Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

Feedback + Coaching = Higher Performance

What do you believe most contributes to missed performance expectations in the workplace? Too lofty of goals to begin with? Not enough talent in place to do the work? Insufficient effort or a lack of incentives to properly motivate? Perhaps.  Yet, my experience is that the more significant culprit is one of two things: 1) a leader’s failure to clearly communicate expectations upfront or 2) a leader’s failure to provide proper feedback and coaching. This is not too surprising as these are challenging skill-sets to learn and can take a lifetime to master (effective coaching in particular).

There are a few key ingredients to demonstrating good coaching as a leader. First, coaching begins with practicing curiosity and a leader will benefit from adopting a coaching style that values inquiry more so than advocacy. This is unnatural for most managers who like to speak from their experience and advocate solutions based on their personal expertise. Yet, if leaders place a premium on listening before speaking, they are more likely to build trust with their coachees and help them develop their own solutions to challenges. Perhaps this highlights one of the greatest differences between management and leadership. Managers seek to control outcomes by problem solving and offering solutions to their people. A leader realizes his or her ultimate goal is to create more leaders. Thus, he or she ask questions that inspire and challenge. Leaders seek to build capacity in the coachee and lessen dependency on the coach’s expertise.

Indeed, if a leader must do one thing exceptionally well to be effective, it’s coach! Yet, because this is such a huge topic of discussion, we cannot possibly cover all that I would like to share with you in a short article. Thus, I am going to focus on one of the most difficult coaching conversations that managers seem to get wrong more often than they get right; delivering constructive feedback and then coaching towards improvement.

Oh the agony we feel when preparing for this coaching conversation! Do
we directly deliver the feedback and simply hope that they take it well? Or perhaps we should indirectly address the feedback, which will likely lower their defensiveness? No wait! Of course. We’ll go with the “feedback sandwich” and deliver a compliment, followed by the criticism, and finally, another compliment to keep their spirits high and save the relationship! While it must be noted that most everyone likes to receive feedback differently, I believe there is a universal approach that can set you up for success. One that reduces anxiety for the feedback giver, lowers defensiveness in the receiver, and ultimately inspires change. I call this framework: The Five Pillars of Constructive Feedback.

1. Create the right mindset

Why is it so unpleasant when we have to give constructive feedback to others? All that anxiety we often experience has to do with our own ego and how we might be perceived. Will they think I am a nitpicking idiot? Will they think I am just a clueless leader who isn’t seeing the whole story? Or maybe, I’ll be seen as the a’hole manager who is a demanding tyrant! Remember that providing constructive feedback to another has nothing to do with you, and it’s not about “fixing” the other person. Constructive feedback is a service and you are engaging in a conversation to help the other person reach his or her potential. If your mindset is to “fix” everything, your voice will communicate judgement and trigger defensiveness. Yet, if your mindset is to “serve,” that will also show up throughout the conversation and create trust. Nothing opens persons (coachees) quicker to your feedback than when they sense you genuinely care about them. To help promote this mindset when delivering constructive feedback, remember without humility, expect futility.

2. Ask permission

“May I give you some feedback?” It’s a simple question, but how often do we jump straight to the assumption that the other person is both ready and willing to hear us out. After all, you are there to “serve” them and you care about their performance. Why wouldn’t they want to listen to what you have to say? Yet, maybe the other person is not in the right frame of mind. Perhaps they are having a really bad day and no matter what you say to them, they will see your feedback as an attack. If you ask the question upfront, you are giving them power and they must choose to give it back to you. In that seemingly insignificant exchange, you have already established a mutual respect that will make the feedback recipient more receptive to you.

3. Remember SBI

This is a tried and true process that works like magic when done right. SBI stands for Situation/Behavior/Impact, and I find it incredibly useful in helping me to remember what’s most important when giving feedback.

 

(S) ituation – This is when you anchor feedback in time, place, and circumstances and it helps the receiver understand the context of your feedback. For example, “remember yesterday afternoon in the staff call, about halfway through the meeting, Bill asked me for my thoughts on our financial outlook.”

(B) ehavior – This is when you are specific to the behavior or non-performance you would like to see changed (again, so the other person may meet their full potential). Think of it like replaying a movie for the other person. For example, “As I began to communicate the importance of adhering to the monthly budget, I noticed you rolled your eyes slightly and then began to check your phone.”

(I) mpact – This is the key to your success. If you just focus on their behavior, expect defensiveness to ensue. Yet, if you speak to the impact on you or the team, you are creating space for a more empathetic conversation. Most people care about whether or not they are disappointing others. If you speak to how the behavior made you feel, you move the other person out of their head and into their heart. For example “This embarrassed me, as I feel it made us look disjointed in front of the team. Others picked up on the tension and I felt as if I was scrambling to regain credibility with them.”

4. Get curious and create spaciousness

Now is the point in the conversation where you might transition from advocacy to inquiry and facilitation. You have delivered your feedback, now give them a voice! How did they view the situation? How might have you contributed to their reaction? Are their deeper concerns that need to be addressed? Know that this is a tender moment for many, and you can possibly expect some level of defensiveness to ensue. Give them space to be heard and acknowledge their point of view. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, only that you empathize with their feelings, while respecting their point of view. Note that a common diversionary technique is to broaden the conversation to where their performance is no longer the focal point. Your job as a leader is to keep the heat on them in a respectful and supportive manner.

5. Coach towards the desired performance

It is important when you work with a coachee to determine a clear path to success together. However, there is no need to give him or her all the answers. It is important they discover on their own how they can improve. You might ask, “how do you believe we could avoid this challenge in the future?” Then after hearing them out, you might offer, “If you have an opposing opinion in the future, I honestly want to hear it rather than have you feel like challenging me will offend me. My expectation is that we have a united front when engaging with the larger team in these meetings, and, if we have differences, we should hash them out in private beforehand. Is that an unreasonable expectation or can we both agree on this moving forward?”

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

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Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

Help!!! My Team Needs More Accountability

As a leadership development professional, I am always astonished by the number of questions I get on “how can I hold others more accountable for their performance?” This is consistently a hot topic for managers as they seek out the next best practice for driving better performance results. Unfortunately, managers typically don’t like what I have to offer them on this subject as my standard response is…

“I can help, but it will require you to first examine where you may have failed as a leader.”

To which their reply is something to the effect of…

“But that’s not what I’m looking for! I want to focus on where others are screwing up and how we can better hold their feet to the fire.”

Like it or not, the first rule of leadership is everything is your fault. While for many this may sound just a bit harsh, it’s not far from the truth. As a leader, you are responsible for all your team does or fails to do. This is because leaders not only set the purpose and direction for the team, they also manage the culture that dictates execution. Thus, when mistakes happen, regardless if you are the one personally making them, you absolutely had something to do with it! Accountability is then fully owning your responsibilities and consistently communicating this ownership to others. Leaders demonstrate their accountability by assessing performance challenges as opportunities for growth and learning rather than failures to be explained, excused or avoided. In short, when mistakes happen, the leader looks inward vs. blaming outward.

Herein lies the greatest challenge most managers face when seeking greater accountability within their team or organization—can you set your ego aside, be vulnerable with your team members, and work towards tangible solutions rather than playing the blame game? This can be a challenging leadership behavior for anyone to exhibit and is infinitely more difficult when experiencing the stresses of a failure (or potential failure). The key to developing this leadership behavior is threefold: 1) The leader should learn to identify his or her own reactivity and defense mechanisms, 2) The leader should understand how accountable leaders choose to behave, 3) The leader should practice the accountable leadership behavior until it becomes his or her new instinctual response.

Let’s take a closer look at these three components of development and how one can leverage them to increase personal accountability.

1. Recognizing Reactivity and Defense Mechanisms

Think of the last time you failed at something in which others were depending on you. Perhaps it was a job related performance goal you failed to deliver on. Or maybe it was a failure on the home front in which you missed a spouse’s expectation entirely. Whatever the situation, try to take yourself back to that challenging incident. Now search inside for that moment of apprehension when you realized there was no way to save the day; you were simply going to fail. You likely felt embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and/or insecure. On a physical level your muscles probably tightened, your heartbeat and respiratory rate increased, and you may have even started to perspire. Mentally, it’s likely your mind started racing, alternating between beating yourself up for the mistake and searching for ways to avoid the inevitable consequences. Welcome to survival mode! What you were experiencing is the body’s fight-or-flight stress response and most people will do just about anything to avoid this discomfort, often through offering excuses or blaming others. This shows up in organizations in what many have come to label as “The Organizational Blame Game.”

Leaders must recognize that this instinctual response to avoid accountability lives in their DNA; one can’t avoid it! Rather than attempting to circumvent this natural hard-wiring, it is best to bring awareness to it. Leaders see their reactivity, own it, and then prevent it from hijacking their thinking any further. In that moment of pause, leaders then choose to react differently.

2. The Inspirational Leader’s Response

Exercising personal accountability for mistakes is going against one’s self-preservation instincts, which takes both courage and humility. This is very difficult for many to do, which is why accountability is uncommon. So when it does happen, we really take notice and it leaves a lasting impact on us. We may not be happy with a mistake that’s been made, yet we recognize accountable behavior as honorable and, thus, respect the leader’s exemplary character. This is counter-intuitive, so I offer that you pause for a moment to really let this sink in.

The practice of demonstrating personal accountability rather than playing the blame game is even more powerful when the leader assumes responsibility for what are clearly other team member’s personal failures. Your subordinates have the same reaction to failure that you do. They feel embarrassed, disappointed, worried, discouraged, and insecure. When you take some of that burden off their shoulders, you lighten their emotional load and free them to work with you towards solutions rather than focusing on problems. This can be very inspirational and produces deep loyalty to the leader.

3. Making Accountability Instinctual

Adopting any new behavior is a challenging undertaking, so start with a single day. Try to go an entire day without offering a single excuse for anything or blaming anyone for your challenges. To be successful, you have to really pay attention to your inner dialogue. Note when things are not going how you would like them to go and how your mind is rationalizing the outcomes. Pay attention to any feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, worry, discouragement, and insecurity. This is when you are most susceptible to offer excuses and/or blame others. When you notice your instincts beginning to kick-in, override them with a single question..

“How have I personally contributed to this situation?”

Pause and reflect. Realize your contribution and own it. When you can complete a full day without offering excuses or blaming others, up the ante to an entire week. If successful, try to go an entire month. If you can go a full month excuse and blame free, you will have implemented a new habit of seeking accountability first. This will serve you well when you next face real adversity.

This post is a sample chapter from my new eBook “ACTIONABLE! Leadership: Develop Your Inspirational Ability, Motivate Teams, & Achieve Extraordinary Results.”  Claim your free copy by following the below link and start taking action towards meeting your full leadership potential.

Free ACTIONABLE! Leadership eBook

I also invite you to follow my blog so I can share with you on a variety of topics. Thank You!

8 Beliefs That Increase Your Leadership Potential

Nect Gas 130 miles

A follower, a manager, and a leader set out on a road trip together. After packing the car, they briefly discussed who will drive. Not wanting to be responsible for potentially getting them lost, the follower opts out and takes a spot in the back seat. Then, sensing the manager’s need to be in control, the leader hands over the keys and instead reviews the map from the shotgun position. It wasn’t very long into their adventure that everyone realized how they all were in the perfect place to best contribute. The leader was doing a fantastic job of monitoring congestion alerts, augmenting the route, and then providing clear directions to the manager. In turn, the manager who was a superb driver, safely obeyed the traffic laws while skillfully weaving through the crowded highway. Finally, capitalizing on his natural gift for DJing, the follower played a great medley of tunes from his iPhone’s extensive music collection that kept the group upbeat throughout. In fact, things were going so well that no one noticed that they were almost out of gas!

As their car slowly sputtered to the side of the road, the manager was livid as he had specifically asked the follower to fill the car with gas before they left and, the closest gas station was many miles away. The mood in the car now quickly turned sour as the manager angrily sought to hold the follower accountable for his mistake. The follower knew he had really screwed up. Sulking in his seat, he felt horrible. Evaluating what would best serve the group in this moment, the leader began to speak. “Gentleman, this is my fault. Prior to the trip I asked the follower to help me load the car. He likely didn’t have time to get gas because he was doing me a favor. What I thought would take only a few minutes ended up taking over an hour.” The follower immediately felt better, not necessarily because he was no longer on the hook, but because he felt connected to the leader who was both sticking up for him and exercising personal accountability. Even the manager, while still not particularly happy about the situation, felt his emotions subside and was now more concerned with solving the problem.

Everyone then quickly got back to what they did best. The follower worked the side of the road to try and flag down someone who might help, the manager inventoried their resources available in case they were stranded for an extended period of time, and the leader got on the phone with AAA to try and secure towing support. Each bringing his diverse talents to the situation, it wasn’t long before the group was back on the road and headed in the right direction again!

In my recent posts “8 Beliefs that Limit Your Leadership Potential Part 1 and Part 2”, we explored how our values, beliefs, and personal stories shape what possibilities are available to us and, thus, are responsible for driving our behavior.

This then raises an important question, if there are certain beliefs that hold us back as leaders, are there certain beliefs that might enable us to better fulfill our leadership potential?

After 20+ years of studying leadership and observing some truly amazing leaders in action, I think there are certain beliefs that set the best leaders apart. These are ways of looking at the world that open up possibilities, ensure priorities are maintained, and invite greatness. As you read through these first four beliefs, evaluate how they might have showed up in the story metaphorically and, if they are congruent with your own system of beliefs. If you assess these beliefs as your own, to what extent are they fully embodied? Check in with your daily actions as a leader…would others agree that your behavior is congruent with the following:

1. Everyone comes to this world with unique gifts to offer – If you’re a results-focused leader like I am, this may seem a little soft and sentimental. Yet, the reality is that each of us is needed, has value, and has a deep seated desire to contribute. When we hold this belief, we no longer use people like human “resources” to be managed as we delegate work tasks. Instead, we seek to understand each person’s gifts and how they can best be leveraged. A leader who truly embodies this belief at a core level will also look beyond an individual’s surface level attributes. They become curious as to what gifts remain untapped, and wonder how this individual might contribute in ways that they haven’t considered yet? The best leaders help us to see potential in ourselves that we never knew existed.

2. There is strength in diversity – People often fear what they do not understand. Thus, when it comes to hiring people in organizations and building work groups, people often surround themselves with those who are much like themselves. Doing so makes us feel more in control — enabling a sense of comfort and a greater semblance of predictability. Yet, the best leaders lean into the discomfort of surrounding themselves with a diverse team. They know that homogeneity leads to group think and, hence, they value the varied perspectives that diversity offers. They also value independent thinking and, thus, create cultures where dissent is both encouraged and appreciated. Great leaders know they will rise or fall depending on the quality of the team they lead. The saying often goes that A’s hire A’s while B’s hire C’s. Perhaps more appropriately, A’s hire diverse A’s while B’s hire similar C’s.

3. Nobody shows up to work to suck – When individuals are not meeting organizational standards, the first thing most managers are likely to do is judge them as non-performers and document their failures. Essentially, they are protecting themselves and externalizing blame for their non-performance. In fact, many managerial experts will tell you that the faster you rid yourself of non-performers, the more effective the organization will be. While there may be some truth to this, I believe the best leaders see things differently. First, they get curious as to what their part is in the non-performance behavior and recognize that, as an accountable leader, they likely had something to do with it. Leaders don’t ask “why is this person failing,” but rather “where have I failed this person?” Their curiosity emerges from the belief that nobody shows up to work with intentions of sucking at their job. Something else is likely going on. Perhaps they are going through a difficult personal challenge at home, or maybe they are simply in the wrong position for their natural skill-sets. Whatever the situation, non-performers are almost always doing the very best they can given their circumstances. A true leader will then find a way to make them successful again. I have seen it time and time again…the best leaders never leave anyone behind.

4. A leader’s primary responsibility is to serve followers – While the responsibilities of holding authority are stressful and can take their toll on a manager, an elevated position within an organizational hierarchy is certainly not without its perks. There is the increased status, access to information, and the powerful feeling of being more in control of one’s destiny. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when riding the lofty winds of authority, it’s the fans of loyal followers who are keeping you in flight! That’s why this particular belief is supremely important in reaching your potential. Leaders know that if they are to be successful, their followers must be successful first. Thus, the best leaders rarely think in terms of their own personal needs or agenda, but rather work tirelessly to uncover and meet the needs of their followers. The irony being that when you serve your followers well, they will bend over backwards to make you successful! Not because you are their manager with great authority, but because they respect your outstanding leadership in helping them to become their best.

Hopefully, these first four beliefs personally resonate with you and your leadership experiences. If so, you are likely already fulfilling much of your leadership potential. If not, remember that our beliefs, values, and personal stories are not fixed, we can change them. While not a simple undertaking, it’s always a worthwhile endeavor to strive for greater leadership capacity. The world needs your leadership. Choose to reach your full potential.

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10 Leadership Lessons I Learned at West Point (Part 2)

West Point Dress Uniform

The United States Military Academy at West Point has produced some of the United States’ finest leaders. From President’s Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower to General’s Douglass MacArthur and George Patton, every graduate experiences a formal four year leader development process that is designed to yield principled centered leaders of character. As a leader development professional and graduate myself, I often reflect back on my West Point experience and the powerful leadership lessons that it taught me. In this two part series, I compiled some of the stickiest lessons that continue to guide me today. Part one explored how great leadership is about demonstrating personal accountability, acting with integrity, proving resilience, embracing adaptability, and embodying a mindset of selfless-service. Here are five more timeless lessons to reflect on:

1. No combat ready unit ever passed inspection – West Point cadets endure lots of inspections. From daily uniform checks to white glove room inspections called SAMI (Saturday Morning Inspection), by default every cadet becomes a master shoe shiner and sink scrubber. If at any time you failed to meet Academy standards, you could get written up and ultimately end up walking hours on the area as punishment. No matter how “squared away” you were, most cadets end up walking at least a few hours over their four years as you are constantly juggling many priorities and eventually balls are dropped. Thus, cadets get very good at prioritizing what is most important. With only so many hours in a day, sometimes studying for the big exam or writing that important paper meant you would likely be written up for an untidy room or uniform. The same goes for leaders today. It’s important to get the big stuff right — always. You might take a few bruises along the way, but in the long run, your ability to stay focused on what’s most important will pay off.

2. Trust but verify – In their second year at the Academy, every cadet is assigned a first year cadet (called a plebe) as a direct report. For many, this is their first opportunity to lead someone on a daily basis. You are responsible for your plebe’s performance and quickly learn to conduct periodic inspections to ensure discipline and proper accountability. While subordinates in today’s organizations don’t want leaders hovering over their shoulders and inspecting their every move, they do expect you to check-in with them often and acknowledge their hard work. Train your team, trust they will deliver, and then verify standards have been met. The act of verification is important because it validates your leadership priorities and helps to clarify expectations for the team.

3. The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask – As a first year cadet in particular, success is often clouded with mystery. There is so much to learn and so little time to learn it all. Then, just when you think you have figured it all out, you are challenged with new tasks that make you feel like a novice again. To survive this intense period of learning, you must accept your vulnerabilities and lean into others for support (we used the saying “Cooperate and Graduate” as a reminder). Leaders today must do them same. No one expects you to have all the answers in this fast changing and complex world we live in. Instead, leaders should practice an impassioned curiosity and have the courage to say “I don’t know” when appropriate. The irony being, in admitting our vulnerability we often find the answers and/or develop the very competence we are seeking.

4. Always understand your mission two levels up – A key philosophy of U.S. Army operations is that in the absence of specific direction, any soldier should be able to take initiative and complete the mission. To support this concept, every officer learns to embrace their Commander’s Intent, as well as their next level Commander’s Intent. It might seem like overkill but in the fog of war, intent is the glue that keeps a unit together. The corporate world is no different. For a leader to be successful, they need to make their supervisor and their organization successful. Clearly understanding your bosses’ definition of success, daily priorities, and leadership philosophy is a must.

5. Mission first, people always – This popular Army slogan represents much of what a cadet does on a daily basis until it philosophically permeates every bone of their body over time. From simply checking on your subordinates feet while on a long road march, to never leaving a soldier behind on the battlefield, cadets practice balancing mission execution with taking care of their people’s needs. Leaders in the corporate world should also embrace this philosophy. Talent is the single greatest differentiator in the marketplace today and every organization’s greatest asset is its people. Successful business leaders understand how to manage the stresses of short-term stakeholder expectations while continuously being mindful of employee needs and concerns.

Thus, in addition to the behaviors noted in part one, great leadership is also about rigorously maintaining priorities, holding others accountable to standards, being a life-long learner, exercising initiative through intent, and taking care of your people at all times. It’s worth repeating that you don’t have to go to West Point to learn these lessons. Anyone can adopt these behaviors and become a better leader. Practice these behaviors consistently and watch your personal, team’s, and organization’s success exponentially increase.

(If you would like to learn more about how my leader development programs can help you and your organization practice these critical behaviors more consistently, please contact me at dspungin@leadergrowthgroup.com)

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10 Leadership Lessons I Learned at West Point

West-Point-1The United States Military Academy at West Point is one of the world’s finest leadership laboratories. From the very first day (called R-Day for Reception day) that a new cadet enters into the West Point system, they are immersed in a four-year-long formal leader development process that has been honed through 212 years of experimentation. Twenty one years ago I began my West Point journey and the subsequent four years taught me countless leadership lessons for which I am forever grateful. In this two part series, I have compiled some of the stickiest of these lessons that continue to guide me as a leader today.

1. Don’t point the finger, point the thumb – At West Point, you are taught the first rule of leadership is everything is your fault! While this may sound just a bit harsh, it’s not far from the truth. As a leader you are responsible for all your team does or fails to do. When mistakes happen, one’s natural reaction is often to pass blame on to others or offer excuses. As a new cadet, you are allowed only four responses to questions, Yes Sir; No Sir; Sir, I do not understand; and No Excuse, Sir! This taught us to be accountable for our actions and question our own role in a team failure.

2. A leader is always on parade – Drill and ceremony is a central part of West Point’s curriculum and watching the Corps of Cadets conduct a parade on the hallowed plain of West Point is a sight to behold. 4000 young men and women in their most formal uniforms all marching in complete synchronicity. As a cadet, all eyes are on you to do your part and do it well. It is the embodiment of situational awareness and personal discipline. When in a leadership position— every day is parade day. You are constantly being watched and assessed by your followers. People are counting on you to do the right thing, when it should be done, and without being told to do it.

3. Embrace the suck – Cadet life can be tough and full of irony. The worse the weather, the more you are required to be out in it. No matter which way you have to march, it always seems uphill. You have two choices. Either move towards the struggle and allow it to sharpen you, or let it consume you and break you down mentally. Leaders must do the same with their teams. Worthwhile goals always require an element of struggle and there will be moments when things downright suck for your team. Be a beacon of hope in times of adversity and always be compassionate with follower challenges.

4. No plan survives first contact – One essential skill every officer must learn is the art of planning and communicating orders. Cadets memorize specific frameworks like the 8 Steps to Troop Leading Procedures and the 5 Paragraph Operations Order to assist them in this process. Using these processes, an officer can spend days mapping out the best course of action, gathering intelligence, and synchronizing resources. Yet, real world experience soon teaches us that the enemy always has a vote and plans often fall apart (and quickly). Likewise, strategy will always be an important part of today’s business processes. Yet, the best companies today are adaptable and flexible with their environments. Leaders know when to abandon the plan and nimbly adjust to new circumstances.

5. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – West Point recruits some of the smartest kids in America. The average SAT score for the Class of 2018 was 1,270 and 82 of the 1,212 admitted were their high school’s Valedictorian[1]. Yet, cadets quickly learn that people follow heart before head. Leaders must be servants to their followers and demonstrate that they are committed to putting the team before self. Competence and intelligence are important, but character defines you.

In essence, great leadership is about demonstrating personal accountability, acting with integrity, proving resilience, embracing adaptability, and embodying a mindset of selfless-service. The good news is that you don’t have to go to West Point to learn these lessons. Anyone can adopt these behaviors and become a better leader. All it takes is choosing to lead differently and a commitment to practice consistently.

(Stay tuned for part two in this series where I’ll explore 5 more Leadership Lessons I learned at West Point.)

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[1] http://www.usma.edu/parents/siteassets/parentwelcomecl2018web.pd

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