Lorenz on Leadership -- A mentor's influence

  • Published
  • By Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz
  • Commander, Air Education and Training Command
Mentors touch our lives and help shape us into the people that we are today. We value mentorship in the Air Force and both develop it in our subordinates while seeking it from our supervisors. I like to think that one cannot have enough mentors, nor can one mentor enough.
I've had many through the years, but one sticks out above the rest. This particular mentor touched my life in two important ways - separated by nearly 40 years.

While a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I struggled to keep my grades up. I was on the dean's "other list" six of eight semesters. Now, in the end, I managed to defeat my academic demons and graduate with a commission in 1973, but I certainly didn't do it alone. I owe my success in large part to my academic advisor and mentor, Col. Joe Henjum.

Now, Colonel Henjum wasn't what I expected when I met him for the first time in 1971. To be honest, I don't think I knew what to expect. He had been awarded the Silver Star for heroism while flying helicopters in Vietnam. I quickly learned that Colonel Henjum was the kind of person who was easy to look up to and even easier to follow.
When he took me and my academic worries under his wing, I was proud to be there. I knew that his guidance, combined with persistence and determination on my part, would lead me through the challenge. In the end, it most certainly did.

When I walked across the stage with the rest of the Class of 1973, I strode with the confidence that Colonel Henjum had helped build within me. He had been a crucial part of my academy experience and, in many ways, part of who I am today. I kept in touch with Colonel Henjum over the years, often thanking him for making a difference in my life. I never imagined that his influence would impact me all over again, especially at this point in my career.

The second time Colonel Henjum touched my life began with tragic news. On Jan. 1 of this year, Colonel Henjum passed away after battling a long illness. His son, Mark, asked if I would speak at his father's memorial service. I was touched by his request and spent hours trying to find the right words to convey how great a person had just left our earth. I wanted to make sure that everyone understood the lasting difference he made in the lives of others.

When it was my turn to speak, it came from my heart. I told the crowd about a man who dedicated his life to serving and helping others. When I finished, his son rose to speak. While listening to Mark's story, I found Colonel Henjum leading me on another journey. I was touched and want to share the story with you.

A few months ago, Mark accompanied his father to the hospital ... and they both knew what was about to happen. The doctor was going to tell Colonel Henjum that he only had three months left to live. It was an appointment they were both dreading.
While riding up to the doctor's floor, Colonel Henjum greeted the building janitor who shared the elevator with them. He complimented the janitor for keeping the building so clean. The janitor was shocked - no one had ever thanked him before. Colonel Henjum noticed the building and took the time to notice the janitor. His actions resonated with me. That janitor would never forget Colonel Henjum.

When getting off the elevator, Colonel Henjum introduced Mark to the receptionist. He told Mark about the receptionist's son who was a Marine and currently flying combat missions in Afghanistan. He reassured the receptionist that her son would come home safely; Marines are excellent pilots.
Not only had Colonel Henjum met and talked with the receptionist before, but he remembered her and took precious time to introduce his son. He even thought to reassure her fears with a son deployed to combat operations.

Now, think about it. Colonel Henjum was riding the elevator to find out that he didn't have much time left. Instead of lamenting his fate, he was concerned about others. That day, he made a difference in their lives. Almost 37 years after graduating from the Air Force Academy, Colonel Henjum was once again making a difference in my life.

I always like to tell people that they should strive for two things in life: make a difference in people's lives and leave the campground better than you found it. Colonel Henjum certainly did that throughout his 75 years. He mentored me as a cadet at the Air Force Academy and once again just this last month. I couldn't ask for a better mentor and friend.

Go and thank those who have guided you through the years and take time to make a difference in the lives of those whom you mentor. Our Air Force is only as good as those of us who serve. Let's all work hard to make each of us a little better each and every day - just as Colonel Henjum did for me and many others.