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Developing Leaders at West Point

An exercise in self-reflection.

The mission of the United States Military Academy (West Point) is “to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country, and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the nation as an officer in the United States Army.”

Tanner Vosvick, used with permission. Cadet Vosvick says “Being a leader on a team teaches cadets the importance of team cohesion, respect, the sense of family and much more.”
Source: Tanner Vosvick, used with permission. Cadet Vosvick says “Being a leader on a team teaches cadets the importance of team cohesion, respect, the sense of family and much more.”

This mission statement, with its emphasis on character as a fundamental component of leadership, may seem quaint to those outside the military. But given the dauntingly challenging task of leading soldiers in combat, it is no surprise to anyone with military experience that West Point — and the nation’s other service academies — include character development as a core part of its leader development strategy. As I have written previously, high technical competence cannot make up for questionable character when leading others in dangerous situations.

Character and leader development at West Point are intertwined, beginning when new cadets arrive at West Point and continuing until they graduate 47 months later. Skills are honed and character is tested across academic, military, and physical fitness domains. The academic program is demanding (West Point has produced 92 Rhodes Scholars). As do all military members, cadets wear a uniform, adhere to all military customs and courtesies, and are held to the standard of the institution’s strict Honor Code which stipulates that “a cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do.” Physical training is demanding, and all cadets must participate in either an intramural or intercollegiate sport. In short, cadets are challenged and tested each and every day toward the end of producing an officer who possesses the knowledge and attributes needed to lead soldiers in the most trying of circumstances.

An important piece of West Point’s leader development program is a course required of all cadets during their junior year at West Point — Military Leadership. This course presents cadets with theories and knowledge derived from relevant disciplines — individual psychology, social psychology, organizational psychology, management, and sociology — that speak to leading and influencing others. Taught by battle-tested Army officers to small sections in a seminar format, the cadets are immersed in the exploration of what makes an effective leader.

The key component of Military Leadership is a series of three exercises that require cadets to systematically reflect on and further develop their own, unique leadership style. Each cadet selects a mentor to nurture them through each of the three exercises. This mentor must be someone the cadet respects and who has the leadership experience needed to foster meaningful discussions with the cadet leading to genuine self-reflection. The mentor is often an officer or non-commissioned officer (NCO) whom the cadet trusts, but may include civilian professors or other civilians.

The first of the three exercises is the journey line narrative. Cadets meet with their mentor to discuss and reflect on their life experiences toward the goal of answering the question of “who am I?” The exercise focuses on helping the cadet to identify their core values, to reflect on their purpose in life, and to think about how they have come to be who they are at this point in life. In these discussions with their mentor, the cadet is asked to identify three major developmental experiences or time periods in their lives that have significantly shaped their enduring personal motives, challenged their world views, or otherwise impacted their values and beliefs. Each cadet writes a paper summarizing these reflections, meets once again with their mentor to explore why and how these three crucible experiences were so impactful, and then submits the paper to their course instructor for evaluation. I have had the honor of being a mentor for several cadets, and find myself profoundly moved by the depth and honesty of their self-reflections.

The second exercise is the individual development plan, and addresses the questions “where am I now as a leader,” and “how do I apply my new knowledge to develop as a leader?” Each cadet completes an online form that presents, in a drop-down menu, a list of character and leadership attributes clustered in six domains (“character, presence, intellect, lead, develop, achieves”) from which they identify two personal strengths and two personal weaknesses. They identify course concepts that relate to their self-identified strengths and weaknesses, and identify and discuss how these course concepts relate to their choices. Next, through further self-reflection and discussions with their mentor, the cadets develop specific short- and long-term plans to enhance their strengths and rectify their weaknesses to spur new knowledge, reflections, and personal development. Finally, the cadets report on what they have learned through interactions with their mentor.

The third and culminating exercise for the course is the leadership philosophy paper. Building on the first two exercises, cadets meet again with their mentors to refine and articulate their personal leadership philosophy. They identify three personal leadership tenets, clearly define them, discuss why each tenant is important to their leadership style, and explain how they will put each tenet into practice. This exercise includes reference to theories and models of leadership but within the context of their own, individually developed leadership philosophy.

After completing the course, cadets are encouraged to implement and practice the leadership skills and insights they have achieved. All upper class cadets hold leadership positions within the cadet chain of command. Moreover, following the completion of their junior year, all cadets are given the opportunity to lead subordinate cadets during summer field training that simulates combat conditions. Then, in their senior year at West Point, they assume additional leadership positions and complete a course in officership, designed to reinforce and expand concepts learned in the Military Leadership course, and subsequently practice their burgeoning leadership skills both within the Corps chain of command and in field training exercises.

Samantha J Snelson, used with permission. Cadet Snelson is prepping plebes from Company A1 for the “Gauntlet.”
Source: Samantha J Snelson, used with permission. Cadet Snelson is prepping plebes from Company A1 for the “Gauntlet.”

Developing leaders of character is, of course, a huge concern to institutions besides the military. Major corporations commit significant resources toward selecting and developing principled, ethical leaders. Failures to achieve this make headline news, and damages the company by negatively impacting employee morale and alienating customers. Indeed, values or character based leadership is essential in all manner of organizations. Sadly, scarcely a day passes without reading about leadership failures linked to flaws of character on the part of leaders from all walks of life.

Thus, there may be much that leaders of all organizations could learn from West Point on how to nurture and develop leaders of character. Corporations, as part of their professional development efforts, may include formal coursework on character-based leadership, and include self-development exercises based on the three exercises described here. Pairing junior management personnel with more experienced mentors, coupled with an organizational culture that values character as well as competence, may produce substantial beneficial effects across a wide array of institutions.

Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.