On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

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?

Entrepreneurship and sweat

Q: In appointing a new Supreme Court Justice to replace John Paul Stevens, President Obama was seeking someone who could provide intellectual and personal leadership of the liberal block. His gamble in nominating Elena Kagan is bringing in someone from outside the 'priesthood' of appeals-court judges. What are the advantages and disadvantages of selecting a leader with non-traditional qualifications?

An Army officer in Afghanistan might expect to see the following on a day's to-do list:

* Arbitrate dispute between Tajik tribal elder and angry goat herders
* Coral livestock (see bullet #1) into stable for rabies vaccinations
* Build rapport with families by passing out soccer balls
* Build girls' school
* Protect said school from mortar attacks
* Remove sunglasses and body armor; drink no fewer than three cups of chai with Pashtun shopkeeper/hopeful Taliban informant
* Conduct 15-kilometer foot patrol to find and destroy weapons caches

The Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point has a saying: "Confidence is confidence is confidence; leadership is leadership is leadership." West Point doesn't attempt to teach cadets what to think in every possible situation; it teaches us how to solve an array of problems. The military will always need officers who can accurately lob artillery rounds and conduct proper L-shaped ambushes. However, it is also the only government organ large enough to build nations. And in today's globalized, digitized world, the best nation-builders are problem-solvers.

Other than the fundamentals -- sterling character, tactical and technical proficiency and physical fitness -- I believe there is no longer a set résumé for the modern military officer. The proper tonic simply seems to be a mixture of entrepreneurship and sweat.

I argue that the same logic applies to other forms of leadership, to include as a Supreme Court Justice. If Elena Kagan secures a seat on the bench, it's implied that she needs to re-visit her academic and legal experience within the context of her new job: interpreting the Constitution on behalf of the country. In this case, critiquing her interpretations, character and personality make sense -- but just because she hasn't been a judge before does not mean that she can't be one now. -- Cadet Sam Goodgame

Non-traditional leaders solve non-traditional problems

The year is 2010, the president of the United States is not white, the secretary of state is not a man, and same-sex marriages are granted in multiple states. The U.S. today is not the same nation that it was 10 years ago. With a country that has experienced significant shifts in political views, demographics, and public policies, citizens need leaders who are capable of managing and envisioning positive change.

By "bringing in someone from outside the 'priesthood,'" President Obama may have taken a risk, but judging by her background and qualifications, it was not a grave one. Elena Kagan has already made history. She has been previously nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals, served as Associate White House Counsel under President Clinton, excelled as the first female dean of Harvard Law School, and finally she was named the first female solicitor general, often referred to as "the 10th justice."

In any field, be it the business world, the military, government or the Supreme Court, effective leaders promote change and innovation. Elena Kagan's unique journey, in and out of the court, is what will make her transition to the bench a successful one. -- Cadet Megan Snook

Meritocracy at all costs

The source of America's strength rests on the fact that our society is one that values meritocracy and rewards progress. It is this progress that has brought us closer to the very ideal of equality touted since our founding, even as we take an honest look in the mirror and acknowledge our imperfections, both past and present. It's been a long time coming, and the pursuit of pure equality remains a challenge. Yet progress that generates equality while undercutting meritocracy is not really progress at all. It is dangerous, especially in the context of such an elite group as the Supreme Court, to dabble in politicking at the expense of what our citizens truly demand and deserve.

America's citizens rarely require more than the meritocracy and pursuit of progress that have brought us this far. Fortunately for us, unique opportunities to impact America's legacy present themselves at occasions like the nomination of a Supreme Court justice. It is invigorating to see such powerful women as Elena Kagan rise to the occasion, not because they are women but because of their merit as citizens. Rather than make the distinction that Elena Kagan is "non-traditional" or "from outside the priesthood," let's focus on the tremendous things this model citizen has done to benefit our country. Qualifications outweigh a checkmark listing non-traditional race, gender, or creed on any given application, on any given day.

Diversity ought not to be pursued for the sake of diversity alone. Rather, it is by virtue of merit that America will cease not to progress. And as we empower those bearing merit, we will be surprised by how diverse they really are. -- Cadet Woo Do

No place for buyer's remorse

The disadvantage of selecting a leader with non-traditional qualifications is the fear of the unknown. In the case of nominating Ms. Elena Kagan as the next Supreme Court Justice nominee, the unknown is her judicial stance on the issues, given her lack of "bench time" as a judge. Granted, this is a pretty big disadvantage given the impact of the position and her potential longevity at the seat.

The advantage to selecting a leader with non-traditional qualifications is that these leaders often bring with them non-traditional thought and innovation. Ms. Elena Kagan's academic and professional accolades clearly set her in a category of her own. If the president is willing to nominate her it would seem to me that this supposed risk of the "unknown" is a risk worth taking, at least in his eyes.

The fundamental decision criteria becomes which side outweighs the other, the advantages or the disadvantages? Though I am a firm believer in the methodology of "mixing things up" with respect to leaders and their qualifications, my only question would be: Is the Supreme Court the place to experiment? Once the Senate confirms Ms. Kagan, which it likely will, there will be no place for buyer's remorse. -- Major Chris Midberry

Ivy League monopoly

Non-traditional qualification is the key term here. Is Kagan qualified? If your answer is yes, then who cares what tradition her qualifications originate from?

Dean of Harvard Law and Solicitor General -- these titles show Kagan is qualified, but "for what?" is the question. She has little concept from the judge's side of the bench, so her disadvantage is a lack of practical experience. On the other hand, Kagan's advantage is also the diversity she can bring to the court; she's young and has more experience of academia, in addition to being a woman.

If all of the Supreme Court Justices were the exact same people, then they would be at the risk of group-think and would lack the spark of creativity that is the staple of progression. And that's not just for the Court; it goes for any organization, which is why companies and teams welcome diverse backgrounds. But don't be fooled, if Kagan is selected, then every last member on the Court will have had an Ivy League education, so there is a risk of them being too much the same. -- Cadet Christina Tamayo

Changing the status quo -- really?

America's great diversity is often cited as many as being America's greatest strength. This diversity, however, is not always reflected in everyday life. After all, it's easier to work with people who agree with you most of the time. Often times, as leaders, we are called upon to "shake things up" by adding something to upset the status quo. In organizations, these changes are often the addition of new leaders who come from unique, nontraditional backgrounds.

For example, the new GM CEO, Edward Whitacre Jr., was previously the president of the Boy Scouts of America and CEO of AT&T, both have almost nothing to do with running a huge and bankrupt automaker. However, his nontraditional approaches helped GM pay back their government bailout years early and on the track to future profitability.

I am assuming President Obama is hoping Elena Kagan will bring some nontraditional ways of thinking to the nation's highest court. She's not the first non-judicial appointee, but just the first in a long time. I don't know enough about the legal system to make a definitive argument on whether not being a judge will affect her ability to become a Supreme Court justice, but I feel that Kagan will most likely bring something different to the table.

It also depends on how one looks at diversity. While Kagan might not be a judge, she will become the 6th current Supreme Court justice to have graduated from Harvard Law School; the other three graduated from Yale Law School. If President Obama wanted to truly diversify the Supreme Court, why didn't he select a candidate from a non-Ivy League school? -- Cadet Alex Stodola

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

 |  May 11, 2010; 4:31 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Caring for society | Next: Infusing new blood

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company