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Coach, Mentor, Counselor

“I‘m firmly convinced that leaders are not born; they‘re educated, trained, and made, as in every other profession. To ensure a strong, ready Air Force, we must always remain dedicated to this process.” – General Curtis E. LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff, 1961-1965, “Father of the Strategic Air Command”


“Soldiers learn to be good leaders from good leaders.” – Richard A. Kidd, Sergeant Major of the Army, 1991-1995


How do you develop your future leaders? Are you a coach, mentor or counselor? What is the difference?  Providing knowledge, guidance and feedback to our subordinates and future leaders is a principal responsibility for the effective leader, and believe it or not, they want it. Whether they are exceeding standards, or struggling to meet our expectations, we are responsible to coach others towards excellence, mentor our future leaders, and provide feedback and guidance through effective counseling. Here is a brief description of each to consider.

Several months ago I had the opportunity to speak to a group of mostly junior leaders about the role of full-time Administrative Officers (AOs) with the assistance of several other battalion AOs. As we took turns speaking, the other four AOs described themselves as a relay team, passing the baton as they spoke about our roles and functions. When it was my turn, I explained that since the team was complete, my role was to wrap up the presentation as the team “Coach.”

Afterwards, I started to research coaching as a leadership function, and found that the role describes a military leader who, like a sports team coach, is devoted to bringing out the best in their players. Dennis Kinlaw in his book, “Coaching for Commitment,” describes coaching as a key leadership function that everyone should accept. We do this by helping subordinates solve problems, learn new knowledge and skills, and take on more challenges in their life.

Additionally, the coach helps someone understand their current level of performance and challenges them with ideas of how to reach the next level of knowledge and skill. It is a very important role, but it isn’t reserved for just our subordinates in our formal chain of command. We can fulfill this role with our peers, in a staff or “team” situation, and as a mentor working informally with junior leaders.

For the military leader, mentorship is a voluntary developmental relationship that exists between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience that is characterized by mutual trust and respect. It is an informal relationship where the mentor is most often considered a role model who serves as an advisor providing support in many ways to assist another person in accomplishing specific goals. Like the coach, the mentor is committed to supporting and guiding the mentee towards excellence through conversations exploring personal challenges, expectations, and goal-setting.

And luckily the coach and mentor have a tool at their disposal to assist with communicating ideas, expectations, and future goals – counseling. Army FM 6-22, Army Leadership, describes counseling as a process used to review a subordinate’s demonstrated performance and potential. It also states that counseling is one of the most important leadership development responsibilities, where we rest the future and legacy of our organization on the shoulders of those we help to prepare for greater roles and responsibilities. Here are the three basic approaches of counseling at our disposal:


1. Non-directive approach – leaders use their experience and judgment to assist subordinates in developing solutions for problems or issues. 2. Directive approach – used to correct simple problems, make on the spot corrections, and correct aspects of duty performance. 3. Combined approach – leaders use both techniques to improve performance, emphasize the subordinate’s personal responsibility for excellence, and challenge them with planning and decision-making responsibilities.


A major challenge with counseling is the fact that many of us are uncomfortable when challenged with addressing poor performance. We do not want to either create conflict or fracture a working relationship, even if it is in the pursuit of what is best for our subordinate and the organization. In order to overcome this reluctance, keep this in mind:


“Inexperienced leaders are sometimes uncomfortable when confronting a subordinate who is not performing to standard. Counseling is not about leader comfort; it is about correcting the performance or developing the character of a subordinate.” FM 6-22, Para 8-75.


Whether you consider yourself a coach, mentor or counselor, it is all about developing future leaders. Like you, I want to make this a better organization by developing others to increase their performance and overall work satisfaction. It isn’t easy, but I am convinced that our subordinates want our feedback and guidance. I challenge you to work outside your comfort zone and help me improve our organization one future leader at a time as a coach, mentor and counselor.

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