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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Leadership, the West Point way

March 16 was 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 behaviour.

Escalating challenges are part of the academy's distinctive leadership programme 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 organisation 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 organisations 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 programme 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.'


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