A Full Range of Options
Tom Ricks makes some good points in his piece "Why We Should Get Rid of West Point." It is certainly more expensive to turn out a West Point graduate than to commission an officer through ROTC, which has been the source for many fine leaders. But his swipe at West Point's education misses the mark because he equates the number of doctorates on the faculty to a quality education; I would argue that there is not a straight correlation.
In my personal experience at two fine universities, my worst teachers were 1) a professor who started phoning it in on the very day he got tenure, and 2) a self-absorbed scholar who read from ancient notes and never looked at, much less engaged, his students. It is common knowledge that many of the famous professors and Nobel Laureates celebrated on university websites haven't taught undergraduates in decades.
Nevertheless, many West Point graduates--those who think critically about the academy and are always looking for ways to make it better--share some of Ricks' concerns. (Full disclosure: I am a West Point alumnus, a former faculty member and the author of a book on how the academy develops leaders. My criticisms of the academy are well-documented.)
In his excellent book Making the Corps, Ricks argues convincingly that the modern officer corps is in danger of becoming politically homogenous, with a preponderance of right-leaning leaders. In that book and this most recent article Ricks makes a case for diversity in the ranks of new officers, saying that the military would benefit from having leaders with a range of interests and experiences who are "educated alongside future doctors, judges, teachers, executives, mayors and members of Congress."
But if diversity is an important goal (and I agree that it is), closing the federal service academies would be counter-productive. Some segment of the population with an interest in the armed forces as a career wants the academy experience--call it culture, bragging rights, challenge--and might not be willing to serve otherwise. If you lose this segment, diversity suffers.
Look at it from the point of view of the accessions people, those folks responsible for bringing men and women into the officer corps. If my job is to look across the entire landscape of young Americans and bring into the service a mix of men and women to lead our armed forces, it makes sense for me to have a range of products--that is, ways to earn a commission--to offer them. For some percentage of the population, the offer of an ROTC scholarship is just the ticket to get people on board. Some other portion of my target audience is already in the enlisted ranks; I need something to offer them. This is why we have Officer Candidate School. Finally, some portion of my client base is ready for the full immersion experience. They want an intensive 47-month leader development program and are willing to work hard in exchange for it.
The specific question put to this forum is: Can leadership be taught? The short answer is "yes." The qualifiers: Leadership cannot be taught to everyone with the same degree of success, and not everyone is going to emerge with the same abilities. But most people can become better if they have a strong desire to lead; are willing to make the sacrifices to become a selfless leader; have the imagination and courage to embrace new ways of doing things; have the discipline to approach leadership deliberately, as an art that must be cultivated, practiced and studied. Finally, the aspiring leader must demonstrate both compassion and character: compassion enough to care about the success of others, and the kind of character that inspires others to want to follow.
Posted by: schoultz | April 21, 2009 1:49 PM
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