Real Life Leading #3: The West Point Way of Leadership

Real Life Leading #3

The West Point Way of Leadership: From Learning Principled Leadership to Practicing It by Larry R. Donnithorne

          The third installment in our Real Life Leading series focuses on a book written by Col. Larry R. Donnithorne (Ret.), who is both a West Point graduate and a retired West Point instructor. This book describes the purpose of a West Point education and gives details about how West Point goes about achieving that purpose. It is one of the best leadership books I have come across, especially in its focus on the importance of character development.

          West Point is one of the world’s most recognized military academies, and I believe this is because it trains its cadets not just to be good soldiers and officers but to be men and women of character. At West Point, character development is the foundation of all good leadership. Thus, cadets must first learn to follow, they must first learn how much they don’t know, so that they can then learn how to lead from a place of character, rather than simply leading based on anything else.

          Building on this foundation of character development, West Point puts cadets in the position to make decisions as leaders, both theoretically (through often difficult and complex classroom discussions and debates on morality and leadership) and practically (through the many and varied drills, exercises, and real life decisions to be made). Thus, by the time they graduate, cadets have learned how to follow well, how to lead others, and how leadership begins and ends with character.

          The West Point statement of purpose puts it very clearly: “The purpose of the United States Military Academy is to provide the nation with leaders of character who serve the common defense.” Or, as Teddy Roosevelt put it, “Your duty here at West point has been to fit men to do well in wars. But it is a noteworthy fact that you have also fitted them to do well in peace.”

General Outline of the Book

I. White Phosphorus!

“ ‘Leader of Character’ is the phrase the Academy uses to describe the kind of leader it wants its cadets to become…A leader of character is absolutely trustworthy, even in times of great stress, and can be depended upon to put the needs of others…above personal considerations…in every instance.” (pg. 3-4)

          In our world, how much better would our families, our schools, our communities be if all of our leaders were leaders of character? Real Life Leading is all about serving others first, and a large part of this is integrity, being trustworthy and honest so that people can depend on you. This is exactly what is being described here. In our families, children need to be able to trust that their parents have the children’s best interests at heart. In our schools, students need to be able to trust that teachers care about them as people, not just as standardized test scores or marks in a gradebook. And in our country, we need leaders who will regain the public trust by serving, not by dictating or pandering or misleading. How would these things be possible? By becoming leaders of character.

II. Starting From Zero: Tearing Down Before Building Up

“Every leader is a follower. No one commands an organization without restraints…Their success depends in a large part on how well they have learned to follow.” (pg. 19)

“The beginning of followership is getting to zero: realizing all that you don’t know, and then opening yourself to the possibility of being remade into something more.” (pg. 20)

          This gets at the core of Real Life Leading through Confident Humility: being humble enough to admit you don’t know everything, and being confident enough to always continue to learn from those who know more. In every area of life, there are experts, and they are they experts because they continue to learn. But no one begins as an expert. And possibly the most useful lesson any new leader can learn is that they first need to listen and learn from others. Speaking from experience, many young leaders (myself included) quickly become prideful at being put in leadership positions at a younger age than is usual. And as a result, leaders often stagnate due to lack of continued learning, or they experience pushback as a result of an attitude of arrogance toward those who are following.

          It took me many failures and much loss to realize how arrogant I had become, and it is only through humbly admitting how much I have yet to learn that I began to see how many mistakes I’d made in role as a leader my family, in my classroom, and in my soccer program. If there is one major lesson I would impart to you, the reader, it would be to please be willing to listen and learn especially if you think you already know it all.

III. First Pass: Forging the Bonds That Hold the Organization Together

“The cadet’s moral education…begins with rules—with the honor code: a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” This commitment to honor “is the bedrock lesson of every other leadership lesson the Academy teaches.” (pg. 51)

“Strong organizations, such as West Point, draw their strength from deeply rooted values, which are meant to unify individuals into a community.” (pg. 57)

          In many situations, conflicting goals and values are what lead to problems with an organization, a team, or a family. Only through a shared commitment to common values will a group of people truly be able to accomplish the goals they have set. This means that leaders must learn to trust and to be trustworthy. In a family, that means understanding why certain things are allowed and certain things are not, especially if these things are different than what is ‘normal’ culturally. In a business, this means asking if the commitment is to customer service or to the bottom line, because those two things may often come into conflict.

          When everyone (or at least nearly everyone) is voluntarily committed to a set of shared values, everyone is working toward a common goal, and the result will take care of itself. This is especially important when it comes to situations when the morals are murky or when there could be two ‘right’ answers, because often one of the ‘right’ answers is clearly in line with the organization’s values whereas the other one is not (though it may appear to be the ‘easier right’ answer).

IV. Second Pass: Positioning the Individual Inside the Group

“Leadership entails having a mind broad enough to sense when the organization is wrong and a heart courageous enough to do something to fix it.” (pg. 88)

          How many times do we tell children and teens that they need to stand up for what is right, even when their peers are not? Is it possible that the reason youth find it difficult to do this is because we, as adults, have not modeled this for them? This is a very convicting aspect of Real Life Leading: that we need to be courageous enough to do what is necessary to fix problems, rather than just pointing out problems without working to find or create a solution. In our homes, in our communities, we need to be willing to listen to others and work with them to come up with helpful solutions to the difficulties we encounter.

          In my family, that may mean explaining to my teenage daughter why she is not allowed to have her own cell phone even when all of her classmates have had one for years. It may mean explaining why my children are not allowed to watch TV on school nights, or why we insist on a firm bedtime. Or it may mean talking about why we will stop and buy food for someone in need even if we are in a hurry to get somewhere. It also might mean something much bigger, such as why it is important to listen to people even when we disagree with them, to try to understand other points of view and discuss their legitimacy, rather than only insisting on our own perspective as the ‘right’ one. If we are to lead well, then Real Life Leading means being courageous enough to be different and to go against the norms.

V. Third Pass: Acquiring the Self-Reliance to Lead Others

“What the Academy teaches them [cadets] to do…is to go to extremes in matters of principle. One must become comfortable risking everything—one’s career, one’s life—to keep principles alive. Leadership requires this kind of commitment on a daily basis, not just when one is in a crisis.”

          This seems that it should be rather self-evident, and yet it is something that is clearly lacking in society today. Many people describe themselves as moral, or ‘basically good people,’ and yet they are all too quick to find exceptions to rules or loopholes in situations they find inconvenient or difficult. And often, in our Real Life Leading, we fail too. This is a great reminder that though we are not perfect, we should strive to be.

          We must be committed enough to our principles and values that we stick with them even when they are tested: in parenting, teaching, working, and marriage, we must stay true to our principles, even when they cost us. As the comedian Jon Stewart said, “If you don’t stick to your values when they are being tested, they’re not values—they’re hobbies.” And when we fail, we must be humble enough to admit our failure, accept the consequences, and do what we can to make right whatever we have made wrong. More on this another time!

Practical Takeaway

This week, choose one way in which you can learn more about leadership. Then, email me and let me know what you did and what you learned.