The Role of the Army Mentor

Today, I want to discuss the role of the Army Mentor.  I want to teach you what activities you should and shouldn’t do when it comes to mentoring your subordinates.  In essence, a mentor is a teacher.  A mentor is someone who educates, inspires, helps and molds people.  In most cases, your mentor will be your boss, or your boss’s boss, but it doesn’t have to be one of those people.  Anyone can be your mentorJust make sure they are qualified to give you advice.  There’s an old saying to be careful who you listen to, because you might end up just like them!

I think the best way to find an Army Mentor is to look for someone who has already accomplished what you want to accomplish in your military career.  For instance, if you are a Staff Sergeant, and want to attain the rank of Command Sergeant’s Major before you retire, I would highly recommend you ask for mentorship from a current or retired CSM.  Don’t get career advice from the 20-year Specialist! Remember, a mentor who has already accomplished what you want to accomplish can provide helpful insights and tips, based upon their experience.

This rule applies to Soldiers, Officers and NCOs at every rank.  It’s vital to have a mentor!  You can get input from anyone, but take it with a grain of salt if you don’t think they are qualified to give you the advice.  Only listen to advice from people who are qualified to give it.

It’s also important to realize that you can learn something from everyone, even the idiots.  You can learn what NOT to do.  And you can learn from your subordinates.  Just because someone isn’t a high rank doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent or knowledgeable.  Always keep your eyes, ears and mind open.  You never know what you will learn, or from whom.

In addition to finding someone to mentor you, you have the responsibility to mentor others.  Depending upon your rank and leadership position, there’s a good chance the Army has entrusted others under your command or authority.  You have a responsibility to lead them, to teach them, to help them and to mentor them.  You can also mentor people outside of your command influence.    My best advice is DON’T mentor anyone outside of your chain of command unless they ask you to.  Most people don’t enjoy receiving unasked for advice.

In the following paragraphs I will discuss the role of the mentor.  I will share some tips covering what you should and shouldn’t do.

The Role of the Mentor

Listed below are your seven primary responsibilities as a mentor.

# 1 To Identify People with the Greatest Leadership Potential

One of your primary tasks as a leader is to identify people with leadership potential.  While it’s true that everyone has some potential, you want to spend most of your time with the people with the greatest potential.  What I recommend you do is make a list of everyone who works for you.  Write down their strengths and weaknesses.  Rank them, in order of their leadership potential, as you see it.

Who are your strongest leaders and best performers?  Who are the people that want to grow and develop new skills?  Who are the motivated people who don’t yet have the skills they need to succeed?   Who are the people that are THIRSTY for knowledge?

I’m not suggesting you play favorites.  You should mentor everyone you command.  However, you should work smart and spend most of your time with (1) the people with the greatest leadership potential and (2) the people who have the motivation to improve.  Don’t waste your time with slugs who don’t want to learn, grow, change or perform at a high level.

# 2 To Challenge Your Subordinates and Help Them Grow

A mentor should challenge her subordinates whenever possible.  This means he/she should give their subordinates challenges that are outside of their scope of work.  He/She should give them difficult tasks to see how they perform.  He/She should offer challenges that will “stretch” their subordinates out of their comfort zones.  This will help them grow as leaders.  I’ve found that most people like a new challenge.  Assigning a new challenge to your followers will be the quickest way to find out who has the most initiative.

# 3 To Help People Identify Their Strengths and Weaknesses

One of your most important jobs as a mentor is to help people identify their own strengths and weaknesses.  Help them do a personality test and strength assessment so they can start the “self-discovery process” and find out what makes them tick.  Show them what jobs best match their personalities.  Help them identify what they are best at and try to put them in jobs where they can effectively utilize their strengths.  Helping people figure out “who they are really are” is fun, challenging and very rewarding.

# 4 To Teach Your Job to Your Subordinates

Good mentors should teach their followers how to do their job.  Everyone under her command should know how to do their direct supervisor’s job.  The only way to do that is through mentorship.  Spend time with your followers.  Show them what your job entails.  Bring your followers to meetings.  Let them participate.   Involve them whenever possible.  You have to remember that we are all expendable.  In combat, anything can happen.  So everyone should know how to do their boss’ job.

# 5 To Help Your Followers Solve their Own Problems, Rather than Just Give Them The Solutions

Most leaders are naturally problem solvers.  Whenever one of their subordinates has a challenge, they offer a solution.  I encourage you NOT to do that very often.  Instead, you want to teach your followers how to solve their own problems.  Sure, you might need to give them advice from time to time.  That’s okay.  But, don’t make it a point to always provide the solution.  Instead, ask questions.  Help your people solve their own problems.  Teach them to be independent thinkers who understand how to solve problems on their own.  The last thing you want is a bunch of DEPENDENT people working for you.

# 6 To Develop Trust and Mutual Respect

A good mentor will EARN the respect of his followers.  All successful business, professional and personal relationships are built upon trust and mutual respect.  That means you need to learn how to listen.  You need to keep things confidential.  You need to be approachable.  You must always be there for your followers with an open mind and a listening ear.  Trust and a respect are a two way street.  Your followers will respect your rank, but you have to be a good leader to get them to trust and respect YOU.

# 7 To Invest Time with Your Followers

Quality time is important.  So is QUANTITY time.  You must spend lots of one-on-one and group time with your followers.  Take them to meetings.  Conduct coaching, classes and counseling.  Talk.  Listen.  Find out what your subordinates want to accomplish in life.  Help them reach their goals.  Spend at least 20% of your working hours mentoring your subordinates.

I truly believe these seven things are the primary role of the mentor.

What You Shouldn’t Do

We just covered what mentors should do.  However, it’s important to take a moment to discuss what mentors shouldn’t do.

# 1 Don’t Be a Doctor, Lawyer, Psychologist or Chaplain

Do not get in the business of providing legal, financial, psychological or medical advice.  Save that for licensed professionals in those areas of expertise.  If your follower needs advice on one of these topics, refer them to a licensed specialist.  Or, refer them to the Chaplain, who can refer them to one of these folks.

# 2 Don’t Play God

You aren’t perfect.  No one is.  There will come a time at some point where you need to provide advice that you ARE NOT qualified to give.  In these examples, refer your subordinates to someone who is a subject matter expert.  And don’t pretend to be a know it all.  Your followers will respect you if you are honest with them and tell them when you don’t know something.

# 3 Don’t Be a Babysitter

Your job is to mentor your people, not babysit them.  To me, this means (1) never tell them HOW to do a task that you give them (unless they ask you to) and (2) hold your followers accountable when they fail to meet the standards.  Giving a person a break is one thing.  Babysitting someone is completely different.  In many ways, the military has become like “Jerry’s Kids” where people aren’t held responsible for their actions.  People play victims and blame everyone but themselves.  My advice to you is don’t let that happen in your unit.

# 4 Don’t Be a Social Worker

You are not a therapist or social worker.  If your soldier has this type of issues, refer them to an expert.  You don’t want to misguide your people, send them down the wrong path, or get into some type of legal trouble for stepping out of your leadership boundaries.  If you think your soldier needs help, get them help from a professional.

# 5 Don’t Be an ATM

Don’t make the common mistake of lending money to people who work for you. This creates a “burden” in the professional relationship and does much more bad than good.  If you lend someone money and they don’t repay you, the relationship will be damaged.

# 6 Don’t Act Like Their Parent or Spouse

That’s right; you aren’t the parent or spouse either.  You don’t “control” the person outside of work.  So, don’t try to get too involved with your followers’ personal affairs.   Try to keep the work/personal life separate.  If your followers need help concerning a personal issue, listen to their problem and then send them to someone who is QUALIFIED to give them advice.

I’ve found that when you start doing any of these six activities, you actually hurt your leadership effectiveness. You’d think these would all be “common sense’ but you would be pleasantly surprised how many mentors break these rules.

Final Thoughts

These are the “dos” and “don’ts” for mentoring your soldiers, as I see it.  My best advice to you is to trust your judgment, be a good role model and always try to do the right thing.  If you make a mistake, admit it.  Learn from it and move forward.

Recommended Reading

  •  The Mentor: Everything You Need to Know about Army Leadership and Counseling by CSM Mark Gerecht
  • The Mentor Leader: Secrets to Building People and Teams that Win Consistently by Tony Dungy
  • Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship by Edward Cox
  • FM 6-22: Army Leadership

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.


chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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20 thoughts on “The Role of the Army Mentor”

  1. Chuck, is there one of the below for Company CDR’s

    The Importance of the First Sergeant

    When you are talking about the first sergeant you are talking about the life-blood of the Army. There can be no substitute of this position nor any question of its importance… Perhaps their rank insignia should be the keystone rather than the traditional one. It is the first sergeant at whom almost all unit operations merge. The first sergeant holds formations, instructs platoon sergeants, advises the Commander, and assists in training of all enlisted members… In the German Army, the first sergeant is referred to as the “Father of the Company.” He is the provider, the disciplinarian, the wise counselor, the tough and unbending foe, the confidant, the sounding board, everything that we need in a leader during our personal success or failure. The Father of the Company

  2. This post was another great example of your leadership abilities Chuck. What I loved most is that you wrote about what a mentor does, but more importantly, what they shouldn’t do. Never should we as mentors offer legal advice….send them to a lawyer, nor should we be psychologists….there are those who are trained to do those jobs. Sure, we should listen, but when the time is right, we should just point them in the direction of the professional they truly need to see.

    Thank you for this great information.

  3. When I was in a corporate setting I never understood how so many managers and supervisors never shared their knowledge. The fear was that if they shared what they knew then they would be out of a job. Well, sometimes fresh blood needs to fill those positions but I digress – my point is I WANTED people to take my knowledge. If I could have popped my head on theirs like a Lego block I would have! I made clear to everyone that I trained that I wanted them to come after my job. This served two purposes: 1) they are training to easily take over my position (so I could take a vacation), 2) it keeps me on my toes and my eyes moving forward to a greater goal. Mentorship is GIVING.

  4. Hi Chuck,

    What a great post about the role of the Army mentor. I hope every leader in the Army reads this and never forgets what their job is.


  5. Chuck,

    Thanks for explaining this in such great detail Chuck. Army leaders definitely have tons of responsibilities. Thanks for explaining it all.


  6. Chuck,

    Your content never ceases to amaze me! Thanks for explaining the role of the Army mentor and leader.


  7. Daniel you make an excellent point when you say, “if no one else can do your job, you’ll never be able to get promoted out of it.” Good leaders are never jealous of up-and-comers…quite the opposite. Good leaders foster environments for mentorship and positive growth. This is a great article. A good mentor can get you on the fast track to your goals. But, be sure to take advice with a grain of salt. Blindly following anyone’s words is a bad idea.

    1. There’s no reason to ever be jealous of a superstar. If you can, get them on your team and help them advance their career. By doing so, you will also help yourself.

  8. Daniel, I like that thought you typed in here … if no one else can do your job, you’ll never be able to get promoted out of it. Every teaching job and every company I have started and sold … I always made time to be a trainer and mentor of each position I had because I wanted the entity to succeed even after I was gone. Chuck, this is a good one: you can learn from your subordinates. Even today I learn from the students I work with, no matter what their age 4 – 90 or older. Just seeing a situation through each of their points of view is educational and can lead to excellent decision-making and problem-solving among the leadership and mentorship.

    1. Spot on, Suzanne. We can all learn something from everyone we meet. We should choose our mentors wisely, but we should strive to learn something from everyone we come in contact with.

  9. Neil O'Donnell

    Mentors certainly serve a vital role in helping educate future leaders. I agree that a proper mentor is someone who was successful in the role we aspire to. Regarding the listed concerns, it is hard to fight the urge to give money or answers to those we are mentoring. However, not succumbing to those urges will help our mentees grow. As for our own mentors, pay attention to how they instruct. Their successes and failures in mentoring will be powerful guides for when it is our turn to mentor.

  10. I think the role of the Army mentor is similar to the role of any mentor. You must be good at what you do, you must get the job done, and you must invest your time, energy and resources developing others.


  11. Some leaders fall into the trap of thinking that their experience and knowledge is what gives them their authority, and consequently they’re so concerned about protecting their position that they jealously guard what they know, refusing to share it with anyone. First of all, that’s a failure of the responsibility to develop subordinates. Second, as I’ve told people in the civilian world, if no one else can do your job, you’ll never be able to get promoted out of it. Sharing knowledge doesn’t weaken your position; it builds respect and develops a better organization.

    1. Spot on. If you help people succeed so they can replace you, that means they get to move up into your job and you can move up into a better job. It’s really a win-win for everyone involved.

  12. Chuck here. I just wanted to share a message a reader sent to me via email.

    “A peer once said to me, “Soldiers need to respect their leaders First!” I said to him, “You are wrong. Respect that Soldier first and he will re-pay you with twice the respect.”

    I went on to tell him that it was that Soldier that raised his right hand to fulfill his duty for our country and now he stands he before you. It is that Soldier that also takes on the responsibilities of his every-day life and civilian career, along with family needs. He chose to be here with us.

    Give a subordinate their deserved respect, and he or she will give you much more in return.”


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