When Your Mentors Are Gone...

The original Mentor is a character in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Mentor served as the trainer and councilor of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, when Odysseus went to fight in the Trojan War. The care of the kingdom was left to Mentor, and his job was to make sure that he provided the wisdom and guidance to Telemachus to continue success.

(L-R) The author, John McLaughlin, and Cortez Lawrence. (Photo by Judy Glick-Smith.)

(L-R) The author, John McLaughlin, and Cortez Lawrence. (Photo by Judy Glick-Smith.)

The modern-day mentor is often described as an experienced and trusted adviser. In the fire service, the choice of who becomes your mentor is for the most part an organic process that just happens based on who you become familiar with and who gains your trust. Some organizations have formal mentoring programs that assign mentors. The mentors I want to talk about here are those who become your mentor out of a relationship of trust. To me, these are the most important people in your career growth and sanity.

These individuals are your go-to people when you want to just run something by someone or you have a big decision to make and you need some advice. A good mentor will rarely tell you what you need to do but rather will guide you through all the things you should consider before you make your decision.

Multiple Stages

Early in your career you have a ton of individuals influencing you. Getting outside of your own organization leads to even more opportunities to those who will influence you. Early on, I was fortunate to be in an organization that encouraged outside interaction and training. This led to meeting some very influential fire service people who would serve as a team of mentors.

The longer you are in the business, you become more and more experienced at losing mentors. Your first experience with losing interaction with your mentor may result from a job change, a transfer, or a family move across the country. The mentor is not completely gone and out of the picture, but the frequency of interaction diminishes. As you continue on, you experience the mentor retiring and moving on to a different season in life. Once again, the mentor is not gone but is not as involved as before and therefore informal accessibility is greatly diminished. Still, the longer you are around, many mentors get older and pass away. This is a tough time as you suddenly seem very much alone in your quest for higher wisdom and guidance.

External Motivation

I have been through all these phases in the past 33 years. One of those who was lost way too early in life was Scott Millsap, who passed away from cancer at only 45 years old. He proceeded me as the “Smoke Daddy” in the Georgia Smoke Diver program and was a larger than life, charismatic leader with an infectious personality. I don’t think he ever considered himself a mentor to me. To him, we were just great friends with a common mission of improvement of ourselves and of the firefighters who were training. He was only 10 years older than me so his death was a large blow in the natural reenergizing and validation he did of the work I was doing and attempting to do. He was always the one who was motivating everyone and keeping everyone’s batteries at full charge; so much so that I always wondered where he got his motivation from. So, one day, after he had slowed down quite a bit fighting his battle with cancer, I asked him flat out, “Where do get your motivation from?” His answer was, “From you guys. I get a lot more from you guys than you get from me.” He was referring to the group of Smoke Diver instructors who made up the core of the program. At 34 years old, that didn’t completely register, and I thought he was just being Scott and making us feel like we were some kind of big deal. I actually dismissed it as just a kind answer from a very sick man and always wondered what the real answer was.

Now, 17 years later, I see the truth and sincerity in his answer. Like many overachievers, the longer you are around, the fewer of those really high-speed, go-to guys there are to go to. Eventually, you find your network of 10 to 15 high-speed, critical-thinking, experienced mentors has dwindled down to just a couple, or in some cases none. You really do start to feed off the curiosity and energy of those less senior members who have been around you for a while and consider you a mentor, although up to this point you have just considered them to be good friends with a common mission of improvement. I think these are the best mentoring relationships instead of having someone who declares to you that he will be your mentor or get assigned to be your mentor, which is a pretty self-serving, conceited attitude that assumes that he has something great to offer you. I’m not going to say those relationships can’t help you along, but they aren’t even close to same level of mentorship I am talking about here.

Natural Occurrence

I will take the naturally occurring friendships that serve to mentor me over any formalized structured system any day. It has been said that everyone you work with or for is a mentor, and the ones who aren’t that good are showing you how not to do things. This is an incorrect statement. Everyone serves as an example of good, bad, or neutrality, but they are not necessarily mentors. Mentors are the people who you know and have relationships with, you have trust in, and have more experience than you. They fill the gaps where you lack experience, clear up things in the fog of war, and guide you through a process of answering your own questions. They are more strategic, psychotherapist, spiritual gurus for you than they are tactical or educational advisors.

In 2017, three more of my brain trust, men of wisdom, passed away to eternity. They included Cortez Lawrence, founder of the Georgia Smoke Diver Program (Smoke Daddy #1) and longtime go-to guy in Emmitsburg (MD) at the United States Fire Administration, Center for Domestic Preparedness and Emergency Management Institute; John McLaughlin, former Cobb County (GA) Fire deputy chief and fire service instructor (Smoke Daddy #3); and another guy affectionately referred to as Bruno who wore funny looking shirts and did some writing and speaking about fire service stuff. Each of them had long ago lost their mentors, and I never had even considered that to be an issue with them or discussed the issue with them. I guess that is why I decided to write this because it’s very weird to be in this situation, and I have started having the discussion with the couple of mentors who are still around.

So, as we all figure out where we go from here, I will continue to draw inspiration from those I see enthusiasm in as they devour knowledge and seek continuous improvement and do great things. Maybe I will live vicariously through their accomplishment, much like parents do with their kid athlete who is much better at the sport than they were. I refuse, however, to accept the formal role of mentor to anyone in the business. Mentors are old people who have been around and seen and done a lot of stuff. But I will continue to create and enjoy the many friendships that come along with the fire service stuff.

By David Rhodes

David Rhodes is a 32-year fire service veteran. He is a chief elder for the Georgia Smoke Diver Program, a member of the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) International Executive Advisory Board, a hands-on training coordinator for FDIC, an editorial advisor for Fire Engineering and the UL Fire Safety Research Institute, and an adjunct instructor for the Georgia Fire Academy. He is a Type III incident commander for the Georgia Emergency Management-Metro Atlanta All Hazards Incident Management Team and is a task force leader for the Georgia Search and Rescue Team. He is president of Rhodes Consultants, Inc., which provides public safety training, consulting, and promotional assessment centers.