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Ed Ruggero

Ed Ruggero

Ed Ruggero, author most recently of The First Men In, helps organizations develop the kinds of leaders people want to follow. His Gettysburg Leadership Experience teaches battle-tested leadership lessons that endure today.

Leadership, the West Point way

March 16 is West Point's two hundred and eighth anniversary. Celebrations of "Founder's Day" span the globe and range from a massive formal dinner in the Cadet Mess Hall to small gatherings of alumni just back from patrol or off shift in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It's seven AM on an ice-crusted February morning, and Pete H., college freshman, is not sleeping in. He's in the gymnasium boxing room, taking attendance, checking to ensure that each of his 20 classmates is in the right uniform, has the prescribed mouthpiece, has donned boxing gloves and protective headgear, and is standing at attention for the instructor's entrance at precisely seven ten. If anything is amiss, the boxing coach will let Pete know it. In his face. Loud and clear.

Welcome to Phys Ed class, West Point style.

Throughout academia and in the conference rooms of many American businesses, there is a seemingly endless discussion about whether or not leadership can be taught. No one is debating the point at the U.S. Military Academy, where the mission is ensure that each graduate is a "leader of character."

Tasks assigned to first year cadets like Pete, called "plebes" at West Point, tend to be well-defined and hands-on: take charge of 20 peers for boxing class, clean your rifle, manage your time. For seniors, the challenges are higher order: sustain a culture in the brigade (the student body) that encourages academic achievement, athleticism and ethical behavior.

Escalating challenges are part of the academy's distinctive leadership program as described by Professor Scott Snook, now with the Harvard Business School and formerly an Army colonel and leadership professor at West Point.

The basic ingredient is good people. West Point takes great pains to admit young men and women who have a willingness to take on responsibility. The admissions committee looks for the above-average student who is also the team captain, a leader in her church, a volunteer firefighter.

Then there are four key elements of the developmental experience. The first is challenge: dragging cadets out of their comfort zone, forcing them to resolve conflicts and take on new roles. Quiet cadets must speak up, lumbering football players take gymnastics, the most petite women learn body throws in hand-to-hand combat.

The second part of the model is support. Every member of the staff and faculty, most of whom are active duty soldiers, is a coach. The third element is assessment. West Point has a variety of feedback tools, some of them obvious: cadets in leadership roles receive frequent evaluations. Some very effective feedback comes from not-so-obvious sources: a lot of learning comes from conversations among teammates, roommates, classmates.

The fourth part of the model calls for reflection; maturity doesn't come overnight. West Point's leadership lessons sink in over forty-seven intense months. The final part of the framework is the freedom to fail. If the challenges are truly difficult, it follows that cadets will sometimes miss the mark. These are, perhaps, the most precious teaching moments.

Saying that leadership can be taught is not the same as saying that everyone can become a leader. But it is patently unfair to leaders in any organization to saddle them with the responsibilities of leadership without preparing them. That would be like sending a soldier into battle without teaching her or him how to use a weapon. Yet many organizations don't take a deliberate approach to building leaders.

Certainly West Point's model would be hard to replicate exactly, but it can inform even the most cash-strapped development program or seat-of-the-pants coaching effort. Pick good people; challenge them; assess their performance and give them some feedback; give them the opportunity to process and make sense of the experience; accept that there will be some missteps and learn from those mistakes.

Founder's Day will come and go, and soon it will be Graduation Day for the Class of 2010. A thousand or so young men and women will leave West Point with a rolled-up diploma and an astonishing set of experiences. Some of them will be sorely tested in battle; all of them will get the chance to lead. That's what all the work has been about, and that's what the nation and their soldiers expect of them.

By Ed Ruggero

 |  March 16, 2010; 5:54 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Hold on here. I read the soul crushing, no holds barred obit of west point grad and instructor thereat(twice)of General Alexander Haig,in the Guardian newspaper of UK.Here the selection and educational process failed,unfortunately for America.
How much did nepotism,career intensity, and megalomania among west point grads play into that fiasco and misery in Korean?
Can one say that the west point/service academy grads involved in the various aspects of the Vietnam war from the highest echelons of power,exhibited particularly strong leadership qualities?
And the current emphasis on home schooled/christian youths with service connections, will destroy the military.

Posted by: theopaine | March 30, 2010 10:18 AM
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Good article. You only left out a 'Fifth' part of the 'framework' for West Point's method for developing leaders. Its influence cannot be minimized.

That is the weighty effect on young cadet minds of the reputation of "The Long Gray Line - the 66,000 graduates who came before them. The 108 year record of turning out great American leaders during war and peace - from battle tested - many deceased - junior officers dying even now on the fields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the highest ranks of successful international military commanders, organizational and business leaders, to Presidents and heads of State.

With very few who did not live up all their lives at least to the awesome code of "Duty, Honor, Country"

If you don't think that influences both cadets trying to graduate against high academic, military, physical, and character standards, and graduates who know they follow in the footsteps of a farm boy from Kansas, Dwight Eisenhower, Lieutenant Andrew Summers, class of 1881 who 'Carried the Message to Garcia,' the Generals who fought against fellow graduates in the Civil War, yet remained faithful to the Union and won - well you just don't know how that knowledge at once gives cadets a model to emulate, and a standard to maintain. West Point's reputation counts.

Believe you me as just a young lad from Colorado, their awesome ghostly presence had a great influence on me before I graduated right into the maw of military defeat in the Korean War in 1950, where I was battle tested as few of my classmates had been before - 34 of them dying - while yet I succeeded as a leader.

My own record apparently measured up against the standards those men set before me for my 27 years of service. For after retiring 38 years ago as just a lowly Colonel of Infantry, I was annointed in 2004 by being designated a "Distinguished West Point Graduate."

So at the local Founder's Day Celebration' coming up, where I may be the oldest living graduate present in Colorado Springs at 81, I will endeavor to impart to the very young graduates from Fort Carson in the midst of two grueling wars and debating whether to let the nation down and resign their commissions, even with the memory of the sacrifices of the graduates before them. That they owe the Long Gray Line and the nation they swore to defend, perseverence to the end of those wars. Or die trying.

Where they can be comforted by the knowledge the mourners have that "He was a West Pointer."

Posted by: dave19 | March 16, 2010 9:52 PM
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I have wonderful friends and colleagues who graduated from West Point or one of the other academies. Some are talented leaders. Others not. Let's not get carried away and believe some undue magic in the military way of life or leadership for our whole country and every organization in it. Have seen quite a bozo's from the academies stumble through and fail in the private sector, and even civilian government. They are ordinary folks, just like the rest of us, and hallowed institutions, like the Army, go through really bad periods, e.g., late sixties and early seventies. Few leaders got produced then. And the vast majority of living academy graduates have never heard the sound of the guns, and are not "battle-tested." There is a lot of good news in that fact. "Battle-testing," by the way, can debilitate someone for the rest of his or her life, or end it. Regardless, we recognize every academy graduate and thank them for their service.

Posted by: axolotl | March 16, 2010 8:29 PM
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"The final part of the framework is the freedom to fail".

Not at West Point. Thereis a zero tolerance for failure at West Point; academic, athletic, honor or conduct. You fail - you gone...

A one-hundred-thousand-dollar education, rammed down your throat one nickle at a time...

Posted by: alfa73 | March 16, 2010 4:06 PM
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What an article - if you have not seen this month's Fortune Mag - go get it -- it is about Leadership and the impact that returing very educated captains in Marines, Army etc are having in the private sector -- they have the leadership, battle tested, led men and women, have advanced degrees and they are taking charge in the private sector. These guys and gals are hard working, know the value of team work, and the reuslts of good leadership. This WP article hits all of the very same points and is right on target. Thanks

Posted by: MackeysChoice | March 16, 2010 12:43 PM
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Thank you for this interesting article.
Leadership to me is the art of making ordinary people do extra-ordinary things. If I borrow someone's quote (Time Magazine-25 years ago-I am only praphrasing): "the great end of life is not knowledge, but action. World's most successful leaders, Gandhi, Roosevelt, Churchill and others, were not the most learned people on earth; but they all had one thing in common: they all acted with conviction". And of course, failure is the greatest teacher.

Posted by: ashoktha | March 16, 2010 9:21 AM
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"The final part of the framework is the freedom to fail."

Very important point that is often missed in business.
Freedom to fail encourages taking reasonable chances, and taking those chances is essential if progress is to be made. Also, failing at some task teaches a lot more to the individual than succeeding.
Obviously, I am not advocating failure as generally desirable, but it should be allowed to happen.

Posted by: observer31 | March 16, 2010 8:38 AM
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