Mentor was not a word that Dr. Vern Wedell would have ever used and he certainly would not like me to use the word to describe him. Vern Wedell was sarcastic, intolerant of stupidity, hard-working and generally a gruff, old codger. But, I loved him and he cared about me.

Dr. Wedell was my first Navy supervisor. He did something that few people do; he taught me how to do work in our organization. It is that leadership skill – teaching how to work – that is my subject for today.

We all need to have outstanding technical skills. I appreciate a “trainee” badge and I am kind and very patient with those new employees. But, people who have been working for years and cannot do their jobs are frustrating to everyone and are poor representatives of our organizations. I believe in learning and teaching the technical aspects of the job; maybe sometime, I’ll write about that.

Dr. Wedell taught me to live well in the organization in which we worked. Let me give you a specific example which helped me my entire career. I was going on my first inspection trip, traveling with three active duty service members. I knew how to do my part of the inspection visit, but I had not even thought about how to travel. Dr. Wedell surprised me when he asked me, “So, have you thought about traveling with these guys?” What was he thinking? I knew how to get the airline tickets, how to complete the travel voucher, and how to do other travel related tasks. What else did I need to know?   A wonderful teaching session followed.

He taught me to pay attention when the team leader set the time for the next morning that we would “leave” or that we would “meet for breakfast.”  Vern told me that I should be in the lobby 15 minutes before the set time, luggage packed, room cleared out, desk checkout completed, and receipt stored in my briefcase. If we were meeting for breakfast, I should leave my luggage with the bellman. (That would cost a couple of dollars but would keep me from looking like a pack animal in the hotel lobby or restaurant.) And, I should have my toothbrush and toothpaste in my briefcase or purse to use in the public restroom. Never should I be the last one ready to go!

I understand that that little piece of guidance is probably unique to our work situation. But, following it kept me from being “that guy.”

Always speaking respectfully, Vern gave me invaluable insights that were helpful in working in our organization. He spoke plainly with enough detail to be able to do it right the first time.

After John and I were married, my dear husband gave me a book on military protocol. I was a bit miffed. Excuse me? I needed an etiquette book? Yep, I sure did! That wonderful book taught me how things worked, how to live in the organization. It was so helpful!

Let me compare those examples to an experience in my coaching days. We were having the annual sports banquet and I was a new head coach. No one explained to me what was going to happen or what I was supposed to do. And, I didn’t know enough to ask for information and directions about the evening. The event was a fiasco; I made big mistakes. Athletes were not recognized in the way that they should have been honored. I would love to “do over” that banquet.

When you see a president or prime minister inspect troops, or greet a foreign dignitary, or host a formal dinner, do you think that they are making up the event as they go? Not on your life. In plain, respectful language, they are given instructions on what has been planned, the expected time, who they will be meeting, etc., etc., etc. The best leaders listen, follow the plan, and improvise appropriately.

Here are some questions that I have asked over the years that have been very, very helpful to me. None of them is glamorous, but all have been important to me:

  • Does the military aircraft have a head (bathroom) for women? (For those who have traveled on military air, you know how important this question can be. A relief tube just won’t work for some of us.)
  • What is the appropriate attire? (Business suit or jeans? If the wrong one is in the suitcase, the other one will just not work.)
  • Does the dining hall take credit cards? (Not having cash on hand is really embarrassing.)
  • Where do I sit or stand? (Having to be moved out of someone else’s “assigned” seat is just not cool.)

Deuteronomy 17:10-11 outlines for the children of Israel how to deal with judges: “You must act according to the decisions they give you at the place the Lord will choose. Be careful to do everything they instruct you to do. Act according to whatever they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left.” What great advice!

It is so cute when we see a child attempt a task and, when receiving instruction, they stomp and yell, “I do it myself.”

It isn’t at all cute from an adult.

I can learn so much from you – I just need to put my pride aside and ask for instruction.

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