Leadership Lessons P3
Writers: Cadet Randy Hopper, Keith H. Hammonds
Leadership Lessons (III)
"West Point is a uniquely humbling experience. I came from a small town, where I was a good student and captain of my sports teams. I showed up at West Point and found that 60% of my classmates were team captains, and 20% were valedictorians. One day you're the local star, and the next you're just one of thousands of bald heads."
--Dave McCormick, '87, senior vice president, FreeMarkets Inc.
To Build Confidence, Teach Humility. The typical West Point cadet looks something like this: male and white (though 15% of students are women, and 25% are nonwhite). Top decile of his high-school class. Jock. Middle-class, middle-American. He came to the academy because it is free, but he is also patriotic on some level. The norm isn't definitive, of course. Any community of 4,000 people is a community of 4,000 distinctive individuals. But in practice, the cadets who reside in the standard-issue cinder-block rooms of Bradley Barracks look pretty much the same. They say pretty much the same things. Hell, that's part of the deal here: Everyone is part of a team, no individual more important than the mission of the whole.
"Why do we make these kids endure such a spartan four years?" Snook asks. "You stay in stone barracks. You can't put garbage in the garbage cans before 9:30 AM, and the sinks must be clean and dry at all times. So many rules and regulations. Why? "Because when you graduate," Snook continues, "you're going to be asked to be selfless. For a lot of hours while in the Army, you're going to suffer. You'll be away from home for Christmas; you'll sleep in the mud. There are a lot of things about this job that make you subordinate your self-interest -- so get used to it."
This is the essence of what cadets learn. They hear it in the classroom, but they also witness it around them, every day. The great leaders they see inspire
and motivate because they care for their soldiers and because they're willing to do themselves whatever they ask of others. "Look at any leader who's made a big change," says firstie Randy Hopper. "The key is servanthood. You can't lead without making sacrifices."
Hopper, a 22-year-old cadet from Baytown, Texas, is commander of Company C-2, based in Bradley. There are 32 such companies, each comprised of about 128 students, each with its own nickname (C-2 is the "Flying Circus"), cheer ("Go Circus!"), and culture. The company is the core organizational unit at West Point. It is also the crucible for experiential leadership development. Here's how it works.
Plebes are, as ever, at the bottom. They learn how to follow, absorbing and acting on the orders of their superiors. Second-year students, or "yearlings,"
are assigned teams of one or two plebes. In this first, modest experience as military leaders, yearlings learn to develop intimate relationships with their
subordinates, rooted in mutual trust. They are held directly accountable for their plebes' performance.
Yearlings report, in turn, to third-year students, or "cows" (a long story), each cow responsible for squads of two or three yearlings and four to six of
their plebe charges. Cast in the roles of noncommissioned officers of the cadet brigade, cows must exercise indirect leadership. They are accountable for the
plebes as well, but they must direct behavior through the yearlings. They must learn to motivate by example.
Firsties run the show. The summer before classes begin, they direct the eight weeks of military training for incoming plebes and yearlings. Come August, they take the roles of commissioned officers in the cadet hierarchy. Platoon leaders report to company commanders and their staffs, who answer to battalion commands, regiments, and the brigade.
Everyone leads, and everyone follows. Everyone models, and everyone assesses. Cadets' formal evaluations of their subordinates' performance count toward final grades. "Everyone's a teacher," says firstie Chris Kane, a platoon leader under Hopper in C-2. "That's what I love about this place. We're all teachers." In this 24-hour leadership laboratory, students acquire humility. As leaders, they are nothing without followers. "You learn from the beginning that you're not in a position of leadership because you're smarter or better," says firstie and C-2 executive officer Joe Bagaglio. "As soon as you think you know it all, you get burned."
And they must perform under stress. Cadets face a daunting crush of academics, sports, and military activities. The academy's administrators know that there is enough time, in theory, to get it all done; they have studied this. In practice, though, cadets learn to prioritize -- what must come first and what can be left undone. More than that, they come to accept that, amid chaos, the only thing that they can control is themselves. Under fire, "you don't ask how to get it done," says Kane. "You just do it." Major Tony Burgess follows all of this with reactions that range from concern to bemusement to pride. As the tactical officer attached on a full-time basis to C-2, Burgess, '90, is likely the single most influential person in the development of the company's 128 young cadets. He is, as he likes to put it, their "teacher-coach-mentor-disciplinarian-den mother."
Burgess himself is a leadership junkie. The son of missionary parents, he spent his childhood in Mexico and entered West Point with grand visions. "I was going to get out of the Army after five years, and by age 30, I was going to be a millionaire in business," he says. "I didn't know how, but I was going to do it. Then, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with leading." Burgess has spent 10 years in the infantry, and he will tell you that there is no better job in the world than commanding an Army company. He grew passionate enough about it to start up a Web site, CompanyCommand.com -- an unauthorized
(but unofficially welcome) resource for company commanders that has attracted many users. With his classmate and best friend, Nate Allen, Burgess has written a book on the same topic, Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level, which is available on his Web site.
Among his cadet charges, Burgess radiates intensity and enthusiasm. He is at once approachable and reserved, a buddy and a boss. His success depends on
maintaining a fine balance -- guiding students' decisions without actually making them, giving students enough rope but knowing when to haul it in. He is
the one who must look out for developmental opportunities and failures. He must be ready to influence.
If Burgess succeeds -- if West Point succeeds -- his cadets will emerge, he thinks, as the "go-to" people. "They'll be the ones who you know will make it
happen," he says, "the guys who will do better than we ever imagined possible."