probably true for most of us. Every Sailor has a story, and that story is what brought them to the Navy. Our team excelled because of friendship built on personal trust and my ability to grow as a leader. Those were only five mentors, but my list of mentors is easily over 15, maybe more. No, they didn’t all look like me. No one was ever formally assigned, but all took an interest. We did not all share the same likes or dislikes, but I think we all believed in our Navy, opportunity, and achievement. Over the years, I have attended various conferences or have heard young folks ask about finding a good mentor. The initial connection can be quite awkward for both mentor and perspective protégés. So, what’s the answer? I would ask young folks just starting out to do three things:
1. Learn everything that you can
2. Accept criticism
3. Seek constant improvement

Those are not things that get you noticed, though they will. They are key elements in defining who you are and are essential to shaping your professional growth and development. I think the majority of the mentoring connection lies with seniors who should reach out and engage. You know what is required in your field, your community and our Navy. You have seen the pitfalls and you know the challenges. For me, it was those leaders at all levels who noticed my work ethic, saw something special or knew that curve was in the road and sought me out to provide honest feedback. They were authentic, and I was quickly put in a place where I felt comfortable asking more insightful questions about myself and my career. A conversation started and we found common ground. Yes, I guess I felt like they gave a damn!

Mentoring Self-Assessment:

1) How many mentors have you had in your career?  (My answer - 15 plus) List them out and reflect on the impact they’ve had on your life and career.
2) How many folks have you mentored from different backgrounds? (officer, enlisted, warfare communities, gender, racial, etc…) If it helps, write out a list. (My answer – 30 plus, maybe more) If all your protégés look like you or your numbers are limited, you need to expand your reach.
3) What are you waiting for? Go lead!