River Currents

Leadership Lessons from West Point

Posted by Oliver Sommer on Feb 17, 2016 10:11:35 AM
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West Point Military Academy

The River Group convened a group of CEOs at the United States Military Academy at West Point to discuss the findings of Exchanges16. Each of the CEOs had participated in the study which focused on the experience of being the CEO including from different vantage points (first time, new, established and retiring or exiting). While the discussion was rich and helped River better shape the output of our study, one of the great benefits was the location of the forum and the inherent connection to our discussion topic— especially as it related to the journey of becoming a CEO.


West Point develops leaders who lead under the most difficult of circumstances. The core of the education revolves around the development of the individual, the technical expertise required to be a military leader and the mental and physical training required to excel at being a soldier and a leader of soldiers. While the rigors of the admissions process and the experience are well documented, the underlying path of leadership development is rooted in a few concepts that include:

  • Start at the end. The definition of successful leadership and related requirements at West Point are the essence of what the Academy leadership focuses on. The mission has not changed but the execution of that mission often does. From the generational change reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of millennials to the types of threats to our national security we now face, the curriculum and approach are constantly reassessed and necessary adjustments made to better meet changing objectives.
  • Establish the true context of team. The admissions process has a high bar that identifies qualified and self-motivated individuals but it also identifies those with a propensity to serve. This fundamental character trait and desire is what the initial training focuses on—the development of the individual, self reflection, and true understanding of what it means to be part of a team and achieving the goals of a team.  
  • Challenge the individual. The schedule at West Point is unforgiving. The class load and outside demands are far beyond the normal college experience. Time management, prioritization and decision making are necessary by-products for survival. At some point, failure is inevitable and the true test is how the individual deals with failure, what the learnings are, and what the opportunities for improvement are.
  • Manage performance—always. A cadet always knows where they stand. Performance management both quantitative and qualitative is a constant from class rankings to daily feedback. While this is extreme, the underlying benefit of constantly improving and learning in a real time environment accelerates the individual’s growth.
  • Develop peer leadership skills. Stretch assignments are not a new leadership development concept but at West Point it is implemented with a high degree of structure and an ever increasing set of challenges. Leadership means being responsible for a few cadets in the second year to potentially being responsible for the entire Corps of Cadets as First Captain in the senior year. Peer leadership is often the most challenging aspect of being a manager. At West Point, it is the foundational leadership skill that all cadets experience. All of it comes from on the job training.
  • Drive innovation by creating continuity. Many of the instructors at West Point are former cadets who pursue graduate degrees at other institutions and come back to West Point as part of a three-year assignment to teach. This connection to the institution but with the additional benefit of bringing best practices and innovation to West Point is an integral part of keeping the curriculum dynamic and helping to foster a dynamic culture.

3 Implications for Your Organization

  1. Identify and develop your HiPos early. While many organizations conduct assessments, most do not actively manage the output beyond sudden loss of leadership or very cursory succession planning. If individuals are identified as high potentials, they are often only offered participation in narrowly focused programs. The lesson from West Point is that these individuals should be most aggressively challenged and brought together in a peer leadership context to address an organization’s most pressing issues. In our experience, programs that focus on these elements outside of normal job responsibilities have a long lasting impact that improves engagement and retention with the additional benefit of creating innovative solutions to some of the most challenging organizational issues.
  2. Design your leadership journey. Many organizations eschew the cost of leadership development until managers are more advanced in their careers and have inherited a scope of responsibilities that the organization feels merit the investment. However, the unintended consequence of delaying investment in leadership development is that organizations often default to external candidates to fill higher level positions or that managers who advance from within find themselves without adequate training and preparation. Managers at an early stage should have an understanding of what an integrated leadership development journey is and how they can participate. The design of the leadership journey should be closely linked to the achievement of the organization’s strategic objectives and incorporated into the strategic execution framework.
  3. Redesign the performance management process. This topic has garnered much attention recently as organizations struggle with the onset of yet another annual review cycle. The lessons from West Point are that more frequent, less structured but purposeful conversations around the achievement of organizational and individual goals are much more productive than the annual performance appraisal. The paradigm shift lies with managers and less with those receiving the feedback. River’s views on the topic are captured in greater detail here and our view of potential processes and tools here.

The essence of leadership development at West Point is in its holistic approach that always keeps the end in mind. It starts from the day you become part of the culture and lasts a lifetime. The results speak for themselves: West Point Leadership Profiles Of Courage.

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Topics: Growing Leaders