The 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. 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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