Part 1 of 4
Grassroots Leadership: U.S. Military Academy” You can't lead without making sacrifices."
Writers: Cadet Randy Hopper, Keith H. Hammonds, U.S. Military Academy
"Attention all cadets: There are five minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation. The uniform is battle dress under field jacket." It's 11:55 AM. It's
really cold. About 200 feet above a bend in the Hudson River, the wind rushes across the plain at West Point and slams into the six-story granite ramparts of
the United States Military Academy.
This is a massive, fortlike place screaming of history. A statue of General George Washington commands the Parade Ground, flanked by Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Thayer. The stone barracks, square and stark, bear the names of Bradley, Lee, and Pershing. "There are four minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation." Inside, cadet "plebes," or freshmen, stand at attention, counting off the minutes until the mandatory premeal convocation. Their cues come from clocks mounted every 50 feet or so along the halls Students tumble into the sprawling asphalt courtyards between barracks, as they do at least twice each day, every day, year-round. "Fall in!" The command is like an ionizing charge, driving loose bunches into perfect lines and squares each square a platoon, four platoons to a company, four companies to a
battalion, and two battalions to a regiment. "Attention!" Eyes shoot straight ahead.
Formation is a defining experience at West Point. Officially, it is a simple exercise in accountability: From platoon on up, officers must know and report
how many cadets are present. But there's more to it, of course. Formation is a nod to the past. Cadets have gathered in this way, on this spot, every day for
nearly 200 years. More important, it is a reminder of the primacy of selflessness: Here, the individual yields to the greater whole -- to the corps.
On dismissal, the cadets begin marching. The movement looks choreographed a dozen drab soldier streams flowing in right angles out of the courtyard. In
minutes, it's over. A few thousand cadets have removed themselves. The courtyard is silent. And you think, That was one seriously weird exercise. A weird and beautiful thing. That pretty much describes the whole place.
Leadership Lessons (I)
"The first lesson I learned as a plebe came from an upperclassman yelling in my face. He told me that there were four acceptable answers: 'Yes, sir'; 'No, sir'; 'No excuse, sir'; and 'Sir, I do not understand.' He'd ask, 'Why aren't your shoes shined?' and I'd say, 'Well, it was muddy, and I didn't have time.' He'd
be all over me. He was trying to teach me something: If you have to take men up a hill and write letters to their moms that night, there's literally no excuse.
If you have to lay off thousands of people from your company, there's no excuse.
You should have seen it coming and done something about it."James Kimsey, '62, founding CEO, America Online The "West Point of Leadership"
Each spring, West Point graduates 900-odd men and women, granting each of them a bachelor's degree and a commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After six-week leaves, they travel to places like Kosovo, Germany, and Guam. Once there, they take on their first jobs as military officers.
This fact alone is stunning: As a nation, we are entrusting to 21-year-olds the safety of our enlisted troops, not to mention the care and deployment of weapons of mass destruction, the keeping of peace, and the occasional waging of war. The corresponding fact is this: By the time they leave West Point, most of these kids are unquestionably up to the job. From the day that they set foot on campus (in early July, before their freshman year), cadets are prepared to take on responsibility, to face challenges, to make decisions under stress, and to pursue the goals set out for them -- relentlessly.
The U.S. Military Academy is a factory, and what it manufactures is leaders.
Over the years, it has become probably the most effective institution for leadership development in the country. If Harvard Business School is "the West
Point of capitalism," well, when it comes to leadership, West Point is the real thing.
Of course, this leadership factory supplies the military. In return for a free college education, graduates are required to serve the U.S. Army for at least
five years. After that, however, many spin out into areas like government, education, and, most often, business -- where they thrive. "You see them
everywhere," says Geoff Champion, a 1972 graduate and a partner at Korn/Ferry. They sit atop Amazon.com, America Online, Commerce One, SciQuest, and many other successful companies. Why? Understand this about West Point: Everything that we have read and heard about it -- the rules, the structure, the rigidity, the conformity., is essentially true. This is a school where students learn, in one class, that "the mortar is your best friend."
But understand this too: There's more to the story. The academy's complex and arcane education hangs on an intriguing tension. Think of it, as West Point's
own leaders do, in terms of Athens and Sparta. The structure, the monotonous regime, the rote memorization -- that's Sparta, and it's important. Yet West
Point also nurtures creativity and flexibility -- the Athens.
In the chaos of battle, as in business, leaders can't expect to stick to a fixed plan. They depend on the predictable competence of their subordinates (instilled
by all of that training) as well as on their own judgment. Military officers are given orders, but how they get the job done is up to them. "Everything that
happens at West Point serves a question," says Ed Ruggero, a 1980 graduate and the author of Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders
(HarperCollins, 2001): "How do you develop an organization that can thrive amid constant change?"