January 2015: A Day with West Point Leaders

January 1, 2015

One of the highlights of 2014 was my December 4th visit to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

At the invitation of Colonel Bernie Banks, Director of Behavioral Science and Leadership at the Academy, Ip resented a two-hour program on Advanced Coaching Skills to 35 company commanders.

All members of this racially and gender diverse group had field leadership experience in the Middle East. Many graduated from the Eisenhower School of Leadership in association with Columbia University. Among other duties, the commanders are responsible for individually mentoring West Point cadets. It’s in that capacity that Colonel Banks requested my assistance.

Emotional maturity and Army challenges

I set the stage with the officers by discussing the fundamental importance of an emotionally-mature coach. I connected emotional maturity and self-responsibility to some of the difficult issues confronting the United States Army: The Ft. Hood shootings, increased suicides, and the challenges of sexual harassment and rampant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Heads nodded, acknowledging the pain and complexity of these issues.

Most of the questions from the officers mirrored those of CEOs and other business leaders: “How do I make the time for deeper discussions with cadets when their schedules are already packed?” “How do I manage my own reactions to the immaturity of some of my coachees?” “What can I do to connect with them for deeper conversations?

As with other leaders, the officers perked up when the theme of emotional maturity was applied to their own families. Added to the challenges that face all young families, these officers endure long absences in perilous circumstances. I emphasized the importance of staying connected to their siblings and parents as well as to their spouses and children.

That exchange reinforced the relevance of family stability to organizational leadership. When a leader’s home life is topsy-turvy, it’s tough for him or her to bring a calm presence to work, whether in the academy, on the battlefield, or in the office.

Take-away observations

I appreciated the sincerity and respect of the officers, and their obvious desire to become the best possible coaches. As a group, they demonstrated a deep grasp of the importance of helping the cadets grow as persons and as leaders. Business leaders could learn from this, I thought to myself.

I was particularly intrigued by the testimony of one of the attendees, a chaplain, about the wide range of moral, emotional and spiritual issues he routinely discusses with cadets. It sounded to me like he functioned as a combination psychiatrist, priest and friend. What a challenge.

I heard one hard-hitting admission from several attendees: “The cadets are reluctant to ask for help, and so are we.” In a culture of toughness, where men and women are routinely praised for “sucking it up,” “going above and beyond,” and “dealing with it,” how does anyone admit weakness, confusion, fear and limitation? It’s a conundrum. In battle, emotional vulnerability can cost lives. But in day-to-day relationships, it fuels connection. I was left wondering how emotional tightness in a family or organization might impede real connection, and perhaps stimulate PTSD, suicidal thoughts or addictions.

My formal presentation occupied only a portion of my time on the post. Lieutenant Colonel Eric McCoy, my escort, enlightened me with a broad view of West Point’s history and campus. His local knowledge and personal kindness was a teaching all by itself.

A walk through the West Point cemetery offered a sober reminder of the cost of war. I found myself thinking about what kind of skills training might help avert human casualties in a tense global confrontation. I considered: How to listen to an opposing point of view without over-reacting, how to hold a clear position in the face of pushback, and how to maintain perspective under pressure.

The challenge of military coaching

Every day, the commanders I met face the formidable challenge of growing cadets as persons, while preparing them for leadership in the harrowing environment of ideological extremism and guerrilla warfare. In that process, it’s easy to mistake the intellectual astuteness of cadets for emotional stability and maturity. For this reason, our focus on the deeper emotional processes influencing leadership seemed ultra-appropriate.

Summarizing my West Point experience is not easy. A day of continual learning, in a new-to-me setting, engaging in stimulating dialogue with smart, eager, ethical leaders – that’s an opportunity for which I am wholly appreciative. I came away with a fresh perspective, re-charged thinking and a more enlightened view of the challenges of military leadership.

In addition to Colonel Banks and Lieutenant McCoy, I am thankful to Retired Generals John Batiste and Robert Mixon, who recommended my work to the Department of Leadership and Behavioral Science at West Point. I am also grateful to Dr. Ted Beal, a psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army Hospital, whose personal experiences treating PTSD patients proved exceptionally helpful.

In the words of the commanders

My sincerest thanks go to the commanders who engaged in our spirited dialogue with open minds. I will reserve the last words of this recollection for those officers, who provided the following post-session feedback:

  • “The most helpful focus was on direct language and embracing challenges, the things we struggle with and are uncomfortable with in our personal lives and relationships.”

  • “Your coaching techniques confront the biggest deficiencies here – lack of personal self-awareness, down time to actually process/reflect; (and) lack of desire to seek help…”

  • “This forced me to take a more introspective look at my personal interactions.”

  • “It was useful that the content was applied to real situations at West Point.”

  • “This is how we, as leaders in Army/society can see real change, but we face several key obstacles…”

8 Responses to “January 2015: A Day with West Point Leaders”

January 02, 2015 at 1:34 am, Jacky Kelly said:

What a fantastic experience for you and them John…I am impressed with their motivation and think your approach was right on…relating starts at home!! Thanks for sharing..

January 02, 2015 at 4:02 pm, Rick Pence said:

John This is a great article and will be the topic for discussion at my leadership team meeting later this week. I think it will open the eyes of some members of the team to see that those strong military leaders face the same challenges as my team when it comes to coaching for emotional maturity.

January 03, 2015 at 2:26 pm, paul winter said:

john great blog and insights sound great fun. we are using war gaming to stress test strategies with Lt colonel Chris patton. i will try to see you in the early spring.I miss talking with you. Have a great year. paul

January 04, 2015 at 1:50 pm, Jerry Hiller said:

John, I would recommend you attend the Army War College civilian/military program in Carlisle Penna. It is a 3 day program on leadership and the future of our nation/military with selected civilian leaders mingled with the brightest upcoming officers from all services as well as some of our international friends. As I read you personal thoughts, it reminded me of my time spent with them and the insights I gained. Look forward to our next session at Keuka. Jerry

January 05, 2015 at 5:12 pm, Gary Barnes said:

John: I married into a Military family, father-in-law was full Colonel and two of his sons attended Service Acadameies,(AFA and WP). I have always been struck by high level of coaching necessary in the Military. I am sure your approach was well regarded. Thank you for the Blog.

January 06, 2015 at 4:16 am, Paul K said:

I’m glad they brought you out there. a good opportunity for all. In my experiences working with military people, I’ve also been struck by the deep desire to learn and improve.

January 06, 2015 at 10:54 pm, j delorenzo said:

well done! Thank you for this article This adds more fuel to my fire in dealing with leadership insecurity

January 09, 2015 at 7:17 am, Krista Breithaupt said:

John, I read your blog with interest, easily seeing symmetry with the experiences of military cadets and family relationships where independence and toughness are valued. It may surprise some that I even shared this blog with my mom. I am sure the challenges faced generalise beyond military families. Take Care and keep on reaching.

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