We are delighted to have a guest post today by 2LT Paul Merklinger. Paul Merklinger graduated from West Point in May of 2011. He was recently commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. He will begin flight school at the beginning of August and will later become an Army Aviator. The opinions expressed herein are 2LT Paul Merklinger’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, the United States Military Academy, or the Department of Social Sciences.
Upon completion of the most difficult 47 months of my life, I became increasingly introspective over my life and the mentors that helped guide me on my path through grade school, high school, and college.
Growing Up with my First Mentors
I struggled to find my place in high school and fell into the “wrong crowd.” As I worked my way through high school I began to “find myself” through the help of my family. I looked to my grandfather’s example of leadership as a retired high-school principal, my grandmother’s outgoing attitude, and my father’s admirable work ethic. These mentors helped shape my life through discussion, but more importantly, through their positive example. I would not have received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, or gained an offer to join the class of 2011 without these supporters.
The Beginnings of West Point
The military was something that was very foreign to me. I only was acquainted with one graduate of West Point. No one in my immediate family had served in the military. In many ways, my first day of Cadet Basic Training, or Reception Day, was a shock to the system. The next four years presented me with problems that I had never had to face before, problems that no one back home could understand or give me advice about. I needed to make choices early in my cadet career that would have implications for the rest of my time at the Academy, the rest of my Army career, and the rest of my life. During sophomore year I needed to declare my academic major. While my high school mentors could offer some insight about which academic area to focus in, they did not understand the correlation between academic major and military branch (or specialty). My military branch, selected in my Firstie (senior) year would dictate the rest of my Army career. Making and contemplating these difficult decisions reaffirmed the importance of having a mentor in my life.
Finding a True Military Mentor
I was very fortunate to have a teacher of my American Politics class who stunned me with his countenance, demeanor, and appearance. COL Isaiah Wilson was the stem head of the American Politics, Policy, & Strategy portion of the Department of Social Sciences. Professionally, I admired all of the things that he had accomplished. He was a West Point graduate, an Army Aviator, and was hand-picked by the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army to head up a team regarding the successful reintegration of retired Soldiers. Personally, I admired the officer and man that he was. He was approachable, kind, and incredibly insightful. He never discouraged any of my ideas or insights, but asked the right questions so that I could find my own conclusions. He was able to explain the American political system and its players in a way that really interested me. With his help, I confidently declared my major in American Politics.
During junior year, I was given a class assignment to assess the leadership style of an officer I admired. Immediately I thought of COL Wilson. I remember taking pages and pages of notes from my sessions with him, but his insights extended far beyond the assignment. Each of our meetings, while only scheduled for thirty minutes often went over an hour. I would walk back from his office each day with a sense of confidence that I never felt before. His thoughts, ideas, and experiences resounded in my head. I felt better prepared to lead soldiers and face the challenges of becoming an officer in the Army.
During my senior year, COL Wilson taught a seminar class for those in the major who were contemplating writing an undergraduate thesis. During this class, he again structured the class to engage and challenge each member to participate in educated discourse. He presented educated models and encouraged the class to apply them to existing problems and paradoxes in hopes of finding an answer that had greater applicability for the future. My analytical thinking and academic capability grew immensely that semester, largely because of COL Wilson’s structure of the class.
Becoming a Mentor Myself – Suddenly Experiencing a New Side of Leadership
West Point has been the premier leadership institute in the nation for over 200 years. Its leadership process, called the Cadet Leadership Development System (CLDS), places cadets in charge of the Corps of Cadets. From New Cadet up until Firstie year, cadets gain responsibility and privileges each semester. During sophomore year, I was in charge of one Plebe (freshman). It was my responsibility to make sure that he was studying, staying in shape, and abiding by the expected military courtesies. During the first two years, I looked up to several upper-class cadets. Their example, appearance, and accomplishments motivated me to be successful in hopes that I might attain the same success that they had achieved. During the last two years of my cadet career I was placed in positions that put me over a number of people. I served as a cadet platoon sergeant (~40 cadets), a company commander during cadet basic training (~140 cadets), and finally, I spent my last semester as a cadet battalion commander (~500 cadets).
My time in these leadership positions helped me grow as a leader more than any other experience. One can read books about leadership, but learning from books is very different than learning through experience. For all the regard I had for officers like COL Wilson and other upper-class cadets, the unexpected happened to me while in these positions. The cadets under me, my subordinates, would approach me at the end of the semester and tell me how much they looked up to me, or how they had decided to major in American Politics because of a talk that I had with them. At the conclusion of cadet basic training, one of the new cadets in my company approached me and thanked me. He told me that without my help and encouragement, he would not have passed cadet basic training and entered the Corps of Cadets. This revelation was one of the most humbling experiences I had ever had. Until that point, I had always been on the receiving end of mentoring. While I had looked to others for their example and advice, I never considered that others would be looking to me for the same resources.
With the realization that others were looking to me, especially as I stood in front of 500 cadets each day, it had implications for my behavior. I pushed myself to be worthy to become their mentor. This meant setting the example with my appearance, my level of physical fitness, my intellectual aptitude, and in my interaction with other cadets. The example that I set would permeate through my unit. If I were to overlook instances of disrespect or mediocrity, a lower standard of living would be acceptable.
Understanding Mentorology: The Mentor/Mentee Relationship
The relationship between a mentor and a mentee is priceless and important. The mentor has the responsibility to impact the life of the mentee with his words and actions. This creates an obligation on the part of the mentor, an obligation that has behavioral implications. The mentor’s actions, the amount he/she drinks, his/her demeanor, and the way they interact with others are all being watched. On the other hand, the mentee has the responsibility to listen to the mentor and apply the lessons to their own life. The mentors words and actions are significant and important, but perhaps more important is the personalized application of those words and actions. Two people may see the same actions or hear the same words from a mentor, and apply them very differently to their life. This personalized application ensures the utility of the mentor and increases the relationship’s effectiveness.
Looking back on the past 47 months, my mentors’ impact on my life is visible. I can unequivocally say that the lessons and insights gained from mentoring have brought me to where I am today. Along the way, I became a mentor for others. I reflect my own mentor’s lessons when I offer advice to those who ask for it. I also grow from mentoring, I learn of new ways to approach problems and the possibility of alternative solutions.
The symbiotic relationship of mentoring is powerful. Its effectiveness is matched in a perpetual chain of advice. Mentors will pass down advice and guidance. This guidance permeates for generations. If you have not already, seek out a mentor. It can be someone you admire, it can be someone who has done something you are interested in, or it can be someone who you trust. The presence of a mentor affirms the fact that you do not have to face problems alone. Conversely, understand that you may be a mentor for those around you. Let that possibility dictate your behavior, the words you choose, and your countenance. By becoming situationally aware, both mentors and mentees can continue to grow together in the hopes of making the world a better place