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What business can learn at West Point

Col. Tom Kolditz
Colonel Tom Kolditz is a Professor and Head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

It was an honor to host Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, at West Point last week. Mr. Immelt holds worldwide acclaim as a great business leader, and also as a committed leader developer, earning him a kinship with those of us who view leader development as a calling. He was generous in spending time with cadets, and his optimistic speech about renewing American leadership went far beyond a pep talk and vision for GE. It was a rallying cry for the institution of American business to step up and, in concert with the public sector, lead an American renewal.

Why West Point?

Perhaps the most profound rhetorical question in Mr. Immelt's speech was: "Who will lead us?" The simple answer is, "Those we teach to lead." Frances Hesselbein, West Point's Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership, is fond of saying that there are two institutions that sustain our democracy--one is public education, and the other is the U.S. Army. Her point is that national security sets the conditions for an educated populous to self determine. It is revealing that Mr. Immelt's speech imploring business to set the conditions for American renewal was at the United States Military Academy--a place of public education in the interest of national security, with the mission of sustaining democracy.

This choice of West Point as a venue may be puzzling to the global business community--the militaries of China, India, and other global economic powers are vastly different in capability and culture from our highly professionalized, all-volunteer force. Therefore, those who view the military through the lens of a different national experience may find it hard to believe that our Army could harbor thought leaders in organizational development, or that the Army and business could share common approaches to leadership.

Even though Mr. Immelt offered statistics validating military officership as a trusted profession, there is a disdain for the stereotype of military leadership--a disdain that, ironically, we share. There is really no such thing as military leadership, though for some reason people find it appealing to try to cast leadership performed in a military context into a stereotypical caricature: hierarchical, inflexible, and structured. In truth, the things that people look for in leaders they choose to follow are the same across situations.

For years, our Army's operating environment has demanded less hierarchy, more flexibility, and better adaptation in structure. Under the gun (figuratively or literally), people are people, and we should listen to each other. The first point in Mr. Immelt's renewal paradigm is that we need to be better listeners, and his presence at West Point is a fantastic example of the military and business listening to each other. It's a great value proposition--listening doesn't require a program.

Getting beyond leadership programs

In fact, West Point has nothing that remotely resembles a "leadership program." Instead, every element of the enormously complex experience--academic, military, athletic, social, ethical, spiritual-- integrates leadership into the personally held, self identity of each cadet. West Point is the manifestation of systems thinking, applied to leader development. Everyone, from chemistry professors to the seamstresses at the uniform shop, understands that our aim is to produce officers for our Army whose self concepts will drive them to lead in all aspects of their personal and professional lives.

Mr. Immelt's call for "systems thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity" aligns perfectly with our process for developing cadets. In our case the context is military, but the process of identity development is pervasive among high performing people and organizations. I was recently privileged to visit Rosie's Broadway Kids, an arts education organization dedicated to enriching the lives of children through the arts. Developing leaders is not a part of their mission statement.

Yet at Rosie's, young people from all backgrounds achieve excellence, serve as role models, hold each other to high standards, and develop identities that will guide their actions and define who they are, whether they pursue a career in the arts or find another purpose in life. Rosie's Broadway Kids is about as un-military as an organization can be, yet develops leaders in fundamentally the same way West Point does.

People live and work better when they have a purpose beyond themselves, and there is a fire starting in American business that values purpose beyond profit, closely aligned with the values of Duty, Honor, Country. As West Point helps build our Army's officer corps, we share a view that puts leadership at the heart of all human endeavors. We're eager to continue the dialogue within our military, with the arts, education, business, and all the elements of our national character, on how leadership can move our country forward. Together, we can realize the vision of a new cadre of leaders to change our world.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

By Col. Tom Kolditz

 |  December 15, 2009; 6:31 AM ET |  Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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OK - Let's see - Blackwater and the corporate structure - War Crimes led by West Point graduates who are just following the new ROE dictated by private security firms who have a political agenda that does not have two party system but can profit from a police state - A boy on his bicycle is shot and then his body is draped over a Humvee by NCO's of the 2-12 in May of '07 to show they are serious about killing the innocent to get information about Al-Qaeda in the Al-Doura neighborhood-so let's look at what is teaching at West Point - LTC Stephen Michaels commander of the 2-12, (mysteriously the 2-12 no longer exists) a leader who sanctioned illegal killings and tortured his own soldiers. He was sent to West Point recently to hide him from the atrocities like a priest sequestered by the Vatican to hide his sexual deviance. Look at what happened in Fort Carson - follow the blood trail of the homicides and suicides when the soldiers come home. Ask General Mark Graham, if you can find him... And just to make sure you understand something - I AM A VETERAN...and the leadership coming out of the Academies is scary at best. When a team of special forces are told to stand down and let Blackwater do it — shades of 1984 with a remix of Big Brother corporate is staring at us - Is the almighty dollar worth crushing this country and killing innocent people? Our vengeance for 9/11 is over — let's stop letting poor leadership rule this country. Something is terribly wrong with a war that has no victories but corporations making billions off of the United States in this "War on Terror." Your sons and daughters died like sheep in a slaughter house under the veil of patriotism. These people keep killing innocent citizens and we tout them as great Americans. This is not about patriotism, this is about greed. The Army is broken; Blackwater is not.

Posted by: oflahavan1 | December 16, 2009 8:56 AM

Pure goggledegook. This from a "Professor of Behaviorial Science"? That goes a long way to explain the military's acute understanding of those we define as our enemies. Can't wait to see those he trains put in charge of "business, education, and the arts."

Posted by: dane1 | December 16, 2009 12:10 AM

Thanks for the positive insights into West Point. It is heartening to learn that West Point is not insular and has a sound and holistic approach to leadership training.

Regrettably, several commentators on the article fail to recognise the benefits inherent in having military cadets exposed to lessons from business.

Indeed the challenge now is have not just "business" define the values of "duty, honour and country" but also to invite these critics to define their values, and their contribution to our world.

Brian Hollins, Australia.

Posted by: brianhollins | December 15, 2009 11:50 PM

It truly astonishes me that you people, the military, are SO arrogant that you actually believe that you're teaching anyone anything !!

You teach people how to KILL EACH OTHER - NOTHING MORE - NOTHING LESS. You morons don't teach anything else, and if you say or try to convince anyone that you do, you are LYING thru your teeth. Your code is bogus. You morals are bogus. Your teaching and instruction is based on the premise that all disagreements can be settled by force and that YOU have the answer to all force questions on the planet today.

Well, the folks in the middle east are proving you wrong - daily. They are whipping your butt constantly, and everyone on the planet, except YOU, knows it... Get your head out of your rear end - wake up and figure out that this is 2009 - almost 2010 AND you are as wrong as you have ever been about the nature of humans... Get your rockets and submarines and get the hell out of my sight !!!

Posted by: rbaldwin2 | December 15, 2009 10:52 PM

Big business will not clean up its act until it is forced to do so. They will do whatever they can to make money, be it honestly or dishonestly. They know nothing about honor and duty. The only way to control their greed is to regulate them and never turn your back.

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Posted by: huangzhixian170 | December 15, 2009 10:28 PM

As a father of a West Pointer, please let me educate you on leadership.
Additional defenders of freedom are the PARENTS of those lads and lassies who groom their cadet child to possess required skills, and spirit values aplenty. The noggin is just returning to normal from the whirlwind of those grueling child raising days. Big sacrifices we made to dump off capable cadet material.

Posted by: wpmars | December 15, 2009 8:03 PM

Business should not listen to the Army until they can beat Navy! How can the Army give advice to the corporate world when even catwalk models can throw better passes and call better plays?

Posted by: Greg42 | December 15, 2009 7:05 PM

Ah, yes, the home of raping women who are also in the service.

Killing people because someone else told you to.

Beating Gays to death

Posted by: tru-indy | December 15, 2009 4:32 PM

To commenter WBYGODV: thanks for your comments. You seemed shocked that folks--and yes, Post readers are hardly a national cross-section--don't naturally accord the military high marks with leadership recently. I have seen it from the inside, at a low ebb for the Army as an institution, and it was frightening. It still is when you have political generals lie and cover up friendly fire KIAs, such as Tillman's, or try to box in the president when he is evaluating his options. Or, say, the USAF generals conniving to block what political officials and the WH want, e.g., to buy no more F-22s. Or the Army, for decades until very recently, like the VA has, finally recognizing what PTSD is and the extent of it. The military just is not full of national thought leaders or leaders in anything other than the narrow occupational specialties of the services. Those who serve deserve our sincere thanks, but please don't let the colonel or anyone else tell us that the military sets the standard for leadership; that would be a sad commentary on our country.

Posted by: axolotl | December 15, 2009 4:14 PM

and there is a fire starting in American business that values purpose beyond profit, closely aligned with the values of Duty, Honor, Country.
India may get $1 billion in IT outsourcing contracts
Reuters November 23, 2009
The newspaper said JPMORGAN, GOLDMAN SACHS and MORGAN STANLEY that received approval to pay back government stake worth $68 billion earlier this year are among the firms seeking operational efficiencies by outsourcing non-core IT and back-office projects to India.
IBM to Cut 5,000 Jobs. Washington Post March 26, 2009
Officials began notifying employees on Wednesday and throughout yesterday about the layoffs. Technology services giant is in the process of shifting a large number of jobs to lower-cost regions, such as India.

Posted by: bsallamack | December 15, 2009 3:19 PM

mr. immelt was more highly regarded as a world business leader when he was not required to demonstrate an ability to adapt to changing conditions like his predecessor jack welch. if the military's answer is to sell off core functions and not demonstrate loyalty to competent employees at least to the 20 years of service model, then ge under immelt is what we should look to as an example. should armored forces be sold to brinks or special forces to wackenhut security?

Posted by: george32 | December 15, 2009 3:11 PM

Wow! I've read some vitriol before, but the commenters here seem to be carrying some issues. Their casual use of PTSD and "head wounds" as bantering epithets is particularly regrettable.

Elitist? I'm the son of two public school teachers out of West Virginia, went to public schools, and made it through West Point. There is nothing "elitist" in my background except for making the cut on my 7th grade basketball team. Ignorance speaks loudly . . .

Defeat a bunch of hillbillies? Amazing! Of course, you could say it was a bunch of colonial hillbillies which brought the British Empire back to earth in the 1770s. Or, perhaps we should shut our borders and eke out a living purely through our indigenous assets. That would be difficult.

If nothing is worth fighting for, then there really isn't anything worth living for. Some people feel the calling and step up. Others go ride a desk into oblivion.

Hesselbein has it mostly right. The Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines (along with others) create the conditions (national security) for prosperity which is achieved through education and business.

What Kolditz is saying about leadership transcending the organization is exactly right. Values matter and people should be treated with dignity and respect. Are they? No, but that doesn't invalidate the point.

However, I'm always interested to hear those who have never worn a military uniform explain what's wrong with military leadership.

When he states that West Point doesn't have a leadership development program, he really means that all of West Point is a leadership development program. It just happens to be wholly integrated into a first-class, public college (See Forbes, 24 Aug 09) which also creates Army officers.

Posted by: wbygodv | December 15, 2009 2:32 PM

Colonel, respectfully, you are drinking a bit of your own bathwater. We have less reason than ever to hold American business as a touchstone of leadership, largely because the values are not there. While certain miscues did not occur on Mr. Immelt's watch, GE, for example, is a world class environmental polluter (the Hudson), a price fixer now and then (government contracting), and its finance arm recently needed a major taxpayer bailout. I don't care what the esprit the corps is at GE, the company makes a lot of mistakes (yes, don't we all), and many display a value or competence level I pray the Army does not adopt. And in the typical company, the staff are not trained and expected to be able to kill. You need to step away from corporate and even many common social values to get your arms around that in order to be prepared to do it. So, let the Army thrive as an institution--it needs to for all our sake--but please don't adopt corporate values or spread many of yours to business; it is troubled enough. And thanks for your service and your thoughts.

Posted by: axolotl | December 15, 2009 2:28 PM

Although the merging of leadership styles from GE CEO and West Point cadets may be useful in some areas, there is much work needed in the US Army’s leadership, which sadly has reported a record number of suicides among its members for 2009.
Leaders must take care of their people, be selfish for your people. As leaders/employers we must, take a big step to improve working conditions for people here in the US, to include taking care of working mothers, increasing vacations days, allowing paid sick days, universal health care, etc. In the case of the Army it would mean taking our men and women out of combat, or allowing them more time with their families before they are sent back. The systems perspective would say you can't control your employees every behavior, but if you promote and live by values in your organization such as (dignity of all people & compassion)and then TRUST (no really, TRUST) your employees, they will do the same for your organization. Leading from a systems perspective and unafraid of ambiguity would be a paradigmatic shift indeed.

Posted by: jp21 | December 15, 2009 2:10 PM

kuvasz: The military is socialist? Really? Explain to us how the military supports the doctrine "from each according to their means, to each according to their needs?" Ever seen a private, airman, or seaman's paycheck? Compared to a general's or admiral's?

Therapy: How many armchair quarterbacks from peace now movements saved the Jews in the 20th century?

I'm curious what both of your definitions of leadership entails. I'm not asking you to like the military or war, but in the absence of conflict, who leads? What would define a leader?

Perhaps that leader would be defined by consensus building. What do they do when there's an implacatable, intractable opposition? What if that opposition were willing to fight and die for their beliefs?

Do you think that the whole world really just wants peace? Or perhaps power and wealth?

And if they are just "a bunch of poor hillbillies from the mountains of Afghanistan," how is it that they have now managed to survive almost twenty of the last thirty years while being occupied by the world's two largest military powers?

Do you think European socialism would blossom to the extent that it does if they had to fund their own national defenses? More than a token 30,000 uniforms that are loaned to NATO for peacekeeping for 6 months every 10 years?

Is there anything for which you would fight to the death?

Posted by: dgw1091 | December 15, 2009 2:08 PM

The Military Elitists at West Point may be forgetting about a lack of Opportunity for the common man like Elitist Bankers or Brokers of Wall Street who give certain advantages based on heridity. If the expression "He comes from good stock" discriminates against average Americans then where is the founding father concept that "All Men are created equal" ?

I agree that Awareness and Education increases the chance of Societal Self Determination. Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts have been counter acting propaganda for years. Yet, without opportunity (and embracing momemts of opportunity fully and directly) chances for growth are squandered even with education and good health.

Our roots are common roots. I could play my heritage is better than McCain's heritage games but it's the average man, the Patriot/Farmer who made the difference for our Freedom and Democracy way back to 1774 and earlier times as well. Good-Luck.

Posted by: truthhurts | December 15, 2009 1:51 PM

Geeze guy. Are you sufferiing from a head wound? You don't know a damned thing about the private sector. Private industry is feudal. The military and academia are socialist

Tell you what, hold a private sector job for a decade, invest your time and brain power into making it a success and constantly make your company money, then have your boss saunter into your office and fire you because he found a replacement that costs the company one third of your overhead.

btw both the military as well as academia are not the "private sector" and have neither the same mission nor culure. Frankly buddy, you are a fool of a man who would have your head handed back to you on a stick in industry.

The important thing one needs to lead is to show your subordinates that one is capable and willing to do anything he/she asks of others; and you will find that attitude and inspiration in one in a thousand business leaders.

You want to help this country? Cut the defense budget; the one whose size is equivalent to rest of the entire world's expenditure for defense so you can train and retain the world's best teachers.

Posted by: kuvasz | December 15, 2009 1:43 PM

It has nothing to do with business, everything is personal - the law of corporate responsibility.

Ambitious Chairman Mao knew best how to politically use surplus military cadre. Grind them down in Korea.

“Duty, Honor, Country” are easily spoken by west point cowards, delusional pretty boys in uniform, and crippled ptsd suicidal whiners.

Col. Tom,

How many expensive career phony soldiers and no-combat advocates within the American military bureaucracy does it take to defeat a bunch of poor hillbillies from the mountains of Afghanistan?

Vive le terror et effectively export more stupid social workers and mental healthcare professionals into the very very dangerous land of Allah because it is in the best interest of national security.

Posted by: therapy | December 15, 2009 1:39 PM

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