I have few friends and generally don't do surface relationships, so the friendships I have tend to take on a lot of significance for me. Some people need to be surrounded by a lot of folks all the time and people slide in and out of their lives easily. I would rather be surrounded by a few folks for a long time and cultivate whole conversations that never seem to end and pick up right where they left off the time before. Sitting around a fire bowl with one or two others and having a serious conversation. To hear the ideas, explanations, thoughts, opinions of people I trust and respect. And strangely enough, in this technological world of instant communication, the two people most on my mind as I write this, are folks who I either have never physically met, or have spent a very limited amount of time with a long time ago. And yet, with either one of them, I can pose a question and tell my truth and it is received as openly and honestly and is as carefully considered as if they were sitting in the room with me late into the evening. Funny how the world works these days...
This post generates from that place. The intersection of friendship, coaching and mentorship. Where does one end and another begin? Are they all present in one form or another all the time? Why do we all need them at one point or another in our lives? Do we all need them?
All of this is prompted by an article I received yesterday from a colleague that caught my eye. He sent it to me to solicit my thoughts on professional development and mentoring and coaching for Army leaders. You can find the link here:
Essentially, it poses the question why professional athletes, musicians, singers, actors etc have coaches, but teachers, doctors and others responsible for some critical areas of our lives do not? Coaching professional athletes is a lucrative business for what essentially equals about a 10 year career in the life of the athlete. The education of our children is infinitely more important than that and yet we just leave it to the teacher in the classroom to figure out how to reach each child by themselves. Why not have coaches and mentors for them as well? And why does the Army leave coaching and mentoring to whoever is senior in rank or position to the person being coached. Why are the lines drawn as straight as they are? I am senior to you by time in service or by title, so therefore I automatically become a mentor or a coach? Why? What makes my ideas, thoughts or opinions any more important than yours? My best friend is 3 years younger than I am and has never served a day in uniform, but has arguably changed the course of my life. My most powerful professional mentor right now is only a few years older than I am but has an understanding of the profession far greater than I do. I get coached daily by my daughter on how to be a better Father. The main influences in my life come from all over the place.
The other day, I was having a conversation with someone who told me that my writing about leadership would always be suspect until I got back into the game. Sitting on the sidelines and throwing my ideas out there doesn't get it. Especially in the Army. In a culture where the expectation is that the more senior you are, the better you get. The expectation that leaders can do anything and everything that their subordinates can do. That you lead from the front and inspire people to accomplish the mission at hand. And he is right. There is no good reason that anyone should take anything I put out here as gospel truth until I put myself back into the arena and try it on for size. Take all these ideas and put them into practice. See which ones pan out and which ones don't. He challenged me as a mentor. He also challenged me as a friend. He knows the cost associated. He understands the demands. He knows what I am doing in my family. He knows I have the talent, skill and ethic to do the job well. That is without question. But while I have focused most of my writing and ideas at the upper end of the Army spectrum, the senior NCO and officer side of the equation, his contention is that it has to be taken down to the pointy end of the stick. To the 22 year old Corporal with 2 combat tours under his belt and the absolutely well-earned arrogance of someone who has faced huge challenges early in life and now believes very strongly that the way he sees his world is exactly the way it is. To stand in front of that young man with an equal assurance that I can lead him, motivate him, educate him and develop him. That I can take him to combat and bring him home alive. To do that takes passion, and a commitment to the long haul.
And deciding whether or not I want to do that is the turning point for me. It is the fork in the road. If I go down one path, I can have a successful career and retire with a decent pension and find my post Army career and provide for my family well. The only sticking point is that I will not have gone back into the leadership arena since I left it 5 years ago. If I go down the other path, I will have all those same things at the end but will be presented with another choice as well. To see whether or not what I believe leadership is all about is true. To see whether or not the journey I have taken really does make me a better leader than I was in 2006. I will have to confront and face the fundamental question that I have been avoiding for a little while now. Can I lead troops in combat again? Do I want to? Because that is what it comes down to. Is the pull of proving to myself that I can lead stronger than the pull to provide what other parts of my life need right now. Tough choice. A choice I can feel coming and will have to be made soon. A fundamental choice. One that, once made, will impact a lot of other things in my life.
Honestly, I go back and forth on it. As I sit here now and write this, I want back in the game. I am feeling the pull to go do what my whole career tells me I should do. To go back and settle the question. Yesterday though, I told another friend that what I do best, where my true talent lies is with planning and thinking and operations. I might just serve the Army best not by being at the pointy end of the stick, but by making sure that the plan, the resources and the situation are as right as they can be for the executor to go do their work.
And this is where the intersection of coaching, mentoring and friendship come together in the most meaningful ways. One friend challenges me professionally, fully understanding the nuances and requirements of the profession. Another challenges me to learn and grow personally within the totality of both my personal and professional life. Both are brutally honest and will disabuse any pretense on my part pretty damn quickly. Both are committed to, and care about me. I can turn to either of them and solicit their ideas, their thoughts, their opinions. And with the ultimate respect that the decision is mine, they offer those things as plainly as they can. And that is the essence of the coaching / mentoring piece. To help clarify the choices. To remove the confusions and help clarify the situation. To help weigh the pro's and cons. Not to decide, but to challenge the assumptions.
No matter how talented or professional or secure we might think we are, we all need mentors. We all need coaches. We all need friends. When all of those are brought together in the same person, you might well consider yourself as blessed as you can be. I am extremely grateful to have two such people in my life. Go find yours and cultivate the friendship. You will be a better leader because of it.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.