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Six Lessons I Learned at West Point

Last month, I had the opportunity of a lifetime that was easily among the most incredible two days in my career as a speaker.

I was invited as a guest presenter at West Point, arguably the Greatest leadership academy in the world, to speak about leadership with the cadets–all of whom will be commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United States Army and one day lead men and women in the protection of our country. During my visit, I observed many lessons in Greatness that I promise will have a tremendous impact on my life. I wanted to share with you a collection of these lessons in a two-part blog series on my experiences.

While on campus, I learned:

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  1. In order to lead others, you must lead yourself first. Everyone who has ambitions to be a leader desires to have a large following. But at West Point, your first responsibility is to lead yourself. As a freshman (also known as a plebe), that is your only leadership responsibility – self. When you become a sophomore (yearling), you are challenged to lead one other person as their mentor. Third-year students (cows) have the opportunity to lead anywhere from nine to 120 other cadets. Finally, during their last year at West Point, seniors (firsties) could be selected to lead the entire 4,400 member cadet corps. But before any of that can happen, you must prove that you can lead yourself!

  2. When your mission is boldly and abundantly clear, you can expect Great things from everyone. Life at West Point is very challenging, but every cadet knows what they are signing up for before they get there. The goal of the academy is grand, but because the mission is very clear, cadets arrive there prepared to do big things. Everyone knows what to expect and, as a result, the cadets are ready to work together to accomplish Great goals.

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  4. The power of good recruiting. Without question, succeeding at the West Point is not easy. However, the academy has a very low dropout rate. This is a result of Great and honest recruiting efforts. West Point recruiters are not busy trying to sell someone on coming to the academy, but instead they carefully and deliberately seek out students that align with their vision from the beginning. The lesson is clear: If you recruit well on the front end, you’ll have fewer issues with attrition and turnover.

  5. They teach around real people. I had a chance to sit in on several classes and watch professors teach the cadets. The professors brought their lessons to life by teaching around the military experiences that they’d experienced while in the line of duty, as they were in the field and leading. I admired how this touch of realism made every lesson more dynamic to the cadets, and I realized that this kind of teaching is rarely used in other settings. Pull from your own experiences—successes and failures alike—as you help shape future leaders.

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  7. They believe that every cadet is an athlete. Whether cadets are participating on a varsity team, playing intramural sports, or competing in running events (i.e. marathons or triathlons), athletic participation is expected—and for a good reason. The administration at West Point believes that the opportunity to participate in sports allows cadets to bring out the best of their competitive sides. This also helps cadets to discipline their aggressive pursuit of goals to maximum efficiency. The academy wants those skills to be practiced actively by every cadet.

  8. The importance of precision and teamwork. During my stay, I had a chance to have lunch in the cadet mess hall. Incredibly, all 4,400 cadets are served their meals in twelve minutes. It was a feat to behold and was the definition of meticulousness and clockwork! I was consistently fascinated with how the academy implemented discipline in such an everyday occurrence. This serves as a daily reminder to cadets that precision and teamwork is highly important to any Great mission—a lesson we can all learn.

My trip to West Point was monumental.

Have you ever had the opportunity to observe extraordinary lessons of discipline, teamwork, and leadership? Please share with me your experiences.

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Comments (5)

  • Avatar

    Bryce Cramer

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    Don
    From your experience, I’ve learned seven lessons, the six you mention, plus one you actively practice–pay attention to what others are doing around you and learn from their actions.

    Thank you once again for sharing your lessons learned. I do believe we can learn vicariously from others.

  • Avatar

    Roger Briggs

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    As always something to be gleaned.

  • Avatar

    Ken Hovland

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    Thanks Don – your rich posts are always a source of inspiration in the work that we do, building leaders one day at a time. Much appreciated!

  • Avatar

    Jeremy Office

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    Great write up Don. Always motivating and humbling to hear stories of the young adults who protect our country so selflessly.

    • Avatar

      Don Yaeger

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      Thank you Jeremy. It was truly humbling to spend some time with those dedicated, young servicemen and women!

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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