We talk a lot about mentorship in the military, but for most of us, we don’t have a good example of what that even looks like. It’s not as though there are mentors dropping from the sky to deliver words of wisdom whenever we need them. No, we’re more likely to end up Googling our questions when we get into a bit of a bind, which can often cause more harm than good.
“Siri, should I tell my battalion commander that I can’t find those NVGs or just wait for it to come up during the next inventory?”
So, with no good real world examples of mentorship, we’ll do what we always do in these situations: turn to Star Wars.
And at first glance, the Star Wars universe would seem ready-made for delivering lessons on mentorship given that both the Jedi and the Sith have based their entire leadership principles off the master-student relationship. Surely we can find some nuggets of wisdom in here to help struggling Army officers figure out how to find or be a mentor.
You’d think so, but instead we find a cautionary tale on the dangers of mentorship when the overarching system of belief is deeply flawed and rife with opportunities for mismanagement. So, operating under the philosophy that one can learn just as much from poor leadership as from good, let’s take a look at how not to be a mentor.
Communication and Integrity
We can just hit this one right out of the gate. For all relationships between mentors and mentees, open and honest communication is key. Both need to be able to trust that the other is going to share the truth to them, even if it is the truth to the best of their knowledge. Without trust, the relationship has no foundation. Which is why the Jedi relationships always seemed to break down. Whether it was Qui Gon Jinn lying to the Jedi Council about Anakin, Anakin lying to the Obi Wan Kenobi about what he was up to, or Obi Wan and Yoda lying to Luke about his paternal background, truth was usually absent from the room if there were Jedi in it. Mentors and mentees need to build a solid foundation of trust and open communication.
Mutual Trust and Respect
Following up on integrity is the concept of mutual trust. It has to go both ways for mentorship to be even remotely effective. If your mentee suddenly takes off in a spacecraft to run after every threat that surfaces and ignores all of your weary advice, well, no amount of mentorship in the world will resonate with them (also, they might just be opening up to the Dark Side). With no respect between parties, you’re going to find that there can be no growth – only resentment from one party towards the other. Resentment can lead to broken relationships, the death of the Younglings, and basically the overthrow of the entire Galactic order. So, be careful.
For effective mentorship to happen, the mentor needs to have a certain level of experience or education that exceeds that of the mentee, otherwise the whole thing is pointless. Which is why assigning Anakin Skywalker a Padawan apprentice was just a horrible idea; it was like assigning a second lieutenant another second lieutenant as a mentor. Sure, Anakin had “experience,” but most of it came at the cost of common sense and high levels of risk, disguised as “opportunistic adventuring.” Similarly, the type of experience is important. Yoda had been absent from actual field operations by the time that he mentored Luke, so it was a bit like the Army Chief of Staff reaching down to tell a private how to clear a room.
No matter what, both the mentor and the mentee need to be committed to the relationship. Whether that means taking the time out of a very busy schedule or committing to not force choke the military officers under your command, commitment is vital to the success of the endeavor. That also means overlooking the mistakes of those that you mentor, realizing that mistakes will happen on the road to improvement (refer back to not force choking people). For example, if you sense darkness in your apprentice, maybe don’t stand over them while they’re sleeping with your light saber activated. Instead, talk to them about it in the morning when you’ve both had some coffee and can confront the family secret of grandpa being a mass-murdering Sith lord. As one does.
While a mentor and mentee are most often of differing ranks, there should not be an element of control in the relationship. After all, the mentor is simply sharing lessons learned and life experiences. The minute that they attempt to use their rank to influence their mentee, then the relationship has been compromised. The Jedi Council operated entirely on the principle that as long as they could control their members, then they could control the Galaxy. This flawed assumption led to their ultimate downfall. Similarly, the Sith mentor exercised total control over their mentee. However, since there could only ever be one master and one apprentice – due to arbitrary rules from Sith Human Readiness Command – this more or less worked out until one or the other got killed. This had a tendency to backfire, however, when the apprentice became emotionally involved with someone else. When Emperor Palpatine tried to exercise full control over Vader against Luke, Vader killed him. When Lord Snoke tried to get Kylo Ren to kill Rey, Kylo killed Snoke. So, basically, don’t try to control your mentee.
Bottom line: if you’re a mentor and ever start to behave like a Jedi, cut it out.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.
Cover photo: Yoda using the Force to detect that the Jedi Order has made another fine mess. (Lucasfilm Ltd)