West Point and Leadership: First Impressions

October 26, 2017 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership

[EDIT: Lloyd Austin has since become the United States Secretary of Defense. He also endorsed my book, Leadership Step by Step, saying:

Great leaders aren’t born with a ‘leadership gene’; great leaders develop the necessary skills and gain confidence through practice and hard work. In Leadership Step by Step Joshua Spodek presents a thoughtful approach to becoming a highly effective leader that emphasizes the importance of experiential learning. It will serve as a valuable resource for leaders at all levels in any profession. Indeed, Joshua’s practical exercises will help prospective, as well as experienced leaders, to master their craft and ultimately to succeed in leading and inspiring others in their various pursuits.

Now back to the original post.]

Yesterday I got back from three days helping lead workshops and talks at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), invited by General (R) Lloyd Austin III, the Class of 1951 Leadership Chair in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and the Center for Enhanced Performance for three days helping lead leadership talks and workshops, as well as sharing practices.

The General is a remarkable man and leader. West Point is a remarkable institution. I only hope the cadets and officers I spoke to learned as much from me as I did from them.

I’ll copy descriptions of them below for those who don’t know them. First, some first impressions.

First Impressions

The U.S. Military Academy (West Point)

The U.S. Military Academy (West Point)

I didn’t know what to expect from West Point.

I’ve had limited interactions with the military community. My grandfather who served on the U.S.S. Pensacola in World War II died when I was a baby, so I didn’t know him. I co-founded my second company with a college friend, a Marine, now one of my longest friendships. We met in 1991, when he returned from active duty in the first Gulf War. A few years later, in graduate school, my roommate was in ROTC in the Air Force, also getting his PhD in physics.

I had never been immersed in a military context, let alone as storied an institution as West Point.

The top things I found:

A strong culture. I’ve spent time in and worked at many educational institutions, including Columbia, Penn, NYU, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Berkeley. West Point’s culture was stronger and more integrated than any of theirs.

I’m not saying they thought the same. The General brought up controversial topics and people approached them from a variety of viewpoints.

Active, experiential learning. They taught more than just classroom information. Performance is integrated in athletics, military, and other activities that all participated in. I’ve written before how critical I consider acting on what you learn is to learning, and how performance teaches social and emotional skills that academic learning alone can’t deliver.

I would make performance through athletics and art mandatory in nearly any educational institution. The universities I mentioned above don’t require it or, if they do, not nearly to the extent West Point does.

A culture of caring, support, and helpfulness. That a culture is strong doesn’t describe its character. Anyone would know to expect honor, service, respect, patriotism, and other traditional military values. Everyone at West Point that I interacted with showed them.

I didn’t know to expect the caring, support, and helpfulness I did. Writing a friend about the place, those were the top adjectives I thought to describe it. It took a few minutes to distill the words that described my experience most, but when I found those three, I knew they were the most relevant.

Discipline. I didn’t start life disciplined. I argued with my parents to avoid doing chores or making my bed. The past five years or so have seen me increase discipline a lot as I’ve found the benefits, as seen in my not missing any burpees, cold showers, blog posts, and so on for years.

West Point takes discipline to another level, especially in their plebe year, which I’ll leave the reader to research, except to comment that they teach and practice discipline daily and deeply. I see the results, which I contrast with mainstream America’s low level of discipline exhibited by their being impressed with twenty minutes of daily exercise.

Discipline doesn’t have to mean military discipline. It can come from any performance-related activity—music, drama, sports, etc.

Immersion in West Point’s community raised my bar and kept me from the quagmire of mainstream America’s lack of discipline, which makes it easy to accept complacency. With things I care about and improve my life the most, I want to compare myself to communities who show and live it most, not those who lack it.

Eager, enthusiastic students. The classroom experience was of cadets/students who came to learn. Maybe it helped to accompany a 4-star General, but I don’t think so. I could see students in other classrooms. They didn’t waste time. They looked like they got rid of distractions.

Attention to detail. Everyone and everything from students, teachers, administrators, architecture, behavior, plans, … everything attended to detail beyond what I’ve seen in nearly any institution. It reminded me of the detail in building the satellite I helped launch getting my PhD, which had to work in space, with no chance to repair, for a decade.

The detail West Point shows leads you to have great confidence in the people and institution. It also leads you to bring your best as well. Their attention to detail raised my bar like their discipline did.

Preparation and teamwork. First, General Austin began preparing me for our work months ago. Second, each day was packed with meetings, classes, meals, and so on. Yet, he moved calmly and unhurriedly, starting each interaction prepared, with a warm smile and handshake that I saw resulting from preparation involving and depending on a tight-knit team.

I saw plenty more—the physical place, the history, acronyms for everything, and so on—but I wanted to share these top impressions:

  • A strong culture
  • Active, experiential learning
  • A culture of caring, support, and helpfulness
  • Discipline
  • Eager, enthusiastic students
  • Attention to detail
  • Preparation and teamwork

I hope they stick with me.

I recognize I was only there for a few weeks and when a 4-star General introduces you as his “wingman,” cadets and faculty will tend to show your their best. I’m sure if I stayed longer I’d see more.

Here is the man who invited me.

General Lloyd Austin III

General Lloyd Austin III

General Lloyd Austin III

From the department’s Class of 1951 Leadership Chair page:

GEN(R) Lloyd James Austin III is a retired United States Army general. He was the 12th commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM). Austin is the first African American to head the organization. Prior to current assignment, Austin served as the 33rd Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army from January 31, 2012 to March 8, 2013. His previous assignment was as the last Commanding General of United States Forces – Iraq, Operation New Dawn, which lasted until December 18, 2011. On December 6, 2012, the Pentagon announced that President Barack Obama had nominated Austin to lead the U.S. Central Command. Austin was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 5, 2013, and assumed command on March 22, 2013.

Austin was commissioned as a second lieutenant after graduation from West Point. His initial assignment was to the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) in Germany where he served as a Rifle Platoon Leader in A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry and Scout Platoon Leader in the Combat Support Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry. Following this assignment and attendance at the Infantry Officer Advanced Course, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he commanded the Combat Support Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 508th Infantry and served as the Assistant S-3 (Operations) for 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.

In 1981, Austin was assigned to Indianapolis, Indiana where he served as the Operations Officer for the U.S. Army Indianapolis District Recruiting Command and later commanded a company in the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion. Upon completing this assignment, he attended Auburn University where he completed studies for a Master’s Degree in Education. He was then assigned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he served as a Company Tactical Officer. After his selection and subsequent completion of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), Fort Drum, New York, where he served as the S-3 (Operations) and later Executive Officer for the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry. He subsequently served as Executive Officer for 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) and later as Director of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security for Fort Drum, New York.

In 1993, Austin returned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where he commanded the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He later served as the G-3 for the 82nd Airborne Division. Following graduation from the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, he commanded the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Shortly after Brigade command, he was assigned to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. where he served as Chief, Joint Operations Division, J-3, on the Joint Staff. His next assignment was as Assistant Division Commander for Maneuver, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), Fort Stewart, Georgia. As the ADC-M, he helped spearhead the division’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Austin served from September 2003 until August 2005 as the Commanding General of the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry), with duty as Commander, Combined Joint Task Force-180, Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan. His next position was Chief of Staff of the United States Central Command at MacDill AFB, in Tampa, Florida from September 2005 until October 2006.

On December 8, 2006, Austin was promoted to Lieutenant General, and assumed command of the XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Austin handed over command of XVIII Corps to become Director of the Joint Staff in August 2009.

In February 2008, Austin became the second highest ranking commander in Iraq, taking command of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I). As commander of MNC-I, he directed the operations of approximately 152,000 joint and coalition forces in all sectors of Iraq.

The predecessors for this position:

  • Tom Tierney (2013 – 2016)
  • Jim Collins (2011-2013)
  • Frances Hesselbein (2009-2011)
  • Coach Michael Krzyzewski (2007-2009)
  • The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki (2005-2007)

The General is remarkable man with a remarkable career. Still, the words of his achievements don’t capture the calm, confidence, experience, respect, humility, and friendliness he shares with everyone I saw him interact with.

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2 responses on “West Point and Leadership: First Impressions

  1. Pingback: Still in love | Joshua Spodek

  2. Pingback: Six Lessons I Learned Teaching Leadership With a Four-Star General at West Point - Countryside Business

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