“One of the greatest values of mentors is the ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” — John C. Maxwell
Shortly after emerging from the holiday season, I received an email from someone about a course I would be teaching in the spring. “You’re on the list to convert your course over to the new system we’re piloting.” It was a mistake; although I had agreed to be part of the pilot, I wasn’t participating until the fall. I was simply too busy with other projects and initiatives. And my class was starting in less than two weeks. It fell into what I often called the “too hard to do” category.
Then a voice from past echoed in my head: “Hard things are always hard. They don’t get any easier with time.” The words were spoken by my company commander over 30 years ago, something he said to a fellow platoon leader trying to convince him to delay an upcoming training exercise. The words burst to the surface of my consciousness as if they’d been spoken only yesterday, a living lesson from a mentor I haven’t spoken to in a decade or more.
I pulled up the email, responded that time was short but thought it was “doable,” and got to work. I could do the work now, or I could do the work later, but the work would eventually have to be done. “Later” likely meant “summer” and I had other plans for the summer that didn’t involve hunching over a keyboard. As I toiled away on this new project, more memories and more lessons bubbled to the surface.
Lessons That Stood the Test of Time
I am forever thankful for the mentoring I received over the years: I was never easy to mentor, and those who made the effort were unbelievably patient with me. The lessons they shared are as timely now as they were at the time, and they’ve proven invaluable as I’ve mentored others. Some carry more weight than others, some have greater personal meaning. But the best of them—the living lessons that endure today—are worth sharing every day.
1. “Take care of them; they’ll take care of you.”
This is the Golden Rule of leadership, shared by my first platoon sergeant in the early days of my military career. It’s as simple as that. If you look out for the welfare of others, they’ll be there when you need them.
2. “Set your own bar.”
That same platoon sergeant once chastised me for worrying about how we stacked up against another platoon. “Let ‘em eat our dust,” he said. Don’t compete with other people, compete with yourself. Set your goals high and challenge yourself to be the best you that you can be. Let the others worry about keeping up with you.
3. “Don’t fall in love with the sound of your own voice.”
Some people just love to hear themselves talk. Don’t be one of them. Be humble. Learn to listen to what others have to say. Give someone else the chance to speak their mind. Provide constructive feedback. You might just learn something along the way.
4. “Keep your head on a swivel.”
This was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received. Don’t be oblivious to what’s happening around you. Pay attention to your surroundings. Take note of who’s doing what and why. Understand how things work. Know what time it is and where you need to be. Try not to be the person who wanders out into an intersection staring at their phone.
5. “Life ain’t fair.”
Sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how well you perform, things just won’t go your way. There are just times when life is just going to kick the crap out of you. It happens. Maybe you don’t get promoted, maybe you don’t get that job you wanted. Shit happens. Get over it and keep your head in the game. Focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and keep pressing forward.
6. “You are your own career manager.”
Life is a competition: for jobs, for prestige, for money. If you want the brass ring, you have to get out there and work for it. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do or where to go. It’s your career, so manage it. Make good things happen.
7. “Don’t whine.”
People who complain all the time eventually develop a well-earned reputation for it. That’s a reputation you don’t want, one that will follow you around like a bad case of hemorrhoids. Whiners are a pain in the butt for everyone. If you have to vent, choose the time, place, and audience carefully.
8. “Sometimes, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.”
Life is all about taking risks and seizing opportunities. An early mentor once told me, “Adults don’t need to beg for permission.” If you believe in something, do it. Own it. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, then you ask for forgiveness.
9. “Be early, be prepared.”
There are two things that drive every leader a little bit crazy: people who are perpetually late, consistently unprepared, or both. The adage, “On time is ten minutes late,” exists for a reason. And we all know someone who always shows up for meetings needing extra time to get organized. Don’t be one of those people.
10. “It all comes to an end at some point.”
This advice was shared by a battalion commander of mine who was selected for early retirement while in command. I was shocked; he wasn’t: “Eventually, everyone’s name shows up on the wrong list.” Given time, the day will come when it’s time to move on. Expect it. Plan for it. Prepare for it. But, whatever you do, don’t be surprised by it.
Great Leaders Leave a Lasting Impact
To be fair, this list could go on and on. There’s no end to the lessons shared by my mentors over the years. Their words are always close, parked in some dark corner of my brain waiting for an opportunity to remind me that they’re still relevant. Rarely does a day pass when one of those euphemisms doesn’t bubble to surface, carrying a bit of nostalgia for days gone by. These are the things they left behind, and I treasure those memories as I do the living lessons they represent.