126: Col. Everett Spain, part 2: West Point’s Head of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership (transcript)

January 28, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Everett Spain

When thinking about the environment would you think that the army would be quick to change or late to change? In my second conversation with Colonel Everett Spain he talks about using only one plastic bottle where he would have used something like 40. He also talks about how he had already reduced his garbage from leading a garrison in Germany. He also reduced his family’s use. And this is long term change. I recommend in particular listening for his emotional change. Would you say listening to him that he considers his life better or worse for this change? You’ll also get to hear about West Point’s mascot races and how that promoted cleanliness. You’ll also hear about 50 minutes in the leadership technique that’s evolved through doing this podcast a lot. Well, I’ll let you listen to it to hear how he recommend influencing others to lead people to enjoy acting on the environment. So let’s listen to Everett.


Joshua: Welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek. I am here with Everett Spain. How are you?

Everett: Great. Thanks for coming up to West Point again, Josh.

Joshua: Glad to be here again. Thanks for hosting me. And I believe we should get out of the way right off the bat. You have the official statement you have to read.

Everett: Sure. Sure. I’d just like to offer in addition to thanking you for interviewing me today that the opinions that I’ll express in this interview or Everett Spain’s alone are not endorsed by the United States Military Academy, United States Army or Department of Defense. Thank you.

Joshua: OK. And this space is really amazing. You know Frances Hesselbein was the one who started the process of me finding out about and she always describes this holy ground and it really is. And I was going to talk about this first but I talked to you about the amazing environment here and how it’s changed my view of how to learn leadership, how to practice leadership among many other things. So again, thank you for having me here.

Everett: Thank you. You know Colin Powell who was chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and was not a West Point graduate famously said something [unintelligible] He considered West Point to be the wellspring of character in leadership for the army. Which is a pretty big compliment. We’re proud of that.

Joshua: I was going to say as well you should be as if it’s my place to evaluate these things.

Everett: But it is as we mentioned last time it belongs to you as American citizen.

Joshua: And as a taxpayer. Thank you. It is impossible to be here without feeling patriotic. I can’t imagine anyone not feeling that way and to feel a part of… You hear the phrase “longer line” and I don’t think I would say I’m a part of the longer line. But it’s certainly an honor just to be around it, just to feel that. Anyway. Enough about me.

Let’s talk about much more mundane things like plastic bottles. Since the last time we spoke I believe that you have been bringing in plastic bottles to avoid using disposable ones. And I’m curious how that’s gone. What are the facts of the situation of what’s happened?

Everett: Here are the facts. So just to set the context before the challenge. I have a small refrigerator in my room for all [unintelligible] that might not be able to visualize they used to keep twenty-five or so water bottles and then I would take a cup one day and drink them and use them and recycle the bottles. And then Josh challenged me to reconsider that a little bit that I’d be a better steward of the environment. Those are my words, not sort of his but that’s what he’s asking me. And so I took the challenge and I made a self-goal of using a reusable water bottle now and I’ve been successful. Happy to report that I have used extensively in the last month, in fact so much I left it somewhere else yesterday afternoon in the department. And this morning I was walking around looking for my recyclable water bottle which is a great problem now because I even take it with me when I walk around the department now.

Joshua: So you looking around for it means earlier you would have just gone to the fridge and gotten a bottle. Is that right?

Everett: That’s exactly right. I probably would have [unintelligible] you know 40 plastic bottles of water since that time if we hadn’t had that conversation. And now I have recyclable water bottle you know there’s no waste for that for sure.

Joshua: So like 40 bottles. And if that’s a benefit the cost was… Was there cost to this?

Everett: There’s a little bit of cognitive load. You have to have a little bit of discipline in your life to keep up with something and avoid maybe something that might be a little more convenient at the moment for you. There’s a little of this… I don’t act like it’s a big deal but a little bit of selflessness to decide to use something that takes a little bit of your own accountability, takes you going to get a refill or just grab another one out of the fridge you know go down to the water found and fill it up. But no, not a significant cost by any means but certainly you have to reprogram your habits.

Joshua: OK, so reprograming the habits. I mean part of teaching leadership is to get habits habitual. And I would guess you picked 30 days. I would guess that’s from your experience was… Why 30 days? I think I know the answer. Well, it’s…

Everett: So 30 days is a good number of a pilot program of any sort. We pilot things in the army all the time, we pilot things at West Point and a 30-day period is good enough that you can see trends and you can reassess. So also, it’s a good time for you to be able to come back up to check on how I’m doing with it.

Joshua: OK. I was going to guess also that you’re anticipating that by that time the cognitive load would go away there was habitual and you didn’t have to think about it.

Everett: It’s funny you said that because earlier, I think it was yesterday even I was thinking about it that my behavior is shifting a little bit because of this, because I’ve been thinking about it at home as well. It’s easier to use a recyclable glass or something at home but still water bottles are an option when I run out the door to work out, to go take my kids somewhere, to go to a practice, let’s grab a water bottle or grab a recyclable bottle. And now my natural state is to look for a reusable bottle. So I think it’s starting to change my behavior. So kind of you got it earlier you know our choices and our actions over time become our habits and our habits get internalized and then that internalization becomes our character and no longer you having to choose to make those actions. They just become natural. So hopefully I’m getting more in that cycle of making an environmentally conscious decision at least with using a reusable water bottle.

Joshua: It sounds like that one’s maybe not totally automatic but you weren’t describing suffering when you were looking for the bottle yesterday. And am I reading that you’re… Okay you took it from here and now you’re applying it to home. It sounds like you’re applying it in other places. And here’s a way I think of it. Is this applicable to you? I don’t want to lead the witness here but to me I feel like if I make a little change to my life and it improves my life, then the next change I don’t want to make a small change. I want to make a bigger change. Because if it improves my life, I should do more. And that’s what’s led me to do things like not flying and all these other things that I do that I wouldn’t have conceived of before. How does that sound to you? Is that consistent with your experience?

Everett: Well, I think it matters what drives us. You know we are driven my personal satisfaction in making a difference and for others like you know we’re having an early conversation about. I think the pride in taking care of your environment is leaving it better or at least as good for people that will follow us. You know we know many of those people by name but there’s hopefully millions more that we don’t. And so you know I’ve been thinking about the water bottle problem. It’s a challenge that can potentially leave the world a little better for others. And if that gives me a little personal satisfaction which it does it’s always encouraging that maybe something bigger can lead to even more personal satisfaction.

Joshua: I’m reading more and more benefits and less and less cost. It seems like this is like… There are a lot of exercises people could do to learn about themselves to grow and develop, to challenge themselves. And that feels like it’s fitting in. Is that what it has become for you?

Everett: I think it’s been fun. I appreciate the challenge. I think the older we get, the less likely we are to do things like this. You know we’re challenged a lot in our youth by external sources, our teachers, our parents, our mentors. When we get older people just don’t challenge us anymore. I think they expect us to challenge them. So I found it a little bit amusing the challenge and I found it fun in retrospect. And even though it’s a small thing in the scope of the world it’s been neat.

Joshua: I like this. Let the record show amusing, fun, neat and recalling childhood.

Everett: It’s funny. There was a little bit related story from my dad. He was a small businessman and had his own health practice actually. And it wasn’t in a poor neighborhood of Pensacola Florida and it was in a mixed residential commercial neighborhood and right across the street from my dad was a couple of private residents and single-family homes had chain link fence around it in the front yard which you usually don’t see. Those were for security. It was not the safest place at night.

Joshua: Is this a story you told last time about cleaning up..?

Everett: Oh, yes.

Joshua: Because he didn’t really have the chance to do.

Everett: That’s right. Cleaning up the bottles. So I wonder if those bottles in my mind made it, “Hey, I’m cleaning the bottles now in a different way.” Right now I’m cleaning up bottles in a different way by not creating bottles, brothers.

Joshua: This is what I think is the real value that I’m trying… One of the main things motivating me behind the podcast is that it’s nice to clean up the environment but it’s a big world and we don’t as individuals make that much of a difference. Now I don’t think of it that way. I think of the skills you learn as you develop the skills that improve your life more and more but also everyone has something… What people care about the environment whether it’s cleanliness and purity or connection with family or camping or beauty or aesthetic things, there’s always something deeply resonant. You talked about your father last time and it didn’t take long for you to think of something to act on. I think that’s almost inevitable. It’s not everywhere in life that you find things that resonate at that level. Watching TV doesn’t get it. Cooking and food can get it. It certainly connects with my mom. And somehow I think environmental action almost always connects with something really deeply meaningful like that. How about your other relationships? That’s always a challenge is sometimes… Well, actually, I don’t know how was it for you but for a lot of people how they interact with others because they find themselves in a situation where “Whoops, I didn’t do this.” and I don’t know… Did your interactions with others get affected?

Everett: Well, I’m thinking of actually a professional experience that became deeply personal that may be someone akin to what you’re asking about. On one of my assignments in the operating army was as a community commander…U.S. Army Garrison Commander for swine for Germany, the United States forces there and there were about 3500 soldiers and about 7000 additional Americans that were family members, civilian employees or retirees, etc. So there was about 10000 Americans and I was the equivalent of the mayor, the United States mayor for them living in Germany. And anyone knows that moves to Germany that their recycle laws are much more developed and Americans would consider stranger than they are in the United States even. And in even the more progressive parts of the United States is significantly different. And I remember when my wife and I moved there first time we lived in a private residence above a German business the Kurtz family who became very close friends. They brought us our trash can and it was [unintelligible] can which means kind of trash in its purest form. It was what you had left over after you recycle everything that was recyclable basically. It was smaller than a traditional bedroom trash can that we would have in the United States. And they said, “Here’s your trash can.” And I was like, “How often does it get picked up?” And they were, “It’s like once a week or once every two weeks.” I was like, “We’ll fill that up in half a day.” And they were like, “Not in Germany, you won’t.”

And so we had a couple options to fight that or to try to, “Hey, maybe we can learn and see how the Germans do it.” And we tried option B and it was really fun to try to learn or recycle and grow our ability to take care of the environment and they’re right. We could get all our trash in that pretty easily after a few months of just being more thoughtful with our recycling. And the reason I mentioned that is personal is because when you’re in command and I was privileged to “command” that community it becomes part of you over time. So I think when I left Germany the values that were part of our life there became part of me. And I think that still is inside of me.

Joshua: How does that interact with… So there’s you interacting with people. You’re also here at West Point and so there’s a lot of people working in your department and there’s all the students and all the cadets coming through. Does this affect culture… I mean you have some influence over culture. I mean obviously it’s been around for a long time, you’re one person. But is it getting out from you to others and do you foresee more changes coming from even just this exercise?

Everett: So I think that’s going to be a choice I’m going to have going forward. I’ve been thinking about since we’re talking here, “Well, can I help influence my kids to use less water bottles and more just for the same example more reusable bottle, you know less disposable, more reusable?” I think it’s really up to me. You know a friend of mine used to say about the army, “If you want an elite unit, make it.” So if you want an environmentally thoughtful family or organization, you know lead it.

Joshua: Now I have to… Well, this is an invitation to… I’d love to hear somewhere six months from now, a year from now whenever if it’s propagated in some way so I’ll leave an open invitation to come back if things like that have happened.

Everett: Thanks, Josh. It’s exciting.

Joshua: Actually, even if they don’t because I’d like to know either way.

Everett: Yeah.


Joshua: So you started going institutional. What’s the next step, if any?

Everett: I think it’s funny this morning I took my white paper to the recycle bins and it was just fun it just happened to be today. I did it myself. I don’t know. I think I just need to share with… The best place to start is with my kid. I think I have four and the best place to start is hey, just give them a challenge. And if I give them a challenge, I’ll be more accountable to that same challenge just so maybe we start at the same place you started with me and that’s the water bottle challenge as perhaps a good place to start. And then you know the best way to learn something is to teach it. So the best way to succeed at challenges is maybe to give them and see if that has a parallel effect and it will be fun to see. So maybe our kids or have a conversation or we’ll see Spain family can do better in that way and what second and third order effects happen from there.

Joshua: I want to refine how I look at it where I started because, from my perspective, I didn’t start with giving you a challenge. From my perspective I started by asking you “What about the environment you care about if anything?” And then once you shared that then it was to connect that to “Would you like to act on that value?”

Everett: No, I think you’re right.

Joshua: And that way because my goal in this podcast and I’m saying is partly to you but also to the listeners if they want influence themselves, if they want influence others, my goal is not to tell people what to do. I think there’s a lot of people doing that. The effectiveness of that I don’t think a very high. Oh, it’s going to be effective if people want to be told what to do. I think more effective is to find out what people care about, connect that passion to the task and then if it’s done effectively, they do it for themselves not for me, not for anyone else. And then it sticks.

Everett: That’s right.

Joshua: And the quality comes from inside, the desire to…

Everett: Yes, it internalizes versus… We teach follower outcomes in our power and influence classes we teach at West Point and two of the follower outcomes are identification and internalization. I mean there’s a lot but the four big ones are resistance, compliance, identification and internalization. So it’s interesting because identification is when the follower will do what the leader role models ask of them when the leader is in that ecosystem. But when the leader leaves eco system the follower tradition goes back to their behavior before. Maybe not immediately, maybe it’s not by choice but you just kind of go back to your behavior before whatever it was. But internalization is a step most leaders are after, at least mostly as a character and that’s when by role modeling or asking folks to do things that you do in such a way that over time it becomes internalized as their own character that when that leader goes away it sticks. It’s stuck.

Joshua: Yeah, that’s what’s missing in the environment. You will not find… I challenge you to find someone who says, “I don’t care about the environment.” I mean they might say, “I don’t believe in global warming.” but they won’t say, “I won’t litter on my lawn.” They won’t say, “I want my kids to have asthma.” But the price of gas drops and they buy an SUV and that’s what you just said. And it’s weird to me to think of like what did you mean when you said you cared if when your behavior if it comes down to it you don’t act on it. And yeah, that’s why I think that starting with their own values is the big thing and I don’t know what people will come up with. You came up with one thing. Your kids might not care about something where bottles are relevant but they might care about something where… It’s up to them. You know their thing. And I have to be open to people… Their passion is going to be their passion. Some people it’s composting, some people it’s not getting mugs or bring mugs, not bringing whatever you dispose of plastic stuff. So I don’t know if the kids will be… If you give them the plastic bottle challenge and they don’t care about that you might get them to dislike what you want them to behavior you’re looking for.

Everett: Sure. I mean another thing we could do is we can talk to kids about… You know start talking to them a little bit about the environment itself, how it is important they’re all outdoorsy anyways, they enjoy sports and being outside and let them come up their challenge a little bit. And then it’s more likely to be at least interesting and that’s more likely to lead to the cycle of you know the habits, the internalization, the character.

Joshua: How does this fit in with leadership at West Point? I mean you teach it. You’ve learned it. I’m kind of curious about how this leadership style technique fits in with…

Everett: Yeah. There’s a couple of things going on. One is you know we teach these five facets of character. We might have talked about them last time but I find character to be too simple of a word. It means too many things to too many people to be effective teaching unless we further define it. So we define them here as one of the facets is moral character and that’s integrity, honesty, kind of the standard character things most people think of. And then they’re in no particular order. There’s civic character which is doing more than your share, voting, volunteering. And I would say a lot of the environmental things we’re talking about fall into civic character because the choices you can make for others that don’t really directly benefit you back at least in the short term. It’s just serving the community around you is civic character. And just to finish these off, there is social character which is how you treat others 24/7. And because a lot of us especially apropos or apropos doing with social media you know people can form other identities and treat people differently when people don’t know who they are. So we’re very big on social character 24/7. There’s performance character. A lot of times sports teams’ coaches will talk about that, “My gals hung in there till the end. Therefore, they had character.” Well, that’s not really the same character I’m talking about [unintelligible] you’re stealing or are voting or be respectful of people you know in relationships. But it is important part of the character to have grit and resilience and hardiness to stick with the task to the end. And the last part of character or facet that we want West Pointers to have is leadership character and this falls in the environment a little bit as well and that is just not good enough for a West Pointer to have those other four facets of character and display them throughout their life. We expect them to influence others with their character. Your character has a defect if you’re around people that are showing poor character and you won’t intervene. So the civic character comes to mind and the leadership character comes to mind when we talk about leadership in the environment. T

The other thing that comes to mind that’s a different kind of way of looking at things is a cycle we’ve talked about a few times in this podcast about we teach a character development cycle here at West Point that is your actions over time become your habits that become internalized which becomes your character. And if we’re making these choices of reusable water bottles or whatever it is or not flying airplanes or whatever over time it is not so hard to make that choice of that action. It starts becoming the habit which is now internalized which you now don’t have to make that choice anymore and you get it. You could go to more advanced choices that you’re making as we develop people’s character.

So West Point over four years a lot of things we do is we have people do things that are right things to do even though they may not believe it. And that repetition form takes the actions of the habit which hopefully [unintelligible] internalization in their true character before they’re gone. A silly example, one that’s always fun is at the home football games at army. They’re not doing this year but the last five years we did what we call mascot races in between the third and fourth quarter which is a lot of TV time outs now when you have a good football team. So there’s all kinds of time. So there’s like a five-minute gap in between the quarters where the teams are doing straight. It’s like a time out and they bring out the mascots. Every cadet company at West Point there’s 36 kind of randomly assigned sub organizations a cadet is assigned to kind of care and accountability and a leader development. Each one of them is like the C to circus or they F to zoo or the H for Hall. They all have some kind of mascot. S little bit at random like a sports team. And these mascots usually have costumes and they usually get a cadet to be their mascot out of the hundred twenty-five companies one of the more spirited cadets. They used to have mascot races at halftime. The cadets would line up on the [unintelligible] and all dressed up and they did somewhat of a relay or they run to the 10-yard line back to the end zone, then to the 20-yard line back to the endzone same person, 30-yard line, 40-yard line, 50-yard line. [unintelligible] But along the way it had a recycle theme to it. So you’re picking up a piece of recycling that was put at each of those yard lines instead of a baton and when you ran back over into the last time you dumped all the things into the recycle bin as your fetish you know that was hitting the bottom of the obstacle course or whatever it was. And you know it was spirited and fun for a lot of reasons but it was also a strategic way to build a habit for it and to watch our 4000 cadets watch a cadet recycle and cheer for them as they go. So that’s one way we did that West Point.

Joshua: And also, it’s a sign of hope. You wonder are we going to turnaround in time…You know a lot of predictions, doom and gloom and then a lot of people saying, “Well, humans are very ingenious and maybe we’ll solve some things.” And you wonder kind of are we going to do it in time and so forth. And I think from the outside I don’t know what it’s like from the inside but from the outside I think people expect the army is one of the last places to change. But it sounds like no one was telling them they had to do that. It probably came from the inside.

Everett: So I don’t know the origin of it, to be honest with you. I think we have an environmental officer in the core cadets now that’s leadership position for the seniors that they oversee environmental recycling programs for the core cadets. We did it when I was here in my graduating class of ‘92. So that’s nice to see. I was at the football game on Saturday and several cadets walked around with clear plastic bags asking for a recycles along the way and filling out bottles so things weren’t just going in the same trash cans.

Joshua: I wonder what is going to happen next. You ask me that adventurous… I’m increasingly seeing recycling. You chose reducing consumption which is very different. I think a lot of people see recycling as benign. And increasingly I’m seeing the way I look at it if just outright throwing stuff away is smoking, recycling is like smoking a filtered cigarette. It’s like yeah, it’s a little healthier but basically the same thing. And one of the next things it will be reduce, not even use things in the first place.

Everett: Yeah. It’s something I think we waste a lot in our society that I’d love to figure out a way to fix this as packages for mailing. You know a lot of us are going more towards the online retailing. We just are as a society and the amount of boxes we’re getting small to medium to large is getting pretty substantial and you know if you order something small from one of these online retailers, you will get it in two to three days and you have a big box that you just throw away.

Joshua: Yeah, that’s a big issue.

Everett: And it seems like we as a society could have solved this by now pretty easily.

Joshua: I’ll tell you internally I have a .eu address so Amazon was like free Amazon Prime, this was a year or two ago. And I was like, “Okay. Free delivery. I order a few things.” And the amount of garbage that I got from just packaging was just unconscionable for me. For me I don’t know what other people associate the word Amazon with. There is the river but with the company I associate it with garbage. To me Amazon garbage, Coca-Cola garbage. And I pick up a piece of trash every day so I associate things like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Taco Bell, Starbucks, that’s where litter comes from. People make their choice to buy these things at McDonald’s. To me it’s all garbage, garbage, garbage, garbage. I hope that cultural shift comes about. Certainly, when I was a kid, smoking I think people associated it with Humphrey Bogart and now I think they associate it more with lung cancer. Certainly, in my crowd. And I hope that comes about. There’ll be some technological change but yeah, I can’t… I got this award for giving some talk somewhere and they did ask me if I wanted the award and it came as you said it was like this little award in this giant package. I sent it back. I was like I can’t accept this.

Everett: So I wonder if some of our reluctance to solve that problem of packaging has to do with our kind of phobia of germs as well. I wonder if there’s a component of health and sterility that we need to solve along with it. Because you don’t necessarily need to put an extra layer of packaging on most things but we do and that’s probably to keep it perceived as untouched by the human hand. So I wonder if something like that to this.

Joshua: Possibly. I’m reading the stuff by Jonathan Haidt who’s talking about how we’ve become…. What is it… It’s Coddling of the American Mind. By making people too safe. You undermine their resilience. And he points out the research that shows if kids never get exposed to peanuts, then they develop more peanut allergies and if they don’t solve problems… Their immune system has to be challenged and maybe making us less safe.

Everett: It’s funny. I used to swim across the bayou when I was in high school. We lived in north Florida we had these bayous that maybe 300 meters across near our house and I used to swim across it and you know all the fertilizer from the yards and stuff and we’re near a waste plant all washed in it. And it was kind of known to be kind of a witch’s brew of mystery stuff in that water. And my dad always said it was the best tetanus shot here was to swim in the water. So I can identify a little bit with the hey, maybe we could be too clean.

Joshua: Well, I want to bring it back and I want to wrap up with a couple of questions. One is is there anything I didn’t think to ask to bring up that came out from this experience or your thoughts on it? And the other is any message for the listeners?

Everett: I think on the first, no. On the second one a message for listeners is thanks for listening and implicitly challenging me to keep being a better steward of my environment.

Joshua: Everett Spain, thank you very much.

Everett: Thank you, Josh. It’s been a pleasure.


Everettpracticed what I would call personal leadership. He affected his family in a way that I think he’d call positive. I think he changed himself in a way that he’d call positive. I think this is what he would call integrity and character. I heard him sounding satisfied for leaving the world better for his new behavior. And I heard him wanting to continue. Why not follow the leader of the leadership department in one of the top places for teaching leadership? I don’t understand as an American why we are following other countries? You know he did this stuff in Germany a long time ago and talked about how advanced they were in Germany compared to here. Why are we waiting for other countries? Why are we following other countries on something that improves our lives? On a personal level, why wait for laws or for others to start? Why don’t you start yourself? You’ll only be following the leadership of West Point’s leadership department. They’re pretty good at this stuff.

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