Learning from West Point — Leadership Lessons

Building Leaders
By Ed Ruggero and Marcia Noa
Organizations large and small cite leadership as a critical component of their success. Yet the term “leadership” is often used as a synonym for “management.” They’re not the same thing.

“Management is about coping with complexity,” John Kotter wrote in the Harvard Business Review. Managers develop processes and ways of measuring things. They plan, set targets, budget and track numbers. They write guidelines to keep the organization running smoothly. Good managers are absolutely vital to an organization’s success, but good managers are not necessarily good leaders.

Leaders influence people—by providing purpose, direction and motivation—while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.

Most companies are dedicated to accomplishing their mission and do their best to improve the organization by developing better business practices and teaching up-and-coming managers the tools of their trade. The interpersonal aspects of leadership, however—influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation—generally get less formal attention beyond corporate mission statements, incentive compensation and annual reviews.

It’s not difficult to see why management activity gets most of the attention in an organization. Management yields quantifiable results. It’s possible to prove how something like supply chain controls or technology investments affect profitability. When we invest in management, we often wind up with some new numbers that look better than the old numbers. Fundamentally, people are a messier business. They have different needs and aspirations; they’re not all motivated by the same things and they learn in different ways and at different rates. Ultimately it’s much more difficult to measure how efforts to direct and motivate individuals affect the bottom line. In addition to the fact that leading people is hard, time-consuming and difficult to measure, most people—even the best managers—haven’t been taught how to lead.

This last point brings us to the real crux of the management versus leadership issue. Most organizations spend a great deal of time and effort finding the best and brightest and cultivating their business and management skills (as defined earlier), and those who excel are moved into positions classified as “leadership” roles. But few organizations invest in teaching the personal side of leadership: influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation. Why is that?

In our travels through the business world, we’ve observed a pervasive (though often unspoken) belief that while the hard business skills have to be learned, leadership—the ability to influence people—is something you either have or don’t have. We call this the leaders-are-born-not-made myth. If leadership isn’t something you can be taught, then you don’t bother teaching it. You hire people who seem to have what it takes and hope that real leaders emerge. This policy leaves an awful lot to chance.

Consider as counterpoint, the United States Military Academy at West Point. Its explicit mission is to develop “leaders of character” for the United States Army. The intensity with which West Point pursues its mission is evidence that leadership is both vitally important and learnable. Its systematic approach to leader development offers useful lessons for civilian organizations.

When we propose West Point’s leader development model to business people, we get some pushback. Many believe that military leadership is authoritarian and highly centralized, and would be inappropriate in a business setting. In fact, West Point’s model strives to develop inspirational leadership, which, according to Dwight Eisenhower, is when other people do what you want them to do because they want to do it for you. The best leaders inspire people to perform beyond what they thought they were capable of. Furthermore, in its ultimate test—combat—military leadership is highly decentralized. War is characterized by uncertainty, and leaders must make quick decisions with imperfect information in situations where the stakes are very high. If the organization is to succeed it must have leaders at every level who are prepared, technically and emotionally, to make decisions. So business and the military have at least this one thing in common: they both need inspired, capable decision makers.

West Point’s leader development program has four defining characteristics:

  • Challenge: People don’t learn while operating inside their comfort zones. At every stage of their development, they must face challenges that will stretch them.
  • Assessment: The individual’s efforts in confronting those challenges must be measured in some way.
  • Coaching: Every member of West Point’s staff and faculty—most of them experienced military leaders—is charged with helping cadets become good Army officers.
  • Room to fail: An individual who is constantly confronted with new and difficult challenges is going to fail at some point. The leader’s job is to ensure that such a failure isn’t catastrophic, and that the cadet learns from the experience.

Rob Olson, a West Point tactical officer (responsible for leader development and military discipline of a company of 130 cadets), serves as a great case study for West Point’s program. Olson, a combat veteran with twelve years of service and a record of success commanding troops around the globe, volunteered for a three-year tour at West Point. During one summer of Olson’s tour, he was assigned to help oversee the basic training of the new freshman class, which reports on July 1 for six weeks of indoctrination prior to the school year. The new class is organized into military units, each with a chain of command comprised of juniors and seniors (3rd and 4th year cadets) who are responsible for turning these hundreds of recent high school graduates into cadets and soldiers. Rob Olson’s job during the summer was to see to it that the upper class cadets, those juniors and seniors, grew as leaders while they were in his care.

One of Olson’s charges, a senior named Kevin Bradley, had been put in command of a company of new cadets—one hundred and sixty or so young men and women with only a few weeks in uniform. One hot July day, Bradley and the thirty upper class cadets who worked for him marched their trainees to an outdoor site for a team-building exercise called the Squad Competition. This pseudo-athletic event pitted the sixteen squads of Bradley’s company, each with ten new cadets, against one another. There was lots of running and pushups and sit-ups, lots of climbing over obstacles and carrying heavy things. Each squad’s leader (all juniors) did the coaching. Everything was scored, and scores were posted on a large board in the middle of the field, right out in plain sight. Cadets are highly competitive: everyone wants to be number one, and no one wants to be number two, let alone number sixteen.

This event posed challenges at four different levels:

  • The challenge for the new cadets, the trainees, was straightforward: work as a team to overcome physical obstacles; get your score; apply your squad leader’s coaching on how to improve.
  • The squad leaders were responsible for organizing all the activity and coaching the new cadets. If the squad failed at some event the squad leader helped them figure out what to do differently for the next one.
  • Kevin Bradley, as company commander, was in charge of the whole operation. His challenge was to communicate the mission and to guide, encourage and support his junior leaders. In other words, he had to provide leadership, a skill he was still learning.
  • Rob Olson’s challenge was to help Kevin Bradley become a good leader.

Olson stood on the side of the sun-baked field while the upper class cadets got the trainees organized for the day then he called Bradley over. The two men were a study in contrast: Olson tall and lanky, always ready with a joke; and the twenty-year-old Bradley compact and muscular with a serious demeanor. Bradley trotted up and saluted.

“What will you do for the squad that wins?” Olson asked. Bradley, who had been chosen for his position because of three years of solid achievement as a cadet, knew that good leaders recognize team members’ achievements.

“Sir, we’re going to get them some pizza they can eat in their rooms.” This is a big deal during Basic Training, when the new cadets have lost most of their freedom and spend every waking moment taking on some new challenge.

“That sounds good,” Olson said. “What about the squad that comes in last?”

That question had clearly not occurred to Bradley. “Sir?” he said.

“Well, what’s the mission out here today?” Olson asked.

The Squad Competition operated on the same principles as do many executive team-building experiences: shared hardship helps teams develop bonds that are critical to success. Bradley said, “To build squad cohesion.”

“Correct,” Olson said. “In all sixteen squads, right? I mean, you’re not just going to write off that last squad, are you?” Bradley knew the answer to this question. “No, sir.”

“Good. Run along and come up with a plan, and when you think you have one, come back and brief me.”

Bradley saluted, jogged over to his equipment and took a long drink from his canteen as he pondered how he might make a sixteenth place finish into a positive experience for ten new cadets. He had ventured far from his comfort zone. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he said. “Major Olson doesn’t give us any of the answers. He just lays out the problem and makes us come up with the solution.”

Bradley’s challenges were of a higher order than those facing the new cadets. He’d been given a task—build squad cohesion—that was hard to measure, maybe impossible to quantify. Yet he knew that team cohesion is critical to military units, and that as an officer, part of his job would be to build teams. There was no manual for this one; Bradley had to take everything he knew about being a team member and team leader, consider how the new cadets in the last squad would feel about their performance, and somehow come up with a plan that would salvage something of the day for the losers.

But while he was expected to come up with and execute a strategy, he was neither alone nor unprepared. He had three years of grooming for this kind of challenge—beginning with his own days as a new cadet in the Squad Competition through the next three years at West Point—and Rob Olson was there to coach him.

Note that Olson was not there to tell him how to solve the problem. Olson knew where Bradley stood in his development as a leader, and pushed him to make the next leap. When Bradley finally briefed Olson on his plan, the major listened. He didn’t have one correct solution in mind that Bradley was supposed to figure out. Olson just asked questions, giving Bradley autonomy and sending a message to the younger man that his opinion counted; that Olson had confidence in him; and Olson would hold him accountable. Bradley wasn’t just facilitating training for the new cadets; he was in charge. In coming up with a solution for the problem Olson had put to him, he became a stake-holder as well. The new cadets’ success would be his success, and he’d end the day more confident in his own abilities. And if he failed, Olson was there to make sure he learned a lesson or two.

Each of the key characteristics of West Point’s leader development program—challenge, assessment, coaching and room to fail—is evident in this story, and it illustrates the essential lessons of leadership that can serve businesses in the same way they serve the military:

  • Leader development is so important that your best and brightest leaders should be responsible for it. The Army cycles its top leaders through West Point to teach cadets not only the academic and technical skills they need, but how to be inspiring, creative leaders themselves. Experienced, successful officers like Rob Olson consider it an honor to serve in those roles.
  • Leadership is more than an accumulation of knowledge and technical skill. Leaders guide and motivate others to do more than they thought possible. It takes creativity, empathy and hard work.
  • Leadership can be learned, but it must be taught. To assume that leaders are born and not made is both inefficient and a waste of talent.
  • Leader development is progressive. Individuals become leaders by facing increasingly difficult challenges that are attainable, given their training, but that stretch them well beyond what they’ve done in the past. Those responsible for leader development must understand each person’s stage of development and steer him or her toward next big challenge.
  • Leader development is experiential. It’s important to let developing leaders take responsibility and be held accountable for results, though they must be prepared and guided toward challenges they are ready to face.
  • Good leaders recognize that communication is essential both to performance and leader development—from communicating the mission so that each subordinate knows what’s expected to sharing feedback and guidance on individual performance.

At the heart of Rob Olson’s success as both a leader and teacher was a leadership philosophy he embraced completely, communicated to all his charges and lived by even in the most difficult circumstances. His job was to build leaders, and he believed he would succeed only if he challenged them, then got out of the way and let them figure out how to reach the goal. He neither neglected them nor micromanaged them. When they stumbled, he’d pick them up, dust them off, make sure they learned something and send them back into the fray. When they succeeded, he cheered them on and set them to more difficult challenges.

Without a bench of up-and-coming leaders (not just managers), and without a sustainable process for creating that bench, organizations put themselves at risk. Successful organizations value both management and leadership and dedicate resources to developing fully those individuals who will run things in the future.

Join Ruggero for more insights on leadership in the video webcast Leadership Can Be Taught.

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