Leadership Lessons from West Point


Copyright © 2006 Major Doug Crandall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7879-8773-2

Chapter One


Greg Hastings

Each of the three stories here that span my recent leadership journey, from my freshman to senior years at West Point, takes place at a different level of responsibility, and each has helped me become a more effective leader as I head out into the Army. These stories, the ones I have grown from, are typical and serve as a window into the world of leadership development that is the U.S. Military Academy.

Take Responsibility for Your Own Actions

I learned my first lesson about leadership while still a freshman at the Academy, happy and proud of where I was but also miserable most of the time-by design. West Point first-year students are called plebes, from the Latin word plebeian, referring to the lowest class. So I was at the bottom of the rank structure, performing extra duties like delivering newspapers, cleaning the common areas, and setting the mess hall tables before each meal. But I knew and expected all of this before I showed up, and I soon was able to perform all these duties with my focus on the future, when I would be an upperclassman and, eventually, a graduate of West Point and an Army officer.

A common release for plebes was spirit mission. We were able to do things in the name of "spirit" that would never be allowed otherwise-for example, carrying cadet commanders away from formations on our shoulders, temporarily taking necessary uniform items (like a hat) from exchange cadets from other academies, and attacking the mascots of other cadet companies. The height of this spirit came during Army-Navy Week, when classes were deliberately light, Army pride was high, and artifacts of spirit were everywhere. The dozen or so Navy midshipmen attending West Point for the semester were victims of constant, good-natured harassment, but they were also the perpetrators of their own Navy spirit missions.

In the days leading up to the famous Army-Navy college football game (December of my plebe year), the signs of a stirring rivalry were everywhere. Posters dotted the campus, and the uniform for the week, typically a gray class uniform, included a "Beat Navy" spirit shirt and our camouflage battle dress uniform. On Thursday night, the corps of cadets ate dinner in the mess hall and watched spirit videos-short, creative clips, many of them parodies of popular commercials-about the upcoming victory. After dinner, all four thousand cadets marched over to the athletic fields to enjoy a bonfire, the centerpiece of which was a boat symbolizing Navy.

When some upperclassmen approached a few other plebes and me about a spirit mission, we were excited. But when we learned that the plan was to trash the room of a midshipman, we plebes were hesitant. "Don't worry," we were told, "as long as there's an upperclassman involved, you guys won't get in trouble." That night, well after our required curfew of 11:30 P.M., a third-year cadet, Sergeant White, assembled the team.

In the morning hours, we gathered the tools for the mission and went over the plan. We looked over the buckets of Gatorade, old cartons of milk, and cans of foam shaving cream, and we rehearsed the teams' sneaking into a barracks room. Quietly we scrambled up the stairs to the room of our target: a Navy midshipman on a semester exchange. A few floors up, the teams got into position, supplies were passed out, and we swung the door open.

As planned, I moved in with a sophomore, each of us carrying a bucket of cold Gatorade. When we were both standing over the midshipman's bed, we flashed a look to the others waiting in the hallway. They were in position, so the sophomore counted to three, emphatically but silently, and we dumped almost five gallons of sports drink on the sleeping "Squid" (the cadets' perjorative term for those from the Naval Academy). Immediately we leaped out of the room. As I cleared the door, a plebe on either side pierced two cans of shaving cream and tossed both in the room. Foam shaving cream sprays out in all directions when a new can is pierced, and these two shaving cream bombs worked perfectly. The final cadets on the spirit mission tossed spoiled milk cartons in the room, and we were off. Our security, guarding the hallway in both directions, collapsed in, and we all ran downstairs, splitting up and taking circuitous routes to our rooms just in case the midshipman jumped up and followed us.

Back in my room, I laid down in my bed and tried to calm down. After all, there was one more day of classes to get through, then a full weekend in New Jersey at the game. I was thinking about the free weekend that we were about to enjoy away from West Point when I heard a knock on my door. No one is supposed to be up at 3:00 A.M., so I knew something was up. I opened the door to see Sergeant White, who had led the spirit mission. "We have to go see the CO [the commander, a senior cadet in charge of the company]. Right now."

We were soon standing at attention while the CO yelled. Apparently the victim of our spirit mission and his roommate woke up furious and called the central guard room to let them know what happened. A series of telephone calls ended with our CO, who knew some of his cadets were planning a spirit mission, although he did not know the details. He went to the room of Sergeant White and asked him if we had trashed the room in question.

This cadet had no choice but to answer truthfully. At other schools or in other organizations, an individual might be tempted not to admit to an offense so quickly, but under the cadet Honor Code, which states that "a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do," denial was not an option. Had we all chosen to deny our involvement, I am sure we would have gotten away with it, but no one even considered lying to avoid the potential trouble that followed.

I was surprised to be standing at attention in the lineup that morning because I was, after all, only a plebe. My earlier concerns were relieved when the upperclassmen told us they were responsible for the mission, and we had nothing to worry about. "If anyone gets in trouble, it will be me," I recalled Sergeant White telling us. And now that he was in trouble, he did try to spare us. But the CO was furious, and he was not letting anyone off the hook.

The problem was our choice of spirit mission. The missions are supposed to be approved by the CO or higher to ensure that they are appropriate and harmless. Our spirit mission, in hindsight, was neither. The combination of Gatorade, shaving cream, and milk is not harmless when it splashes on a desk full of electronic equipment and a suitcase full of uniforms and civilian clothes. We realized the damage we caused as we spent most of the remaining time before breakfast formation cleaning the room that took so little time to destroy. With the room cleaned and clothes in the laundry, we were back on the CO's wall.

Again Sergeant White argued, "The plebes were just following my orders. Let them go." The CO did not see it that way, nor did the tactical officer (TAC), a commissioned officer who oversees and is legally responsible for our company (the cadets at West Point are divided into 32 equal companies, each with about 125 cadets). Despite thinking we were protected from any punishment by plebeian ignorance, we were now facing the same consequences as the upperclassmen who had convinced us to participate.

That morning, we had to face the TAC in a formal meeting, and she took away our weekend privileges. So instead of enjoying a weekend away from West Point celebrating the Army-Navy Game, we would spend most of it in our rooms on call for various duties. Sergeant White knew he could get in trouble for this mission, but he was furious that the plebes were also punished. Spending that weekend with White and the other participants in the spirit mission, I also grew upset. After all, I was just a plebe; I had not known any better when I participated in this mission.

The final punishment consisted of marching for several hours each weekend, the standard West Point punishment. This meant that I could not participate in athletics on the weekends (I was on the mountaineering team). At the end of a team meeting shortly after the incident, I spoke to the coach. I was sure to mention how innocent I was and how I had been wrongly punished just for being a follower. He listened intently but unsympathetically. I knew there was a chance he could cut me from the team because my trouble represented the team poorly. As he listened and occasionally asked questions, getting cut seemed to become more of a possibility. When I finished, the coach sat back and asked me one question: "Did you do anything wrong?"

At first I was upset. The coach was clearly taking the side of the officers, who did not understand what it was like for plebes (or so I thought) who were accustomed to following orders all the time. I thought about his question and tried to answer in a way that would convince him to go easy on me. I explained how we had not thought through the spirit mission and how badly we all felt when we saw the damage as we cleaned the room. But I also explained that when I expressed initial doubt about participating, the upperclassmen urged us on. As plebes, we figured that was just the way things happened-that during Army-Navy Week, you get the Navy midshipmen however you can. We just did what we were told, I explained, trying to make the case. It was not as if we had thought it up and led the spirit mission.

This last statement seemed to bother the coach. He looked at me, thinking about what I had just said. Under his gaze, I questioned whether I really was innocent in this whole mess. After a long pause, he told me one of the more important things I have learned in my development as a leader: "You may not have been in charge of the spirit mission, but you were in charge of yourself. It doesn't matter how high or low you are in the chain of command. You are always a leader because, if no one else, you are a leader of one: yourself."

My initial reaction to the coach's words was anger and defiance, but I had a lot of time during the following weekends to think about what I had done and what he had told me. As I marched back and forth, I considered the coach's words. I realized that I was not responsible for that spirit mission, but I was responsible for my own actions. For my part, I deserved the punishment I was serving. I was grateful to the coach for passing that lesson on to me. I was also sorry for my classmates, whose perspectives on the issue did not change as mine did. They continued to feel victimized and bitter about their punishment. Although it was a difficult way to learn it, I learned a fundamental skill as leader: leading yourself.

Great Leaders Also Need to Be Great Followers

I learned another important leadership lesson almost two years later, when I was spending my summer at West Point leading thirty-eight new cadets through cadet basic training. New cadets are incoming first-year students who are undergoing basic training over the summer; only after they complete cadet basic training are they accepted into the corps and earn the title "cadet." I was in charge of a platoon of these new cadets: four squads of about ten each. Each squad had a squad leader (also juniors).

There were forty-two people under me, and throughout the basic training, I worked alongside and in front of them eighteen or more hours a day. There were several levels of cadets above me, but the cadet I worked closest with was the first sergeant, who was one level above me in the chain of command. I knew First Sergeant Miller before that summer, and we were classmates and roommates for the training. Although we had not been good friends, we worked together well.

Cadet basic training is different from regular Army basic training in several ways. First, new cadets are taught a lot about West Point, in addition to learning basic soldier skills such as marksmanship and working as a team. Second, it is run entirely by cadets, with oversight from regular Army personnel. This is a big responsibility and a great opportunity for the upperclass cadets in charge of the new cadets, but inevitably things do not always run smoothly. Having spent two years at the Academy, I understood that cadets in leadership positions are learning and therefore will make mistakes, but it was still frustrating to see mistakes made, especially because the new cadets were often the ones to suffer. They were often small things, like time lines or incorrect packing lists.

But there was one mistake that bothered me the most. One day we had to get to one of the training sites that required a long, hard march. This march was nothing extraordinary for the cadre or even some of the older or stronger new cadets, but some of the new cadets struggled to climb the West Point hills with a full rucksack on their backs. It took a lot of effort from everyone in the platoon just to get to that training site.

We arrived a few minutes late and with one sprained ankle, so by the time we marched in, the soldiers at the site were upset. They took me aside and explained the importance of arriving on time, and they asked why we were carrying rucksacks. I had been told we needed them, but I was informed that no one else brought rucksacks to that site and someone must have been wrong. The march up to that training site benefited my platoon because it challenged them, but it also cost them training time because we were late and one new cadet spent some time on crutches after twisting his ankle under the weight of the apparently unnecessary rucksack. I was sure to let my superiors know about my dissatisfaction.

A few days later, we were preparing to ride the trucks out to another training site. Most mornings built in a few minutes after physical training for everyone to change, shower, and clean their rooms before coming back outside for breakfast formation. This particular morning had a tighter schedule because after physical training, everyone had to prepare their training gear and arrive back downstairs to meet the trucks. We would ride the trucks out and eat breakfast at the training site. I released my platoon with specific instructions, and I gave them fifteen minutes to be back in formation, showered and with the proper gear. I hurried upstairs after them to shower myself and beat them back to the formation area. On my way, the first sergeant informed me of a change.

"Everyone is going to have to wear camo [camouflage face paint]."

"Are you serious?" I replied angrily. "We're leaving in five minutes. My guys are already on their way downstairs. No one told them anything about camo, and it takes them ten minutes to do it right."

"Well, we have five minutes, and everyone has to camo up," the first sergeant explained patiently.

"Look, we can't do it. There's no way every new cadet can accomplish that and still make it to the trucks on time." I was bordering on insubordination, but I thought I had to be honest. Besides, he was a classmate of mine I knew well, so I had some latitude with him.


Excerpted from Leadership Lessons from West Point Copyright © 2006 by Major Doug Crandall. Excerpted by permission.
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