To Mentor or to Disciple: Which is the Nobler Call?

By Yvonne Stargell

Author Chris Bell argues “the way of the mentor is the way of the leader” (Bell, 2002, p. xxii). If that’s true, why isn’t more emphasis placed on mentoring in the fire service? Conversely, discipling or “apprenticeship” (Bekker and Winston, 2009) is widely practiced in the fire service. Given the value that both mentoring and discipling can bring to this profession, shouldn’t these practices be continued beyond a firefighter’s probationary term?

Fire service leaders have an obligation to prepare their members—followers—for organizational success. Moreover, there is an inherent obligation in the role of fire chief to create future leaders who are equipped to advance the profession’s mission beyond their individual purpose.

RELATED: Mentoring for Success | Stepping Up: Mentoring  

As a leader, you’ve acquired a lot of knowledge and expertise—even wisdom—along the way. One of the most important parts of your job is passing it on to the next generation of leaders. This is how you expand the capabilities of everyone else in your organization, individually and collectively. It’s how you will get results today and leave a legacy that you can take pride in when you move on (Bossidy and Charan, 2002, p. 74).

The use of mentoring and discipling are invaluable in this regard. These developmental tools aid fire service leaders in realizing their member’s best efforts; they also enable them to ingrain standard operational procedures.  

Mentoring is Expert Advice and Empowerment

“Every leader needs mentors, especially emerging leaders” (Maxwell, 2002, p. 447).

Webster’s defines the word mentor as a “trusted advisor” (1993, p. 258) and Bell (2002) describes mentoring as “‘the act of helping another learn’” (Bell, 2002, p. 3). Mentoring is protégé focused. It is concerned only with the aspirations and needs of the protégé. The mentor’s objectives (no matter how worthy), are not a focal point of the interactions between the protégé and the mentor. They are not a concern and are to be set aside—though momentarily—in order to help the protégé accomplish his or her goals. “The traditional use of the word ‘mentor’ denotes a person outside one’s usual chain of command—from the junior’s point of view, someone who ‘helps me understand the informal system and offers guidance on how to be successful in this crazy organization’” (Bell, 2002, p. 5).

Oakland (CA) Fire & Rescue Chief Gerald Simon recounts “when I first started in fire service, I thought advancement was based entirely on competence. I later found competence—though critical—had little to do with advancement. It was about having someone take you under their wing to explain the ropes and ‘demystify’ the path to leadership (personal communication, July 17, 2009).

Michael Chiaramonte, former chief of Lynbrook (NY) Volunteer Fire Department, recommends leaders consider the act of mentoring from a succession-planning perspective and select protégés who have a desire to lead their organizations into the future. “I select protégés when I see individuals who have tremendous potential in this profession and who I believe can benefit the fire service overall (personal communication, July 13, 2009). Chief Chiramonte’s approach supports the claim “interest in mentoring in part stems from the many psychological, social and career-related benefits that mentoring provides for protégés, mentors and their organizations (Wanberg, et al., 2003, qtd. in Bouquillon, Sosik and Lee, 2005).

RELATED: Mentoring : Perspectives of the Rookie and the Veteran | Mentoring at the Executive Level

Yet successful mentoring can’t occur without trust, respect, and common goals. On this issue, Erline Belton, president of the Lyceum Group, a Boston based strategic management consulting firm, posits the following:

Mentoring is a relationship that forms between two people based on trust, respect and mutuality in the learning process. Advice can be difficult. Protégés must be able to trust that mentors have their best interests at heart. The relationship isn’t hierarchical, nor is it about power. It is an exchange of ideas, knowledge, wisdom, and life experience. It’s also about learning from one another (personal communication, July 10, 2009).

Reciprocal leaning is a natural outgrowth of the mentoring process. As protégés sort and apply new insights in their organizations, learning opportunities are created for their colleagues. Kent (OH) Fire Department Lieutenant Bill Myers agrees, describing what occurred after a local platoon commander approached him as a mentor:

He presented himself and offered various opportunities for me to improve. He informed me of chances to learn and introduced me to knowledgeable fire officers around the country. I use the outside knowledge and perspectives I gain to make improvements at my own department (personal communication, July 12, 2009).

“In winning organizations, the source of the ideas isn’t what matters; it’s the fact that the top leader embraces the ideas, spreads them throughout the organization and encourages others to have good ideas” (Tichy, 2007, p. 102).

Cross-Cultural Applications

Ronald Morales, president of the International Association of Hispanic Firefighters (IAHF) and 20-year fire service veteran, states:

As a first-generation Latino firefighter—who understands the value of this profession—I feel an obligation to reach out to others who could benefit from a career in fire service. I know there are a lot of Latino youth who would enjoy serving communities in this capacity. I feel that if I can help them achieve a career in this profession, it’s something I should do (personal communication, July 13, 2009).

Vincent Ghossoub, a Lebanese entrepreneur residing in Pudong, Shanghai, believes “mentorship is important because it creates a ‘proximate idol’—someone near with whom you can identity. It exists in Lebanon and China, but on a different shade. Followers have a ‘teacher’ or ‘master’ who genuinely looks after their success, who they genuinely admire” (personal communication, July 7, 2009).

Discipling is Leadership, Guidance, and Instruction

Webster’s defines a disciple as “someone who accepts the doctrine or teaching of another” (p. 112). In the context of leadership, a disciple can be defined as an apprentice. “Apprenticeship is the basic building block necessary to acquire the fundamental skills and sensitivities, technically and politically, to prepare for the subsequent mentoring process. Apprenticeship consists of “formal education combined with practical application” (English, 2003, p. 9). Likewise, in discipleship, the follower makes a conscious choice to model the behaviors, patterns, and methods of the leader.

Discipling is customarily used for cadet fire training. This leader/follower approach is compulsory to ingrain the requisite skills new recruits need to begin work in the emergency service arena.  

Ronald Morales agrees with the use of discipling for cadet training but is concerned with its application to leadership, due to possible duplication of bad practices. He suggests “leaders examine their habits and techniques prior to entering into the practice of discipling. Then decide what behaviors are worthy of being copied” (personal communication, July 14, 2009). In other words, ethical leadership is required.

Leaders must create leaders. Mentoring and discipling enable leaders to develop cadres prepared to advance when they move on. Both are required of leadership. Therefore, both are noble.

Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with the answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask questions that will lead to the best possible insights (Collins, 2001, p. 75).

So, become a mentor, accept disciples, and cultivate leadership. It’s a privilege. It’s your responsibility. Start today.



Bell, C. R. (2002). Managers as mentors: Building partnerships for learning. San Francisco:


Bouquillon, E., Sosik, J. J., & Lee, D. (August 2005). ‘It’s only a phase’: Examining trust,

identification and mentoring functions received across the mentoring phases. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from EBSCOHost database.

Bossidy, L. & Charan, R. (2002). Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York: Crown Business.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: HarperCollins.

English, K. (July-August 2003). The changing landscape of leadership. Resource Technology

 Management. Retrieved July 10, 2009, from EBSCOHost database.

Maxwell, J. C. (2002). The Maxwell Leadership Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Tichy, N. M. (2007). The Leadership Engine: How Winning Companies Build Leaders at Every

Level. New York: Harper Collins.

Yvonne Stargell is the wife of Shaker Heights (OH) Fire Department Battalion Chief (Ret.) Graylin Stargell. She holds a bachelors degree from Hiram College and a masters degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Walden University.  

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