Every military service has a formal or informal mentoring system. Especially within the officer corps, the right mentor can fast-track a younger officer to a successful career. In the Navy, the unofficial, un-codified, mentorship system is called having a Sea Daddy. The effectiveness and availability of mentorship systems varies considerably among the services, and within them.
The word “mentor” originates in Greek mythology. Mentor was the name of the wise and trusted teacher Odysseus chose for his son, Telemachus. This word has now been adopted into our current English vocabulary.
Mentors can be of great value, not only providing invaluable advice, but also pinpointing professional opportunities. As senior officers rise in rank, for example, they often take their mentees with them, to plum positions. Mentors can be their mentee’s #1 supporter, and at the same time they are not afraid to give them direct, straightforward advice when they are headed in the wrong direction, and assisting in avoiding common pitfalls. The mentor/mentee relationship is a two-way street. For the relationship to be successful, both parties must be equally committed. The performance of the mentee is a direct reflection on the mentor. If a mentee becomes an embarrassment to the mentor through incompetence or malfeasance, the subordinate will undoubtedly be dumped, and neatly tucked away from future opportunities. Consistent quality performance is key to both parties in the mentor/mentee relationship.
Having an influential mentor does not, however, guarantee career success. Each year, officers come into the “zone” of eligibility for promotion. Selection boards look at the documented fitness reports of those eligible for promotion, reports written by their commanding officers. Where an officer is ranked against his peers is most important. The candidate who gets ranked 1 of 3, or 1 of 4, is most likely to be selected for advancement. A candidate can have glowing verbal reports from the “briefer” who speaks on behalf of the candidate, but it is the ranking system that is to be determinative. There is a common expression, “Boards pick records, not people.” There is also an expression though, that “ducks pick ducks” meaning, for example in the Navy, that if the board is largely aviators, they will pick largely aviators, if largely surface warfare officers (SWOs), they will pick similarly. Mentorship, record and community are all factors in the promotion selection process.
In the Navy, the mentor/mentee relationship most often develops organically through a natural connection or bonding of like-minded souls. According to several senior officers interviewed, the promotion process is far less political than it used to be. Robert Timberg’s 1996 book The Nightengale’s Song cites the Navy promotion system through the rank of O-6, Captain, as a strong example of a meritocracy. You must be proven and top-notch to advance. If your record is solid – but so are the records of your competitors — then the mentoring relationship can become determinative.
As one Senior Naval Officer at the Naval War College explained the Sea Daddy system, “Everyone in the Navy knows how it works, but nobody wrote it down. You live it, you watch it, and you see your senior officers do it.” Experienced military leaders are looking for good protégés to bring up through the system. “Careers top out where connections tap out,” remarked one former commanding officer.
There are different approaches to mentorship among the services, each with strengths and weaknesses. The Army, for example, instituted a formal mentoring program in 2005. Although this new approach encourages voluntary relationships outside the chain of command, and these still occur, most junior officers are assigned a mentor. Many individuals characterize this system as dispassionate and at times very sterile. Without a natural bonding that allows for a strong connection to develop, a personal, nurturing environment does not develop and consequently, does not lead to effective career guidance. “At the end of the day, it [the formal system] all became about the assigned mentor ‘checking the boxes’, period,” one soldier said. Although the Army’s structured approach is meant to produce leadership development, clearly mentorship is most effective when one is connected to another in a voluntary relationship.
Journalists David Cloud and Greg Jaffee write about the relationships that developed within the Department of Social Sciences (Sosh) at West Point, where generals such as Peter Chiarelli and David Petraeus served as faculty members, in their 2009 book, The Fourth Star. Though, the authors say, Army personnel officers considered spending time at Sosh as career ending, “in reality, getting promoted depended at least as much on having good connections, which Sosh had.” (59)
The Air Force has a regulation encouraging mentoring, though no official program. The Marines have an official mentoring program called Steel Sharpens Steel. Much like the Army program though, the intent is good, but the effectiveness dubious. Effective mentoring occurs most often when organically driven.
Gender is a factor in mentorship as well, in all the services. For a variety of reasons, including cultural bias, fear of reprisals, and intra-gender competition, women in the military are not always afforded the same opportunities for effective mentorship as men, especially at an organic level. Culturally, at least some women officers seem to see the Navy is a patriarchal club where they are not welcome. “Active duty in the Navy–as a woman–is asking to belong to a club where they don’t want you,” remarked one female officer who had served 25 years. No one wants to draw attention to themselves as weak, or a problem. Several women military officers, including those at the O-6 level, declined interviews for this project. In most cases those women who agreed to be interviewed asked to remain anonymous, and to meet somewhere in private for interviews.
Male officers say they are sometimes reluctant to mentor a woman for fear of accusation of sexual harassment. Many said it wasn’t worth the chance that might put a black eye on their career. All men agreed that rape and sexual assault, as well as demeaning a woman verbally, were absolutely wrong. “But sometimes compliments can be taken wrong by an overly sensitive female.”
Women mentoring women is, unfortunately, nowhere near what it is between men. There are so few positions available for women that competition between them can discourage helping each other up the ladder. Further, whereas men helping men is considered mentorship, women helping women is often considered favoritism, favoritism that can get the mentor shunned by male colleagues in the future.
Mentorship in the military is important, but it is just one of several ingredients needed to advance ones military career. Having a Sea Daddy doesn’t guarantee success. But coaching, advising and teaching are at the core of any successful organization, especially one like the military where leadership development is key. One of the most important assignments of the senior officers is to develop the character, knowledge, skills and discipline of their up and coming junior officers. This task is critical, and is inextricably linked to the success of the next generation of military leaders. In the military, the leadership is always on the lookout for the next promising, rising stars that can succeed them—and expertly lead the next generation of warriors.
Though the material in this essay is clearly preliminary and largely anecdotal, mentorship is clearly an important part of leadership development. The topic deserves further, broad-based and fact-based consideration. Leadership development is too important to leave to chance.
Allyson Reneau conducted informal interviews of retired and active duty faculty members at the Naval War College as part of an Internship program between the Naval War College and Harvard Extension School. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.