Why Mentors Matter

Published in Command Magazine, Fall 2022

By Ed Wojcicki

I was taking a walk in downtown Springfield recently and crossed paths with a woman who runs a large social service organization in Sangamon County. She introduced me to a colleague who I didn’t know and said to him, “Ed was my mentor when we both worked at the University of Illinois Springfield.” That surprised me. I did not know that she considered me a mentor, though I appreciated the compliment. She had been a head coach at the university, and I had a high administrative position with oversight of athletics. I did spend a lot of time collectively with her and other coaches to understand their big concerns and how I might provide some institutional support. What I did was listen, respond and instruct them on what was possible or not possible within our institutional policies and politics. She took that as mentoring, and I’ll accept that.

A similar thing happened to me when I returned to the university for an ILACP-NAACP World Café years after working there. A leader of the Black Male Collegiate Society came up to me and thanked me for all the help I had given him. What do you mean? I asked. “I used to watch how you interacted with everybody and with me and the students, and I noticed how you really listened and showed such respect to us students,” he said. This served as a reminder that anyone is a leadership position is always being watched.

Accidental mentoring

Those chance encounters also reminded me is that there is a third kind of mentoring in addition to formal mentoring and informal mentoring. This third way might be called accidental mentoring, which I describe as being present and modeling good behavior. It could be accidental for one of two reasons:

  • The leader doesn’t realize the person perceives the good advice or modeling as mentoring.
  • The people being mentored weren’t expecting such personal attention but look back on it as transformative in their careers.

I thought of all this in the context of how police chiefs learn to be chiefs when they are new chiefs. I asked our current Board of Officers and some past presidents and other members who their mentors were, and their responses are compiled in a separate article. Many said they did not select a formal mentor, but instead, one or more of their supervisors “saw something in them” and took the initiative to nudge them to higher aspirations.

The late, great Russell Laine, for example, has admitted that he was “feeling lost and scared” as a young police chief when ILACP past president Chief Carl Dobbs called him and encouraged him to get more involved in the profession. “He saw something in me that I did not see myself,” Laine said. He dipped his toe in the Illinois Chiefs association and found significant assistance and camaraderie. That eventually led to Laine being not only the Illinois Chiefs’ president, but also president of the International Chiefs a decade. All belong Carl

The message from that should be clear to all chiefs and command staff: If you see something special among the up-and-comers in law enforcement, look for creative ways to give them opportunities for personal and professional growth. It’s a different way of thinking: If you see something, say something. If you don’t do that, they may not get the chances they deserve. If they’re as good as you think they are, they will take the opportunity and run with it; so you really don’t have to do all that much.

Top mentoring topics

In policing, much of what is written about mentors has to do with helping young officers. Less it out there about how chiefs can be mentored. I suspect that much of it happens informally, with chiefs looking to people they know to get advice and insights. The International Chiefs have a mentoring program in which some of our members were active (see George Graves’ comments), but I don’t hear much about it now.

What I do pick up is that some of the main issues that lead a police chief to seek a mentor are:

  • Leadership, communications and management skills
  • Ethical and liability issues
  • Disciplinary and personnel issues
  • Handling the budget
  • Community relations
  • Relationships with elected officials
  • Media relations
  • Use of force and officer-involved shootings
  • Management of day-to-day operations

Hero’s Journey

I won’t recast here my passionate interest in the “hero’s journey,” which I have often spoken about, written about previously in Command magazine, and created a web page called The Hero’s Journey and the Cop.

Simply put, the classic hero’s journey has three main phases: a call to adventure, leaving your past life only to find a long period of struggles and obstacles, and finally returning to the ordinary world a transformed person. I know that cops shun the "hero" label, but they can benefit from learning how their careers, driven by service and sacrifice, follow an astonishing resemblance to the classic hero’s journey as it unfolds in every culture and every genre.

In the hero’s journey, a mentor always arrives, usually early on and then again during the time of struggles. Think of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in Star Wars and Haymitch Abernathy in The Hunger Games, mentors to Luke Skywalker and Katniss Everdeen, respectively.

My conversations with Illinois police chiefs confirm this: For many of you in Illinois, the mentor either shows up unexpectedly and raises the bar for someone, or the chief/leader is smart enough to know that wise help is out there and they go and find it.

The mentors of some famous people

  • Yoda entered the Star Wars lore in the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back. The 900-year-old Yoda was not Luke Skywalker’s boss, but a mentor, and in fact had been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s mentor as well. He had been through all the trials and was seemingly retired, yet still able to mentor the willing student.

  • Former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was influenced by his high school journalism teacher, Fred Birney.  “He taught me so much in those high school [journalism] classes, and by securing me those early jobs, he cemented my desire to be a reporter for the rest of my life. He was my major inspiration. I always credit Fred Birney for my career,” Cronkite said.
  • Mother Teresa led a remarkable and revered life but may not have achieved all that she did if it weren’t for her mentor, Father Michael van der Peet.  The two met while waiting for a bus in Rome and quickly developed a close friendship. They spoke regularly and confided in each other over the years. 
  • Oprah Winfrey praises her fourth grade teacher,  Mrs. Mary Duncan at Wharton Elementary School in Nashville. The biggest impact that Mrs. Duncan had on Oprah’s life was to help her not be afraid of being smart. Not only did she encourage her to read, but Mrs. Duncan frequently stayed after school with Oprah to work with her on assignments and help her to select new and challenging books. Oprah says a mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.
  • Simba in The Lion King learned valuable lessons about bravery and leadership and sacrifice from his father and mentor, Mufasa
  • The original Mentor: “Mentor” was literally a guardian in ancient Greek mythology. In Homer’s epic story, The Odyssey, Mentor was assigned by his good friend King Odysseus to be the guardian of the king’s son while the king went off to fight the famous Trojan War. The word “mentor” has been preserved for centuries from that story.

Ed Wojcicki was ILACP executive director from 2014-2022 and is now dabbling in his former career as a writer.