Take a moment and think about a teacher, coach, or mentor that had a major positive impact on you. Often the best mentors are those that do it out of love, a sense of duty, or the desire to give back. The impact that a person has had is sometimes not realized until later in life. Fellow Academy Leadership affiliate Michael Paczan tells this story about “one of the greatest mentors you’ve probably never heard of” during the Coaching session of the Leadership Excellence Course.
Are you familiar with the name Fox Conner? Major General Fox Conner is not widely known, but he was perhaps one of the most influential officers in the United States Army between WW I and WW II. He was General John Pershing’s operations chief and oversaw the astonishing creation from scratch of America’s Expeditionary Force in Europe and its ultimate commitment to the decisive battles of 1918 that led to the Treaty of Versailles. But the story of interest occurs later – after WW I. In the fall of 1919, General Conner, who was at the time Chief of Staff to General Pershing in Washington, D.C., was being escorted by his friend George Patton during an inspection tour of the Infantry Tank School at Camp Meade, Maryland. During a break in the inspection, he said to Patton that his time on the Army staff during and after the war had left him out of touch with who were the rising stars among the young officers in the Army. He asked Patton for his recommendations. Patton, considered General Conner’s request for a few moments, and then gave him only one name. He later arranged for General Conner to meet the young officer in a social setting at one of Patton’s weekly Sunday dinners. In that short meeting, the young officer impressed General Conner – and that single event would become a pivotal point in determining the young officer’s future success in the Army.
Later, General Conner took command of the Infantry Brigade responsible for the defense of the Panama Canal Zone. He remembered the young Army officer that Patton had introduced him to and requested the officer be assigned as his Executive Officer. At the time, the young officer was contemplating leaving the Army because he was uncertain about his career prospects. He was a West Point graduate where he graduated roughly in the middle of his class. After graduation, he did well in his assignments, but did not have a particularly remarkable career. He had, in fact, become persona non grata in his own branch because of an article that he wrote and published regarding the application of tanks in future warfare. The Army’s Chief of Infantry considered the article provocative and heretical. Accordingly, career prospects in the Army were not looking all that great. However, on the recommendation of his friend and neighbor, George Patton, he decided to accept the orders to become General Conner’s Executive Officer. This decision would change his life.
For the next three years, Fox Conner took the young officer under his wing and coached and mentored him on leadership, military history, strategy, philosophy, and on the lessons of the “Great War.” He was not satisfied with the young officer’s disdain for military history and gave him reading assignments from his extensive library on military history and strategy. They would often talk at length about the material during long horseback rides as they inspected the base. When his Executive Officer assignment was over, the young officer was re-energized about a military career. But, General Conner’s help did not stop there, he also used his connections to get his protégé an assignment to the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, which had been blocked by the animosity between the young officer and the Army’s Chief of Infantry.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Fox Conner for his mentorship and support; that young officer went on to become instrumental to our victory in Europe in WW II where he served as Supreme Allied Commander and after the war, as the 34th President of the United States. The young officer’s name, of course, was Dwight David Eisenhower. Later in life, Eisenhower referred to Fox Conner as “the ablest man I ever knew.” Fox Conner epitomized what we mean when we say the word “mentor.”
Coaches and mentors can have an enormous impact on a person’s life. Exceptional leaders seek out people to mentor who they can help grow.
Note: adapted from Michael Paczan’s leadership blog “The Leadership Forge“; take a moment to check him out.