Lessons From West Point: Leadership Is Love
How's your summer? Enjoying the warm weather? I am too, but lately I find myself thinking about the new cadets of the United States Military Academy class of 2017. Right now, these young men and women, most of them just out of high school, are in the middle of Beast Barracks, West Point's summer-long basic training program for future military officers.
The academy proclaims its mission up front: "West Point's purpose is to produce leaders of character who are prepared to provide selfless service to our Army and the nation." So think of Beast Barracks (officially, "Cadet Basic Training," but everyone calls it "Beast"), as Step One in the academy's four-year leadership development program.
Most of what they teach about leadership is applicable to civilian life as well--in business, in communities, civic life, and elsewhere. So, in honor of the new cadets sweating away this summer at "Hogwarts on the Hudson," here are some of the first things they learn about leadership at West Point.
First, learn to follow
On their first day, new cadets are required to report to higher-ranking cadets with a short, specific phrase: ""New Cadet [and the cadet's last name] reports to the Cadet in the Red Sash as ordered."
Sounds easy, right? But check out this video of how it actually works. With the chaos, noise, and nervousness, just about everyone has trouble following this simple, direct order.
But that's not the point. In fact, the entire first year at West Point feels like it's about learning to follow--not just following blindly, though. It's about learning to act as you hope the people you lead in your organization will react to you. It's about questioning intelligently but also executing.
You can't lead if you can't communicate
West Point cadets study a concept known as "commander's intent," which is a simple, direct statement that cuts through the clutter of a complicated order. (For example: "take the hill, but don't hurt civilians.")
Still, I think there's an all-purpose word in the U.S. Army that signifies understanding, excitement, and enthusiasm better than any other: "Hooah!" I didn't go to West Point myself, although I served in the U.S. Army, and I remember one lifer sergeant telling me that "Hooah!" originally stood for "heard, understood, acknowledged." That might have been revisionist history, but regardless it's a pretty good backronym.
Think about how difficult it is to convince people to follow you if you can't share and receive information effectively -- and inspire people to execute. You can't lead if you can't communicate.
True leadership is a choice
This one might sound obvious, but for many would-be leaders the first step is often the hardest. Do you have the confidence to step up and take charge?
Let me give you an example from In a Time of War. Days before the Iraq invasion in 2003, just across the border in Kuwait, a brand-new Army officer named Joe DaSilva took over an infantry platoon.
Almost all of his men had been in uniform longer than he had. He was nervous, and he basically had two choices. He could temper things a bit, and let the sergeants who had been with the platoon for years call most of the shots until he got his bearings. Or, he could acknowledge his situation and his shortcomings, but step up and lead as he'd been trained.
DaSilva chose the latter. Hours before the invasion, he gathered his soldiers and gave them a subdued but inspiring speech. It ended with his promise, "I don't know what awaits us on the other side ... But if I have to give my life for any of you, I will do it in a heartbeat."
Leadership is about love
I still get goosebumps when I think of DaSilva offering his life for his men. Fortunately, they made it through the invasion and home again, without casualties.
I don't know how often new cadets think about the bigger picture of leadership when they're in the middle of a 12-mile ruck march or rattling off some of the thousands of pages of trivia they have to memorize in response to an upperclassman's inquiries.
But I can tell you this: Great leadership -- at West Point and everywhere -- has a lot to do with love. Not romantic love or unconditional love but that caring, passionate drive that binds teams together to accomplish goals greater than any individual among them could imagine.
That's the kind of leader West Point tries to produce -- and it's the kind of leader I think most of us want to become.
Like this post? Here's the best way to keep up with Bill Murphy Jr.
BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.