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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?

Mom was right

Q:Today Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is riding high, judging from his press clippings, while a year ago the same pundits wondered if he'd be forced to step down. Many leaders face these wild swings of perception: one moment a genius, the next a dolt. Should leaders pay attention to their own popularity - or lack of it?

In the realm of national politics, public image is unfortunately a huge motivating factor, especially perhaps on Capitol Hill. It seems like everyone is looking for an opportunity snatch a photo op or a chance to debate on ABC's "This Week." These are simply the facts of living in the information age. The public wants to see what their elected officials are up to, and most of us feel the need for some type of accountability.

The media usually equates low popularity with unsatisfactory job performance. But does low popularity actually indicate substandard job performance? Leaders cannot become so preoccupied with their public image it affects their ability to function in their current position. While it might make the president popular with many Americans if he suddenly proposed a plan to eliminate federal taxes, anyone who knows anything about fiscal policy would understand that this proposed policy would lead to the collapse of the world economy (again!)

Leaders are often called to make the hard choices, the ones that people don't want to make for their selves. I look back on all the times my mom told me to clean my room and do my homework -- unpopular decisions in my book. While at the age of ten I might have disliked those decisions, looking back, those unpopular choices were actually the right choices. My mother's decisions, like Tim Geithner's, took a little time to be fully and properly appreciated.

So, should leaders be concerned with their popularity? Yes and no. Public images are something everyone should keep an eye on, but not something that should completely preoccupy their time. After all, who wants a president who spends $400 on a haircut just for the camera? -- Cadet Alex Stodola

Popular, maybe, but still lacking

Leadership is no popularity contest. Elected officials will always have fluctuating approval ratings and swings of support. However, because opinion polls vary over time, a leader's conduct and integrity ought not to be as unpredictable.

Treasury Secretary Geithner's recent successes demonstrate a remedial triumph as well as a display of his expertise. Additionally, throughout the media-ignited controversy regarding the mismanagement of the Fed or the mystery of his missing tax payments, his ability to keep his head above the water is also quite noteworthy. There is a reason why President Obama elected to have him to run the Treasury.

Tim Geithner, however, has yet to accept any personal responsibility for the historic economic downfall that occurred earlier this fiscal year. As Steven Pearlstein effectively expressed in his column, Geithner has persistently identified the financial failure as a "perfect storm" that was unexpected and unstoppable, leaving no room for personal penitence.

Perhaps Geithner's popularity has healed with the economy, however, his reluctance to acknowledge his role and responsibility in the financial crisis reveals a considerable lack of leadership and kind of reputation that cannot be restored. -- Cadet Megan Snook

Square-jaw power

Bursts from a machine gun illuminate the night just long enough to distinguish the silhouette of bobbing heads against the black waves. We take a final breath and submerge to alligator-roll out of our rifle slings and ammunition vests. Pangs of carbon dioxide send a shrill message to our brain: get back to the surface.

The overhead lights flood the room and we cadets exit the combat-simulation pool, cursing the West Point Department of Physical Education ("Department of Pure Evil"). DPE is highly unpopular among cadets, but graduates consistently write back to their instructors to say that facing fear and failure in boxing class (beating), military movement (falling) and survival swimming (drowning) helped them while deployed.

After three years at West Point as a witness to both inspiring and repulsive leadership styles, I've concluded that popularity is irrelevant. I strive to be a competent, trustworthy, and respected leader; I don't care if subordinates think that I'm a swell guy. If I have to choose, I would rather be feared than loved.

A caveat: perhaps leaders are most effective when subordinates fear disappointing them. Major Tommy Sowers, the former chairman of the Undergraduate Journal of Social Sciences at West Point, led the burgeoning journal to prominence largely through an infusion of commanding presence and supreme competence that some cadets call "square-jaw power:" the ability to build a phalanx of valued members on a winning team who operate as a unit. Meetings with Major Sowers put pep into the step of the journal staff; we couldn't stand to let him down, which was indicative of his leadership style.

Major Sowers was liked because he was highly effective at his role as an advisor, well-respected and absolutely trusted. Even those members whose personalities clashed with his agreed that he was invaluable to the organization. After all, a respected, reliable and able leader tends to garner the support of her cohort - whether it's lives or profit that lie in limbo.

The same conversations have echoed off of West Point's granite walls for more than two centuries. One of the central strands of that dialogue is what it means to truly take care of soldiers. In a time of war, that increasingly means four-to-eight workdays and thrice-a-day workouts -- not exactly popular decisions. -- Cadet Sam Goodgame

Enjoy the sun -- while it lasts

Generally speaking, yes, leaders should pay attention to their own popularity because, like it or not, followers certainly pay attention to it. Public opinion, whether supported with evidence or not, can turn a leader from hero to zero overnight.

A better question is "Should leaders react to their own popularity polls? Or stay the course based on one's own personal ideology? Ask former president George W. Bush how difficult it is to not be swayed by public opinion and to "stay the course."

Making tough decisions isn't always popular, that's why leaders get paid the big bucks (or so they say). Truly authentic leaders make decisions not because they will be the most popular or because they will secure one re-election, but because they are the right decisions to be made.

In light of Tim Geithner's tumultuous first year, my advice is for Geithner is to enjoy the recent sunny days. Tomorrow is another day and though I'm not a meteorologist, it looks like a chance of rain in the days ahead. -- Major Chris Midberry

More than gratification

Popularity matters. It has ever since human beings have been social creatures and leadership has been a people-centric business. Social psychology says that liking can be a powerful weapon of influence, which underscores the potential for popularity to be harnessed toward achieving desired ends. Without a doubt, persuasion augmented by popularity can serve as a tremendous asset in a leader's tactful interactions, especially when politics are involved. And in the field of politics, the pressure to produce results can quickly become insurmountably great.

But is leadership solely about results? At what point does this asset of popularity begin to distort our vision of what it means to truly lead?

When we allow an excessive concern over personal popularity to act as the driving force behind our behavior, we lose sight of the bigger picture of leadership. This is when the barometer of public approval can actually become a hindrance. Fortunately for us, extremes often have a way of reaching equilibrium in the long run. Wide swings in popularity tend to gravitate toward an average, just as facades or attempts to falsely influence that popularity are apt to fade. Over repeated interactions, the true content of one's character and the intent of one's actions are bound to reveal themselves. And when this happens, any leader will attest that the popular support for one's rightful heart far outweighs the gratification felt from the popular support of one's facade. -- Cadet Woo Do

What's your mission?

Elected officials should absolutely pay attention to their popularity. How else can they gauge how they are performing their jobs, which are a series of purely subjective decisions? They are subordinate to the will and perceptions of their constituents, who either reelect them or oust them.

Military leaders, in contrast, should not consider popularity nearly to the extent that other leaders do. Their job is not to be representative of their subordinates, but to set standards and provide an example for them to follow.

So it is important to differentiate between missions of the leadership roles in determining how strictly a leader should adhere to public opinion. Think of it this way: The government empowers the constituent population by allowing them to change their leaders. But the military empowers leaders by allowing them to develop their subordinates, and effectively, control their constituents.

However, it is interesting to note that at an institutional level, the Armed Forces are intended to be subordinate to civilian society. But the military has recently acted with the same autonomy it grants to its officers. The exclusion of women in combat and ban on open homosexuality is at odds with an increasingly inclusive American public, which has caused a significant strain in civil-military relations. In the near future, the military will be redirected to represent its constituents, the American public, or it will continue to operate as its own entity.

In short, elected leaders, appointed leaders, and organizations as a whole should consider popularity only when it pertains to their missions. Though in the case of the U.S. Military, significant reevaluation needs to occur to determine what exactly these missions are. -- Cadet Katie Miller

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 15, 2010; 12:53 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

Stop complaining! I still remember,
I was in "river" courses when I was (14).
We had to jump off a pier in full clothes (pants and shirts), swim off and then build flotation devices from the clothes.

The "cheek pull" , higly effective when outmatched in size. Or when a opponent picks you up off the ground.

Reacting in moves? I'm a horrible Chess player.

Posted by: EarthCraft | April 16, 2010 11:30 AM
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Oh...Cadet Goodgame.

I completely get the "square-jaw" power you're talking about, but please, please don't latch onto that as an effective leadership model in and of itself. I read other attributes you connect to Major Sowers and I'd suggest it's those you followed...not some physical shell or "mask of command."

Secondly, there are lots of shades of gray between "feared" and "loved" and I'd strongly encourage you to pick something in between. I suspect part of what you're writing might simply be hyperbole, but it's important enough a point that you should think about this some more...a lot more given where you are in your development as a cadet.

I've tried this (the "square-jaw" power). It works for a time and could, in some circumstances, work for an extended time. However, it ultimately fails...all of the time. The Army values say nothing resembling "square-jaw" power and a quick recitation of Schofield's should prove sufficient reminder.

Good luck in your remaining days at West Point.


Stephen Ingalls
Lieutenant Colonel (Retired)
USMA '82

Posted by: ltcingalls | April 16, 2010 10:37 AM
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