Inclusive Mentorship

by Daniel Blackmon

The death of George Floyd, the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capital, the Secretary of Defense Stand Down, and other recent events have generated a lot of discussion about potential extremism in our ranks:  whether or not there is institutional racism within the U.S. Military, whether or not white males have been unfairly advantaged over the years, and whether or not we (me and other white males) have a duty to address it. From my fox hole, I believe that current senior leaders, mostly white males, have fostered and should continue to foster an environment where open discussion is encouraged, not shut down.

While not everyone will agree with that opinion, maintaining an environment where your troops can have candid conversations about what they see, think, read, and worry about is the basis of the trust we are trying to build in our organization.  

In his book, Divided Armies, Jason Lyall conducts a deep dive into how armies fight and win on the modern battlefield. One of his premises is that armies that treat members of their force differently based upon class, ethnicity, or religion are less effective and he warns of the dangers of inequality in the preparation for and especially during war. The United States Army of today is working to address any perceived inequality and, like any good fighting force, going on the offensive against something that might threaten our readiness or effectiveness when we are inevitably called on to fight and win our nation’s wars. As a basic combat training brigade commander, I see first-hand what today’s recruits look like. They are diverse. Much more diverse than when I entered almost 24 years ago. My Drill Sergeants are equally diverse and over 25% of them are women. If trust is the coin of the realm, then embracing diversity and promoting inclusion must be a part of any leader’s tool kit to promote a positive culture. As it is said, no one cares about how much you know until they know how much you care.

Whether or not you believe white men have an advantage in the military, I would submit that we are statistically over-represented in leadership positions and have been for a while.  

Why would I say that? Well, I’ve been in the Army for 24 years. In that time, I have only had one Battalion commander who was not a white male.  My Brigade/DIVARTY commanders have all been white males. The closest I have ever had to a female boss was when I was a Brigade XO and then BG Laura Richardson was the Deputy Commanding General for Support (DCG-S) of 1st Cavalry Division.  She was awesome then and from all accounts she still is. This matters because for as long as I can remember, white men have been leading the military and in large numbers.  

If we know anything about human nature, it is that you naturally gravitate towards people who are like you. This connection can come by personality, by social construct, by political affiliation, by religion, etc. All of those factors of attraction are valid but the most obvious way to initially identify someone like you is by race.  I’m certainly not advocating for this course of action, just stating the obvious. Without any other information, race is often the default for connection, followed closely by gender.  

So, if we have been in charge for a long time, and we believe that there is a need for change or there is a problem of over representation, we will have to be active in the solution. 

Below are some ideas (while they are largely directed at those who look like me, they can be applied across the spectrum as just good practices).

1. Examine your own mentors. Who are your mentors? Do any look different than you? If not, why not? For me, I can honestly say I didn’t see any diversity among my mentors until I was well into my Major’s years. I could take the easy way out and say it was because there weren’t any really in my field; but if I’m honest, it’s because it was just easier to find folks who looked like me that wanted to help. In more recent years, I’ve gone looking. My catalog now is much more diverse. Where I couldn’t find mentors who were senior to me, I found them in my peers. As I’ve become even more “seasoned,” I’ve even found them in my subordinates.

2. Examine your mentees. Who are you mentoring? Do they all look like you? When I was in battalion command, one of my fellow commanders was black. Two things happened that were both awesome and eye opening. First, he invited me to a ROCKS event. I wrongly assumed that I would not be welcomed at that event. I’d fallen victim to the idea that this was a “black” thing and my presence would only be intrusive. He very quickly set me straight. While The ROCKS, Inc. started at CGSC in the mid-60s as a group of black officers trying to navigate the Army, it grew into an organization that was focused on mentorship. The group helps not just minority mentorship for other minorities, but finds mentors for younger officers to advise how to navigate their careers, irrespective of race or gender.

The other thing my peer commander did was to help me build trust with the minority officers in my formation. Some of my young black officers went to him early on to seek counsel.  His first question to them was, “Why are you talking to me?” He knew the answer but he wanted them to say it.  Then he told them that they were Field Artillery officers – if they wanted to know how to be better FA officers, I was their guy.  If they wanted to know about challenges as black officers, he could help – but one of those things was to only have black mentors. I thought that was good advice both up and down.

3. Examine what you need from your mentors. What are you trying to get out of the relationship? This particular one gets harder as you get older in this career. As mentioned, some of my best mentors have been my peers. Peer mentors are incredibly important because there is already a level of trust that exists and allows real room for growth. Colonel Candid (COL Candice Frost) and I did a podcast (https://colonelcandid.com/candid-leadership-podcast, Episode #15) on this topic a few months ago. The discussion was focused on what I feel my role as a Senior Artillery officer is in the advancement of women in the Field Artillery (FA) given that we just opened up all jobs within the last 5 years. I have a number of minority friends with whom I have had some amazing conversations. Many are lifelong friends and some are ones I’ve come to know recently. To a person, what makes the relationship special is that we care enough about one another that we can be completely candid because it comes from a place of genuine care. Most recently, I have discovered that I have a hole in my swing when it comes to mothers in the workplace. It’s just not a situation I ever had to deal with when I was growing up in the FA. But now, it is something that is very real. My mentors demonstrate what right looks like in this arena, and almost all are junior to me. They are significantly younger and all women. It reminded me that you should never stop learning, or more importantly, never limit who you can learn something from.

4. It’s not going to happen on Twitter or social media if all you do is share neat snippets. While social media is a great medium to develop the beginnings of a connection, that is about where it stops. True mentorship is meaningful and it is personal. It does not happen en masse. What social media can provide for you is an inroad and maybe even some exposure. What kind of mentor are you looking for? What kind of mentorship are you good at giving? It might even give you some insight into your own blind spots but you have to be open to the idea that you have them in the first place. I actually now mentor and I am mentored by a few people that I met through Twitter. In those cases, it started as conversations on Twitter but progressed through more personal means. A couple of them I have now met in person and others remain only digital interactions. Nonetheless, I do recognize the challenges they are facing and can provide some leadership insight or they can provide that for me.

Bottom line, if you only mentor people who look like you, you’re probably doing it wrong. You’re not building trust or demonstrating that you are invested in finding the best and brightest regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Also, if you are only mentored by people who look like you, you are probably missing a huge opportunity for growth. Lastly, if you think you can’t learn about some really important things that impact your formation from the most junior individuals, you probably aren’t paying attention. If you really want open dialogue, if you really are interested in building, training, promoting the best and brightest you have to be open to the idea that it is your responsibility to find them, invest in them and mentor them despite what we might initially find comfortable.

COL Dan Blackmon is an active duty Army Field Artillery officer and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has earned degrees from West Point, U.S. Naval War College, National War College, and was a Senior Fellow at MIT. COL Blackmon is currently serving as the Commander of 434 Field Artillery Brigade at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

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