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BUILDING LEADERS THE WEST POINT WAYTEN PRINCIPLES FROM THE NATION'S MOST POWERFUL LEADERSHIP LAB
By Joseph P. Franklin Joe Layden
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Joseph P. Franklin with Joe Layden
All right reserved.
To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army. -United States Military Academy Mission Statement
Duty: Robert E. Lee called it the most sublime word in the English language. In plain words, it means doing the right thing, when it should be done, without having to be told to do it. It connotes a sense of obligation, an understanding that you are part of something bigger. It is, of course, one of the first words embraced by a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, and you'll hear it often today from the mouths of young soldiers in the Middle East, who, when asked why they are risking their lives so far from home, state simply and eloquently that they are just doing their duty.
A cornerstone of duty is discipline, and not the type of discipline that has anything to do with punishment or consequence. Discipline in a soldier refers to a willingness to do one's duty, carrying out orders faithfully, without question and in the best way possible as understood and seen in the mind and eyes of the soldier. In his address to the graduating class of 1875 at West Point, Major General John M. Schofield spoke the words that became known as Schofield's Definition of Discipline:
The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.
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Keep this in mind: the first subordinate whom you must learn to discipline is the most unruly one you will ever encounter, and that is yourself. Until you are ready to embrace the concept of duty, and all that it implies, you can't hope to instill that same sense in others whom you lead or manage.
Understanding and internalizing the relationship between duty and discipline is a fundamental part of the education, training, and inspiration of leaders at West Point. In order to be able to do your duty, you have to be able to impose discipline because it often requires doing something you don't want to do. Whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom, a leader is someone who steps to the head of the line and does what is required-even if it is something that he or she may find difficult or distasteful. Moreover, leaders perform these tasks with a quiet resolve, as though they want the outcome to be successful; and they do not do so begrudgingly. Keep this in mind: the first subordinate whom you must learn to discipline is the most unruly one you will ever encounter, and that is yourself. Until you are ready to embrace the concept of duty, and all that it implies, you can't hope to instill that same sense in others whom you lead or manage. Being able to do that is the hallmark of successful leadership.
GOOD STEEL COMES FROM A HOT FIRE
Duty does not mean that one follows blindly. It means understanding what must be done, and doing it, regardless of how you might feel on a personal level. When I was commandant at West Point, I would hold meetings with the individual cadet companies on Saturday mornings. These were informal sessions designed to elicit candor and honesty from the cadets, to find out what was on their minds. We called these sessions ethical doughnuts. The discussions were meant to let the cadets know that their officers were willing, and even eager, to hear their opinions and concerns. As often as not, the conversation would turn to matters of history and tradition-the cadets were naturally inquisitive and wanted to know why they were asked to perform certain tasks that, to their minds, were dull, repetitive, or unnecessarily difficult or time-consuming. Sometimes I could give them a short, convincing answer, and sometimes the answer was a bit long-winded and complicated. But if I was stuck for an answer, I could always resort to an old standby: "Ladies and gentlemen, good steel comes from a hot fire."
We'd all have a good laugh at my non-answer, in part, because we understood the truth behind the aphorism. There are times when you do something simply because it's there to be done or because it just seems like the right thing to do-and almost always because you are obeying rules that say you have to do it.
Obedience is a word that can have a negative connotation, as if it is at odds with traits that are often deemed more enlightened or admirable. This is particularly true in American society, since we are such an adventurous and questioning people. I believe, however, that there is no central conflict between obedience, which is a fundamental component of duty, and inquisitiveness. I look at obedience as a guiding light: I'm doing this because it's the right thing to do. Someone told me this and I believe it. Now because I'm an American, and especially because I have a responsibility as a leader, I'm always questioning, always looking for a better way to accomplish what needs to be done. That should be a source of pride, not shame, and that's how it is viewed at the Academy. Sometimes a young leader says, "Oh, my gosh, I thought I was doing the right thing and it turned out all wrong." Well, interestingly enough, in the army we consider that to be a very useful and important growing experience. Granted, mistakes can be costly, whether in business or in the military. But a young army officer who is trying to do the right thing will almost always be recognized by his or her superiors, and good leaders will keep the young folks on track.
FIRST SUMMER: BEAST BARRACKS
Intense, up-close, and personal exposure to West Point leadership begins the first day a freshman ("plebe") arrives at the Academy's new cadet barracks, which bears the historic and whimsical title of "Beast Barracks." This first day is the start of a six-week summer training session. Plebe summer remains the most difficult and arduous period for new cadets and with good reason. It is a completely new experience-a fast-paced, high-pressured test of the new cadets' abilities to manage themselves in such a demanding environment. Historically, it is the period that accounts for almost half of all the attrition that a class will suffer during their four years at the Academy. It is emotionally and physically exhausting, and it sets the tone for the entire West Point experience.
Call it baptism by fire, call it immersion therapy ... call it what you will. The purpose is to carefully, thoroughly, and effectively indoctrinate the cadets and prepare each of them for four years that will culminate in their graduation and commissioning as an officer in the finest army the world has ever seen. New cadets emerge from the summer program with an understanding of what will be expected of them, along with a growing confidence that they can and will surmount any obstacles placed in their path.
I should point out that plebe summer has changed over time. While it stresses and tests even the most capable of cadets, it is, thankfully, far from the degrading experience that it was in the early part of the twentieth century. When General MacArthur became superintendent at West Point in 1919, he viewed the summer session as an opportunity to train young people properly, rather than just wear them down until they could no longer function. This latter practice, which had actually resulted in the death of one cadet several years before, had lasted many decades and become entrenched as tradition, giving it something of an untouchable status.
In retrospect it's not hard to understand how such practices came into being, but it's not easy to change them once ingrained. A lot of the behavior and training techniques prior to MacArthur's arrival had been sophomoric at best and brutal, even fatal, at worst. Suffice it to say that things changed dramatically under MacArthur. He implemented a system in which plebe summer represented a training opportunity not only for new cadets but also for the senior cadets who were in charge of the new cadets in Beast Barracks. Not surprisingly, MacArthur's reforms were resisted by many, cadets and officers alike, and he left the Academy with, in his view, the job unfinished.
Admittedly, ever since then, the treatment of plebes has been cyclical in nature, but MacArthur's reforms inexorably took on permanency, and today the training of new cadets reflects the maturity that is expected of officers-in-training.
Schofield's Definition of Discipline means a great deal to me and to all cadets, in part, because it's one of the first things you learn. And you absorb it at the same time that you are enduring basic training. I found this contradictory and exasperating as a plebe. I'd hear the words "not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment" echoing in my mind, even as an older cadet screamed at me: "Pull your chin in, mister! Drop that bag! Turn around! Get out of my sight, you worthless ...!"
superintendent, fresh from commanding the U.S. forces in Europe during World War I. That time between the Civil War and MacArthur's appointment is called the Frozen Period for a reason. The truth is, we were resting on our laurels. Warfare changed, people changed, the world changed, and culture changed. But the Academy didn't. That was a huge mistake. West Point produces leaders, and leaders must, at every turn, ask themselves the hardest of questions: What are we doing ... and why are we doing it?
By the time I took over as commandant in 1979, West Point was in need of some change again, and I did my best to eliminate the sophomoric behavior that had crept in and passed itself off as training. Obviously there are and always will be traditionalists who, with every good intention, believe that degrading behavior-for example, placing cadets under extreme physical duress or withholding food as punishment-serves as some type of bonding exercise or a rite of passage. After all, they survived or believe they survived this sort of treatment, and clearly it made them better men, so why should things be any different? I strongly disagreed. "Ladies and gentlemen," I would announce, "we use food to train dogs and cats, not human beings." The focus should be to conduct professional, dignified training that instills positive skills and attitudes and to have that philosophy embraced as a permanent way of life.
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West Point produces leaders, and leaders must, at every turn, ask themselves the hardest of questions: What are we doing ... and why are we doing it?
To the enormous credit of the people who run the modern United States Military Academy, that has happened, and I am quietly pleased to recall my part in keeping that transformation going and getting us to where we are today. We'll never go back. As with our liberty, however, eternal vigilance is essential to keep that transformation evolving so it will always reflect the up-to-date mores of our military training and culture. We have dispensed with any notion that new cadets are just dirt. They are, in fact, the best of the best of a new "greatest generation," and while we should test them and demand the most from them, we can and must treat them with dignity and respect-from day one. That is how you build leaders dedicated to the principles of this book, not through degradation and humiliation.
With arrival at West Point, and along with it the beginning of a lifetime sense of duty, comes responsibility. In a macro sense, responsibility means living up to the terms of the deal: a first-class education in exchange for service as an officer in the U.S. Army, which carries with it the serious burden of protecting our country and our citizens. On a much smaller, personal scale, responsibility means handling an assortment of tasks-from the mundane to the complex. A very simple job for new cadets is to be assigned the duties of the minute caller. When formations are due, one of the plebes in each section of barracks is required to stand out in the stairwell and shout updates to the company: "Sir, there are five minutes until assembly for parade! The uniform is as for class under raincoats ... Sir, there are four minutes ... three minutes ..." The point is to assign them a responsibility. As often as not, plebes are out there in the hallway, reciting something that might not make a lot of sense to them, and thinking, Why am I doing this? Well, it's a responsibility. It's a duty.
From the very beginning, the West Point experience is one of being assigned responsibility, and not just personal responsibility-cleaning your rifle, storing gear in your locker correctly, making your bed-but responsibility that is woven into a much larger picture. There's a roster of tasks, and each cadet is assigned tasks that have an impact on the barracks and on other cadets. As training progresses, responsibilities grow. Older cadets are placed in positions of increased responsibility, which demand more of them as they, in turn, demand more of the cadets who are coming behind them. There is a whole litany of duties, from delivering mail to reporting class attendance to assuring that the dishes at each meal are properly served and divided. All kinds of small, menial tasks in the barracks, the mess hall, the classroom, and the athletic fields, the tasks that make everything function are handed out to the cadets. Could the barracks run in some fashion even if the cadets didn't do those things? Yes, of course ... but by segregating out specific tasks and assigning them to cadets, they grow to internalize the serious nature of bearing responsibility and how that translates to duties performed. And that's beyond important. It's critical. In only four short years, these cadets are going to be leading the men and women who volunteer to wear the uniform of our country.
Excerpted from BUILDING LEADERS THE WEST POINT WAY by Joseph P. Franklin Joe Layden Copyright © 2007 by Joseph P. Franklin with Joe Layden. Excerpted by permission.
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