A former VP and comms leader shares how military service helped him discover the qualities that great leaders must possess.

[Editor’s Note: PR Daily has partnered with The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations to develop our newest column, Lessons in Leadership. This column will rotate among Plank Center Board of Advisor members, their emerging leaders network and board alumni, concentrating on moments of personal leadership and the lessons they impart.]

His name was Robert D. Cantley, MSgt, USAF. I first met him in July 1971 when he was first sergeant of the 3646th Air Base Group Squadron at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas.

I was a brand-new second lieutenant, less than a month into my time in the Air Force. Eventually I would be a public affairs officer, but that July my first assignment was to be commander of Cantley’s squadron.

And like most second lieutenants, I knew absolutely nothing. In many ways, Cantley had to look out for me as much as he had to look out for the airmen in the squadron.

I wasn’t in college anymore. I was now in a formal leadership position that had some real authority, where I could (and did) effect the lives of others. I desperately wanted to be a good leader and I knew I needed Cantley’s help to do that. As the first sergeant, he would advise on the enlisted personnel in the squadron. That’s what first sergeants do. But I needed more. I needed a mentor.

Initiating those conversations with Cantley was hard for me. I had to overcome a bit of uncertainty and a lot of the youthful pride that infects most second lieutenants. He was enlisted and I was an officer. He was older but my subordinate. I was the commander, and already supposed to know what I was doing. Or so I thought.

It was when I removed those self-imposed roadblocks and began to actively seek his guidance and advice that I began to learn leadership in the Air Force…and discovered the value of having a mentor. Because of our ranks and roles, we never called it a mentor/mentee relationship. But that’s exactly what it was. It was a relationship that I remember fondly to this day, 50 years later.

In both my personal and professional life, I’ve been blessed with good mentors, but none was better than Bob Cantley.

  • He never told me what to do. He always asked questions that allowed me to reveal the truth to myself.
  • He listened more than he spoke.
  • He would let me make mistakes I could learn from, but he never let me make a mistake I couldn’t recover from.
  • He honored privacy and confidentiality.
  • He treated all my questions with respect and was always honest, even when telling me things I didn’t want to hear…but needed to hear anyway.
  • He never took advantage of the relationship and always respected my role in the squadron.
  • He saw the big picture, understanding my growth and development was good for the Air Force as well as for me.

Sometimes pride won’t allow us to seek a mentor who may be a subordinate or is junior to us, either formally or informally. If so, we might miss opportunities to learn and be better leaders.

It’s not the rank, or the position that counts. What’s important is the relationship and the wisdom that’s imparted. And that wisdom can come from anywhere.


Rick White is a retired professor and former comms leader for utilities including Wisconsin Energy Corporation (now WEC Energy Group) and others.

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