Over the weekend, I reconnected with a friend who is a leadership consultant and executive coach. He was preparing to meet some clients to discuss the West Point leadership experience and he asked me what were some of the key learnings that I carried with me from West Point into my career in the business world. I thought my email summary in response to his question would be helpful information as we continue our journey to build and strengthen our character.
The below is a simple “cut and paste” from my email to him. It is longer than my normal blog posts, but I felt using the entire message made the most sense.
I hope you find the information helpful.
“You are asking a great question…When I think about what I learned and carried with me most from West Point, certainly with time and experience, my thoughts have been further clarified (I don’t think changed) and the core of the learnings are pretty straightforward and transferable to the corporate world:
- Set the example.
- At West Point we all lived the “Follow Me” mindset (US Army Infantry motto is “Follow Me”). You have to be willing to stand up and lead when everyone else is scared, tired, confused, and bullets are flying. The simple and courageous act of “modeling the way” by standing up and leading into the fire to accomplish a goal was a day in, day out lesson we all learned by doing and by watching others. The reality is that with the noise, confusion and extreme chaos on a field of battle, the only effective means of communicating and leading a team is to lead by example and that means moving forward into fire to encourage others to move on to the objective with you.
- In terms of transferring that to corporate life, I think much of the above holds true. People need to see the leader who his leading the way in terms of character, making principle-based decisions, treating people with dignity and respect, and giving their full, committed effort to accomplishing the objectives. In the corporate world, the inevitable atmosphere of “politics”, “perception”, “change management process”, “new fresh ideas from management”, etc. will always be there as a potential hindrance to serving customers and getting things done. However, it has been my experience, that the leader who humbly and persistently sets the example by mere day in, day out actions, will ensure the organization/team achieves their objectives more times than not. All the great memos, corporate communications, and employee briefings are important, but it seemed the daily actions of a leader will always be the element that will rally a team to deliver.
- Continuously learn and grow (remain teachable).
- At West Point, there was a tremendous amount of regimented process as you would expect, but inside that regimentation, the situation was always changing and you had to be committed to learn and grow otherwise you would not survive. As a plebe (freshman) you had a constantly changing set of assigned tasks to support your company. As upperclassmen, you were giving new leadership assignments constantly. So there was always new people, new situations, etc. that you had to deal with to accomplish the objectives. In addition, you had a front row seat to constantly observing others in leadership positions so you could be aware of learnings to apply when you were in those positions. Regular Army training as cadets and also when we graduated gave additional learnings. The situation in combat is constantly changing and leaders need to be prepared to adjust plans, techniques etc. to accomplish the mission. Your principles should not change, but the techniques and process need to if you want to survive. You are learning in both success and failure throughout your time at West Point. The environment keeps you humble and humility is critical to remain teachable.
- In the corporate world, there is a whole discipline on effective “change management process” because it is so difficult for people to understand the need to change, embrace it, and then effectively deliver on the needed change. However, most West Pointers thrive on change as it became a way of life as cadets and Army Officers. The business world is continuing to grow in uncertainty and intensity. Competitive threats emerge so quickly, business plans are meaningless in a matter of months, not years like in the past. Leaders have to be insatiable in the desire to learn, grow and adapt to a very fluid marketplace. Without a humble and proactive willingness to learn and grow, your leadership and your business will die a quick death in today’s hypercompetitive and fast moving global marketplace.
- Service to others and a cause greater than oneself
- The entire West Point experience falls under the umbrella of “service” to our nation, to freedom, and very tactically, service to others in our squads, platoons, and companies. There is so much written today about having a “true north” or a compass to guide personal growth and organizations. Service to our nation was that “true north” at West Point and it solidified the sense that our entire journey of life is about something bigger and greater than ourselves. Tied very directly to that sense of service, was sacrifice. You cannot have one without the other. Sacrifices daily that then ultimately prepared one to give the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of freedom.
- In the corporate world, there seems to be a more consistent drumbeat from leaders about the aspect of service to their people, teams and customers. However, there is still a strong gravitational pull to “me, my title, my paycheck and my accomplishments” that undergird personal motivation. In some very practical realities, like paying bills, supporting personal responsibilities, etc. those are important, however, when leaders place those things above the call of service to their people, their customers and the cause of the organization they serve, they are missing a critical element to achieving a sustainable, high performing business.
- Personal Responsibility
- As a plebe at West Point, you are told you have only 4 responses for the next 12 months: ‘Yes, sir’; ‘No, sir’; ‘No excuse, sir’ and ‘Sir, I do not understand.’ The response of ‘no excuse, sir’ day in and day out taught you that you are responsible for your actions and the outcomes. Throughout the next 12 months, when an upperclassmen would yell, “why isn’t your room prepared for inspection?”, you learned very quickly not to say, “well, I was tired from competing on the sports field all afternoon, being up all night doing homework, and I just did not have time.” The response you received from the upperclassman to making an excuse like that, ensured you remembered the right answer in the future was, “No excuse, Sir.” When you stood in dinner formation and were asked, ‘Why aren’t your boots shined?’ and you wanted to say something like, “Well, I have been marching all day in dust, dirt and mud, why do you think they are not shined?”, you learned very quickly that the right response, was ‘No excuse, sir.” That experience taught all of us, that we are responsible, no matter what the situation.
- In today’s world, in corporations or even in everyday life, there seems to be a consistent sense of excuse making or lack of taking personal responsibility. I could list numerous examples in the public sector, private sector, and in our homes across the nation, that we seemed to have become comfortable and emotionally “ok” with playing the “blame game” on our situation instead of taking responsibility for my actions and the results they brought about. What I have carried with me from West Point in my corporate life and frankly, my personal life, as a father and husband, is ‘no excuse, sir’ when things fall short of expectations. As I stated in the other sections above, that mindset keeps your ego in check and keeps you willing to learn.
Have a great week!”