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West Point Cadets
West Point cadets and instructors

West Point Cadets

A group of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions. Who better to explore the gray areas of leadership than members of The Long Gray Line?

Crossing the Euphrates

Q: How can a senior leader encourage junior leaders to act and make decisions when they find themselves without specific guidance? How can a junior leader know when it's right to take charge?

Leading in the absence of specific guidance requires competence and confidence. The latter without the former is called recklessness. A leader must train their subordinate leaders well so that a level of expertise is developed in a training environment before a real "take charge" crucible arrives. This is not classroom or seminar training, but rather hands-on experience with brutally honest feedback.

I was the battalion executive officer, second in command of a combat unit of 650 soldiers, during the invasion of Iraq. My commander was miles away, and I was faced with a very important decision; we were critically low on water, food and ammunition, and we still had a job to do. I made a risky decision, in the absence of specific guidance, which resulted in our unit receiving all the supplies we needed just prior to pushing across the Euphrates River. Some of my peers chose to wait for more specific guidance, and they watched us continue the fight while they sat idle.

I was not a bigger risk taker, or for that matter a better leader -- I was just better trained. My decision was not completely rational, and absolutely no bravado was involved. I was simply confident that going to get what we needed, rather than waiting for it to arrive, was the right thing to do. I knew that for two reasons.

First, I knew my commander wanted our unit in the fight without excuse. Second, the training and mentorship I had received from my leaders over the previous year provided me with the expert knowledge I needed regarding logistical operation in austere environments. If I were not competent, I would have been left to reckless guessing. -- Col. Eric G. Kail


Pay it forward

Great leadership can be defined in many ways, but ultimately great leaders need to be able to act without guidance when a situation calls for it. West Point is known for its leadership development, and it is through my experiences here that I have been able to understand and appreciate that quality in a leader.

During my third summer at West Point, I had the opportunity to be a squad leader for Cadet Basic Training. Together with other cadets tasked with leadership, we were trained by active duty soldiers in the weeks before the "New Cadets" arrived. When they did arrive, we were expected to train them, drawing on the training we had just received.

Throughout the summer there were many instances in which I did not have very clear guidance but I was able to competently make decisions and effectively lead my squad. I could do this because my senior leaders had prepared me to lead on my own. I always knew the intent of my leaders, so that even if I lacked specific guidance at times, I still had the ability to make decisions consistent with what I knew my commander's intent to be.

Ultimately, it takes open communication to ensure congruent understanding of the mission. This professional development from senior leaders affords their junior leaders the opportunity to know how and when to take charge. -- Cadet Katie Woodhams


In the military and civilian sector, senior leaders continually seek ways to encourage their subordinates to make decisions and act in the face of ambiguity. The odds of junior leaders rising to this challenge and succeeding, however, is greatly reduced unless senior leaders foster the proper command climate early on. One way to encourage junior leaders to rise to the challenge is to foster innovation among them.

Actively seeking out innovative solutions from subordinates and challenging them to experiment with new ideas may help them to act on their own and succeed when little guidance is provided in the future. Of course some innovative ideas will fail, and that's tolerable if the leader learns from the experience.

Walt Disney built one of the most recognizable companies in the world from nothing by encouraging experimentation within his organization. Many of Disney's experiments failed, but Disney did not punish subordinates who tried new things. As long as his employees took adequate preparations to make their innovative solutions feasible and they learned something valuable from their failure that would help them to succeed in the future, Disney empowered them. As a result of his attitude and leadership, Disney's employees were not afraid to take action and experiment. These policies led the Disney Company to made huge advances in the field of animation and the creation of films that are still considered classics 70 years later.

As leaders, we must strive to instill in our subordinates the initiative and training that empowers them to act without specific guidance. By fostering a climate of innovation and accountability within the organization, leaders might help their subordinates to adopt this mind set and succeed when their leader is not present. -- Cadet Brian McBee

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 West Point Cadets

 |  April 22, 2010; 12:55 PM ET
Category:  Leadership development Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Too bad all that valor was for naught in the War About Nothing. Better luck next time.

Posted by: politbureau | April 23, 2010 12:57 PM
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Basically, you are demonstrating trust in your subordinates, and responsibility in yourself for the results of that trust. Most people cannot let go of the need to micromanage and control other people. But the rules are steasy through time- authority can be delegated, but responsibility cannot. Thus, Buford may have been on his own when he made his decisions, but his supervisor, General Meade, took responsibility in supporting Buford's action (even as it meant abandoning his fortified position at Pipe Creek to fight at Gettysburg).

This also is where most managers fail today. They want to delegate responsibility while retaining all authority. That leads to temporary or permanaent failure for the organization, but results in enormous satisfaction for the supervisor.

Posted by: LeeH1 | April 23, 2010 9:23 AM
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