Grassroots Leadership: U.S. Military Academy

“You can’t lead without making sacrifices.” — Cadet Randy Hopper, U.S. Military Academy

Recognized for: Grassroots Leadership
Home base: West Point, New York
Year founded: 1802


“Attention all cadets: There are five minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation. The uniform is battle dress under field jacket.” It’s 11:55 AM. It’s really cold. About 200 feet above a bend in the Hudson River, the wind rushes across the plain at West Point and slams into the six-story granite ramparts of the United States Military Academy.

This is a massive, fortlike place screaming of history. A statue of General George Washington commands the Parade Ground, flanked by Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Thayer. The stone barracks, square and stark, bear the names of Bradley, Lee, and Pershing.

“There are four minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation.” Inside, cadet “plebes,” or freshmen, stand at attention, counting off the minutes until the mandatory premeal convocation. Their cues come from clocks mounted every 50 feet or so along the halls.


Students tumble into the sprawling asphalt courtyards between barracks, as they do at least twice each day, every day, year-round. “Fall in!” The command is like an ionizing charge, driving loose bunches into perfect lines and squares — each square a platoon, four platoons to a company, four companies to a battalion, and two battalions to a regiment. “Attention!” Eyes shoot straight ahead.

Formation is a defining experience at West Point. Officially, it is a simple exercise in accountability: From platoon on up, officers must know and report how many cadets are present. But there’s more to it, of course. Formation is a nod to the past. Cadets have gathered in this way, on this spot, every day for nearly 200 years. More important, it is a reminder of the primacy of selflessness: Here, the individual yields to the greater whole — to the corps.

On dismissal, the cadets begin marching. The movement looks choreographed — a dozen drab soldier streams flowing in right angles out of the courtyard. In minutes, it’s over. A few thousand cadets have removed themselves. The courtyard is silent. And you think, That was one seriously weird exercise. A weird and beautiful thing.


That pretty much describes the whole place.

Leadership Lessons (I)

“The first lesson I learned as a plebe came from an upperclassman yelling in my face. He told me that there were four acceptable answers: ‘Yes, sir’; ‘No, sir’; ‘No excuse, sir’; and ‘Sir, I do not understand.’ He’d ask, ‘Why aren’t your shoes shined?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, it was muddy, and I didn’t have time.’ He’d be all over me. He was trying to teach me something: If you have to take men up a hill and write letters to their moms that night, there’s literally no excuse. If you have to lay off thousands of people from your company, there’s no excuse. You should have seen it coming and done something about it.”
–James Kimsey, ’62, founding CEO, America Online

The “West Point of Leadership”

Each spring, West Point graduates 900-odd men and women, granting each of them a bachelor’s degree and a commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After six-week leaves, they travel to places like Kosovo, Germany, and Guam. Once there, they take on their first jobs as military officers.


This fact alone is stunning: As a nation, we are entrusting to 21-year-olds the safety of our enlisted troops, not to mention the care and deployment of weapons of mass destruction, the keeping of peace, and the occasional waging of war. The corresponding fact is this: By the time they leave West Point, most of these kids are unquestionably up to the job. From the day that they set foot on campus (in early July, before their freshman year), cadets are prepared to take on responsibility, to face challenges, to make decisions under stress, and to pursue the goals set out for them — relentlessly.

The U.S. Military Academy is a factory, and what it manufactures is leaders. Over the years, it has become probably the most effective institution for leadership development in the country. If Harvard Business School is “the West Point of capitalism,” well, when it comes to leadership, West Point is the real thing.

Of course, this leadership factory supplies the military. In return for a free college education, graduates are required to serve the U.S. Army for at least five years. After that, however, many spin out into areas like government, education, and, most often, business — where they thrive. “You see them everywhere,” says Geoff Champion, a 1972 graduate and a partner at Korn/Ferry. They sit atop, America Online, Commerce One, SciQuest, and many other successful companies.


Why? Understand this about West Point: Everything that we have read and heard about it — the rules, the structure, the rigidity, the conformity — is essentially true. This is a school where students learn, in one class, that “the mortar is your best friend.”

But understand this too: There’s more to the story. The academy’s complex and arcane education hangs on an intriguing tension. Think of it, as West Point’s own leaders do, in terms of Athens and Sparta. The structure, the monotonous regime, the rote memorization — that’s Sparta, and it’s important. Yet West Point also nurtures creativity and flexibility — the Athens.

In the chaos of battle, as in business, leaders can’t expect to stick to a fixed plan. They depend on the predictable competence of their subordinates (instilled by all of that training) as well as on their own judgment. Military officers are given orders, but how they get the job done is up to them. “Everything that happens at West Point serves a question,” says Ed Ruggero, a 1980 graduate and the author of Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders (HarperCollins, 2001): “How do you develop an organization that can thrive amid constant change?”


“This is a unique world, where everyone is trying to develop you,” says David Sattelmeyer, a senior, or “firstie,” and a battalion commander, one of the highest-ranking cadet positions. “You’re constantly watching others to see what works. And people are constantly looking at you. The place keeps pushing you.” Everyone is following, and nearly everyone is leading, all the time. Everyone is evaluated — all the time. Every action is taken as an opportunity to learn.

Leadership Lessons (II)

“I had a former roommate who committed an honor-code violation. When he told me what he’d done, I didn’t bat an eye. I reported him. Not because I didn’t care about him; I cared deeply. But I knew that the principle was more important than his being given a second chance. I was 18, and I realized that my first responsibility was to the principle of honor.”
–John Grisillo, ’87, president, Compass Group

The Leadership Formula: Knowing, Doing, Being

“People say you can’t change someone,” says Lieutenant Colonel Scott Snook, “but we’re privileged here. We have some of the best and brightest potential in this country, and we have them for 47 months, 24-7. We got ’em at night, on weekends, all summer long.”


He is not boasting, exactly. He is marveling at the opportunity. “We have them when they’re 18, which is a crucial moment,” says Snook, who graduated from West Point in 1980. “They’re ripe for change. Not only do we have them, but we’re also empowered to change them. The country asks us to change who they are!”

Back in rural Pennsylvania, where he grew up, Snook wanted to be a doctor. To his own surprise, he has stuck with the Army for 21 years since his cadet days. He was the executive officer of a company in Grenada, where he was wounded by friendly fire. He earned an MBA and a PhD in organizational behavior at Harvard, where he returns regularly to teach in executive programs.

Snook now heads West Point’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Analysis. His mandate is to confront the academy’s well-worn apparatus for leadership development and to seek a scientific basis for a system that’s rooted in experience and inertia: Why are things done the way they are? What works? How does it work? Could it work better?


The first Army leadership manual, written 25 years ago, coined the expression “Be, know, do.” It was a neat summation of how effective leaders operate, but it also pointed to the central challenge of leadership development. The capacity for “knowing” and “doing” is relatively easy to build up in a student. It’s a function of education and training, which is what most universities are good at.

But knowledge and skills are perishable — both because they’re not applied all the time and because they can become outdated. It’s the “be” piece — your self-concept, your values, your ethical makeup, who you are — that lasts. That’s what consumes Snook: What does it mean to be an officer? And how can West Point shape the “be” piece for each of its 4,000 cadets?

Snook really loves this stuff. West Point has devised a mechanism, perhaps unwittingly, that forces 18-year-olds to grow up. Cadets advance by confronting moral ambiguity, by resolving competing claims on their identity. That’s how you get at the “be” piece. “We don’t know if we have it right,” Snook says. “But it happens through experiences, if you’re passionately involved. And bottom line, the sorts of experiences that change you are those that get you out of your comfort zone.


“Sometimes,” Snook continues, “the biggest window for changing someone’s self-concept opens when he fails. That’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about development. It might be when he fails a course for the first time in his life or when he commits an honor-code violation. When that happens, he’s open to self-reflection.”

Leadership Lessons (III)

“West Point is a uniquely humbling experience. I came from a small town, where I was a good student and captain of my sports teams. I showed up at West Point and found that 60% of my classmates were team captains, and 20% were valedictorians. One day you’re the local star, and the next you’re just one of thousands of bald heads.”
–Dave McCormick, ’87, senior vice president, FreeMarkets Inc.

To Build Confidence, Teach Humility

The typical West Point cadet looks something like this: male and white (though 15% of students are women, and 25% are nonwhite). Top decile of his high-school class. Jock. Middle-class, middle-American. He came to the academy because it is free, but he is also patriotic on some level.


The norm isn’t definitive, of course. Any community of 4,000 people is a community of 4,000 distinctive individuals. But in practice, the cadets who reside in the standard-issue cinder-block rooms of Bradley Barracks look pretty much the same. They say pretty much the same things. Hell, that’s part of the deal here: Everyone is part of a team, no individual more important than the mission of the whole.

“Why do we make these kids endure such a spartan four years?” Snook asks. “You stay in stone barracks. You can’t put garbage in the garbage cans before 9:30 AM, and the sinks must be clean and dry at all times. So many rules and regulations. Why?

“Because when you graduate,” Snook continues, “you’re going to be asked to be selfless. For a lot of hours while in the Army, you’re going to suffer. You’ll be away from home for Christmas; you’ll sleep in the mud. There are a lot of things about this job that make you subordinate your self-interest — so get used to it.”


This is the essence of what cadets learn. They hear it in the classroom, but they also witness it around them, every day. The great leaders they see inspire and motivate because they care for their soldiers and because they’re willing to do themselves whatever they ask of others. “Look at any leader who’s made a big change,” says firstie Randy Hopper. “The key is servanthood. You can’t lead without making sacrifices.”

Hopper, a 22-year-old cadet from Baytown, Texas, is commander of Company C-2, based in Bradley. There are 32 such companies, each comprised of about 128 students, each with its own nickname (C-2 is the “Flying Circus”), cheer (“Go Circus!”), and culture. The company is the core organizational unit at West Point. It is also the crucible for experiential leadership development. Here’s how it works.

Plebes are, as ever, at the bottom. They learn how to follow, absorbing and acting on the orders of their superiors. Second-year students, or “yearlings,” are assigned teams of one or two plebes. In this first, modest experience as military leaders, yearlings learn to develop intimate relationships with their subordinates, rooted in mutual trust. They are held directly accountable for their plebes’ performance.


Yearlings report, in turn, to third-year students, or “cows” (a long story), each cow responsible for squads of two or three yearlings and four to six of their plebe charges. Cast in the roles of noncommissioned officers of the cadet brigade, cows must exercise indirect leadership. They are accountable for the plebes as well, but they must direct behavior through the yearlings. They must learn to motivate by example.

Firsties run the show. The summer before classes begin, they direct the eight weeks of military training for incoming plebes and yearlings. Come August, they take the roles of commissioned officers in the cadet hierarchy. Platoon leaders report to company commanders and their staffs, who answer to battalion commands, regiments, and the brigade.

Everyone leads, and everyone follows. Everyone models, and everyone assesses. Cadets’ formal evaluations of their subordinates’ performance count toward final grades. “Everyone’s a teacher,” says firstie Chris Kane, a platoon leader under Hopper in C-2. “That’s what I love about this place. We’re all teachers.”

In this 24-hour leadership laboratory, students acquire humility. As leaders, they are nothing without followers. “You learn from the beginning that you’re not in a position of leadership because you’re smarter or better,” says firstie and C-2 executive officer Joe Bagaglio. “As soon as you think you know it all, you get burned.”

And they must perform under stress. Cadets face a daunting crush of academics, sports, and military activities. The academy’s administrators know that there is enough time, in theory, to get it all done; they have studied this. In practice, though, cadets learn to prioritize — what must come first and what can be left undone. More than that, they come to accept that, amid chaos, the only thing that they can control is themselves. Under fire, “you don’t ask how to get it done,” says Kane. “You just do it.”

Major Tony Burgess follows all of this with reactions that range from concern to bemusement to pride. As the tactical officer attached on a full-time basis to C-2, Burgess, ’90, is likely the single most influential person in the development of the company’s 128 young cadets. He is, as he likes to put it, their “teacher-coach-mentor-disciplinarian-den mother.”

Burgess himself is a leadership junkie. The son of missionary parents, he spent his childhood in Mexico and entered West Point with grand visions. “I was going to get out of the Army after five years, and by age 30, I was going to be a millionaire in business,” he says. “I didn’t know how, but I was going to do it. Then, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with leading.”

Burgess has spent 10 years in the infantry, and he will tell you that there is no better job in the world than commanding an Army company. He grew passionate enough about it to start up a Web site, — an unauthorized (but unofficially welcome) resource for company commanders that has attracted many users. With his classmate and best friend, Nate Allen, Burgess has written a book on the same topic, Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level, which is available on his Web site.

Among his cadet charges, Burgess radiates intensity and enthusiasm. He is at once approachable and reserved, a buddy and a boss. His success depends on maintaining a fine balance — guiding students’ decisions without actually making them, giving students enough rope but knowing when to haul it in. He is the one who must look out for developmental opportunities and failures. He must be ready to influence.

If Burgess succeeds — if West Point succeeds — his cadets will emerge, he thinks, as the “go-to” people. “They’ll be the ones who you know will make it happen,” he says, “the guys who will do better than we ever imagined possible.”

Leadership Lessons (IV)

“I led a team of incoming plebes during basic training. I thought I had to lead the way that I saw others doing it — with stress and shouting, like a traditional drill sergeant. Well, my unit performed very badly. And they hated me. That experience shook me up. I realized that leadership isn’t rule-based. It isn’t about stress. It’s about inspiration, about setting and communicating a vision. It’s about gaining trust. Once you have someone’s trust, once you get them on the same sheet of music, they don’t want to disappoint you. Then leading becomes very easy.”
–Christina “CJ” Juhasz, ’90, director in online ventures, Merrill Lynch

West Point’s Leadership Curriculum

Until after World War II, there was no explicit leadership instruction at West Point. Back then, the academy was known primarily as an engineering school. How could leadership possibly be taught? How do you teach judgment or inspiration in a classroom?

Hike to the top floor of Thayer Hall, and you will find Lieutenant Colonel Greg Dardis engaging small groups of firsties in discussions of classical-leadership theory, dissecting such leading-edge thinkers as Morgan McCall and Peter Senge. Cadets today can actually major in leadership. And even if they don’t, such instruction is deeply ingrained in the curriculum.

In their third year, cadets must take a course called Military Leadership. The timing is significant. At that point, cadets have returned from a summer spent interning with Army units around the world, often temporarily replacing platoon leaders in the field. They have served as team leaders in their cadet company. “They have experience under their belts,” says Dardis, who graduated from West Point in 1979 and now heads the leadership and management studies program. “They’ve observed both good and bad leadership.”

The object is to reflect on that experience, to assess it in terms of theory. Early in the course, cadets are asked to write about their leadership philosophy — a graded exercise that forces them to reflect on their talents and weaknesses. They write reflection papers that explain theoretical constructs in terms of their own experiences.

Cadets also take on a raft of case studies penned by West Point faculty, most of them rooted in combat situations. The students also engage in action-learning projects — some of which are distinctly non-military. When Snook taught the class, he would take his students to the elementary school that serves West Point families: “I’d say, ‘You all think you’re leaders? Well, you’re going to lead a recess.’ ” The assignment: Develop a plan for overseeing seven minutes of playground activity.

Most often, cadets responded by thinking in terms of command and control: First we’ll play dodgeball. Then we’ll move to the swings. I’ll direct every movement of every kid out there.

Then they watched the teacher lead an actual recess. As kids poured out onto the playground, there was chaos. And then order emerged, as the children basically organized themselves into teams. The exact order that resulted was unpredictable — but it was entirely predictable that some form of order would emerge.

“I asked them to rate recess,” Snook recalls. “Well, they said that everyone had fun, and no one got hurt. So I asked them to tell me about the leader. ‘Well, the teacher just stood there,’ they said. So, is leading that easy? Is it totally hands-off? No. The way you influence complex, chaotic systems is by setting the starting conditions. You set the starting conditions, the left and right boundaries, and the minimum specifications. The teacher had a fence around the playground, and she established four or five rules. After that, her job was managing by exception.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of West Point is thinking about the institution’s exceptional past — and challenging future. The academy exists on a razor’s edge. To stay effective, it must retain much of what makes it different — yet it also must continuously accommodate changing external demands. “We can’t be so different that the notion of being the Army of a democracy fails,” says Lieutenant General Daniel W. Christman, the academy’s well-regarded superintendent. “We have to reflect what society demands of us.”

The 1965 graduate believes that in order to fortify its relevance in the post-Cold War era, the academy must adjust its mission. It must reflect the new ambivalence with which America regards its armed services. That means equipping its graduates less for combat leadership than for “officership” — a vague notion that encompasses any number of the roles that the Army may fill. “We need to educate cadets in a way that doesn’t constitute a military straitjacket,” Christman says.

That may be so. West Point produces young officers who have been encouraged to act as entrepreneurs, to act quickly and decisively, to operate effectively amid chaos. These are traits that clash with the reality of military service in peacetime. So here’s the irony: If the academy’s education has become less applicable in the Army, it has grown more relevant in business. “Running a company, especially a startup, is not unlike a battle,” says Mark Hoffman, a 1969 graduate and now chairman and CEO of online-exchange giant Commerce One. “Bombs are going off all around you. The market and the competition are changing constantly. Your stock price is falling. You have to stay calm in the face of strife.”

West Point dedicates itself to producing graduates who will, as its mission statement avers, “dedicate a lifetime of selfless service to the nation.” The vague wording concerns those who believe that such service should be strictly military. But as a nation, we are short of great leadership in every sector. We may lament West Pointers’ abandonment of the military. But guess what? Business has become the new national defense. Service to economy, selfless or not, constitutes service to the nation.

Keith H. Hammonds (, a Fast Company senior editor, is based in New York. Visit West Point on the Web (, or contact Lieutenant Colonel Scott Snook by email (

Sidebar: The Grassroots-Leadership Agenda

Who: West Point alumni
Who: Leadership lessons for business
Why: In an era of great change, business feels a lot like war

What are the leadership qualities that give West Point grads an edge in business? Academy graduates reflect on what they learned.

Responsibility: “This is the underlying theory,” says Mark Stabile, ’90, a senior partner at Greencastle Associates Consulting. “If you give people responsibility early, give them the opportunity to go out and do things, they’ll go out and do them.”

Trust: “Your ability to get people to follow you up the hill into gunfire or into the next Net meltdown is based on your ability to convince them that you have their interests at heart,” says Dave McCormick, ’87, a senior VP at FreeMarkets Inc.

Flexibility: Structure is important, and predictability of behavior is critical. But in chaotic situations, leaders must be able to decide on the fly. “When you go into battle, order quickly disintegrates, and you have to take action with limited information,” says Mark Hoffman, ’69, chairman and CEO of Commerce One. “You have to make decisions about what to do. You need individuals who can decide in the heat of battle.”

Failure: “At some point, everyone fails,” says entrepreneur Donald A. Hicks, ’90. “West Point makes you deal with the fact that you’re capable of doing far more than you think – and that at some point, you can’t do any more.”

Planning: Cadets plan everything – all the time. They imagine the consequences, and they devise contingency solutions. “It’s an internalization that forces you to start thinking ahead,” says AOL founding CEO James Kimsey, ’62. “It causes some degree of paranoia, because you try to think of every outcome so that you will achieve success.”