Final Thoughts for the Graduating Class

Major JD Lock

May 1996

 

The time is quickly approaching when you and your class will be commissioned and become members of the Profession of Arms, the most noble of all professions. Throughout the course of your military career as officers, a select few of you will rise to great heights and establish standards and goals for all aspiring leaders to try to emulate. Of the remainder, the majority will serve as the backbone of the finest Army in the world, while others will fall by the wayside, unable to meet the standards and conduct required of our leaders. The category of officer you find yourself in has not been predetermined and is not reflected by your class standing here at West Point. It will be based upon future events that are a function of your own unique abilities, degree of sacrifice, initiative, perseverance, honor, integrity, and in some cases just pure luck. While some of history's great leaders may have been arguably "born" leaders, most of them attained that title through hard work and determination, a determination that begins in the heart as a desire to be a leader who can make a difference—and be assured, you can make a difference.

 

Your contribution to the profession has yet to be determined but you should begin now to develop a leadership philosophy and style that will continually be improved as your career progresses. I offer the following as points to ponder.

 

Much has been made of ethics and honor at West Point and in the Army, of honor versus regulations. Ethics and honor are part of one's character and are irrelative to position or profession. Ethical shortcomings are not confined to any rank or assignment. Having a code of honor and implementing it is what should set cadets and officers apart from anyone else. There is no such thing as an improper question in the army. Take responsibility for your actions; if you cannot, you need to find another profession. The professional army ethic is based upon integrity and trust and is established when you take responsibility for your actions and the actions of those you lead. Trust must be earned and explanation helps establish that trust. It is never a sign of weakness to involve subordinates in the decision-making process or to admit mistakes. Weakness comes from indecisiveness and an attempt to appear omniscient and mistake-free.

 

How you react when first tested will establish your standards. Soldiers will observe your actions—and reactions—like hawks watching their prey. When in doubt, err on the side of the perceived harder right rather than the easier wrong. It is easier to loosen high standards than to tighten loose standards. Face adversity professionally and do not compromise your integrity or credibility; once lost, they are nearly impossible to regain. As a leader, you are on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Honor and integrity do not take a rest. By establishing your honor, ethical, and moral standards early, chances are you will never be called upon to compromise your integrity. Soldiers will do anything you ask if you show them you are an individual of integrity, equitable in your treatment of them, and if you endure the same hardships they do. They will rise to any challenge you throw their way.

 

Do not develop a zero defect mentality. Subordinates must be free to fail. Otherwise, they will be tempted to cut comers to keep from failing. A zero defect system inhibits the innovation and risk taking that mark great leaders. In an article written in September 1990, MG(Ret) Herbert J. McChrystal, Jr. stated:

 

Most leaders can figure out what should be done, but a really effective leader has the moral courage to carry on, even when he [she] realizes he is assuming a high degree of risk. That is precisely the breakpoint. The ineffective leader cannot accept the risk. Moral courage is the heart of leadership, and it can be developed.

 

Across the board, the "system" does not support risk takers and the current drawdown will only make matters worse. Great leaders take risks, but do not confuse failure resulting from innovation with failure resulting from stupidity. Sound leadership techniques include risk assessments that minimize exposure to those risks. Life is a series of problems, or better stated, challenges. Your quality of life can be significantly improved by how well you evaluate risk and handle these future challenges. Focus on developing a decision-making and problem solving process. You will find this ability to be a tremendous asset.

 

Be careful of subscribing to the "Make it happen" philosophy of leadership. At times, leaders may attempt to use this directive as an easy out in an attempt to avoid making the hard decision or to pass the burden of responsibility, and thus culpability, on to a subordinate. No leader should ever direct or imply that he [she] would condone the accomplishment of a mission or task by any means necessary, with little or no consideration of the ethical implications. Ensure that your intent is clear, and if guidance from a higher level of command seems vague, seek clarification. In many instances, it will prove to be nothing more than miscommunication.

 

At times, you will be faced with the dilemma of ambition versus careerism. Ambition, within moderation, is a catalyst that provides us with desire to strive for higher goals. It is an essential and healthy leadership trait found in many, if not all, of our successful leaders. The key is to be ambitious for your unit. Your intent should be to make the unit the best and to leave it, and its members, better for your having been there.

 

It is careerism—or ticket punching—that is a cancer. Do not act—or be inactive for that matter—because it makes you look good, gains you recognition, rewards you with a colored ribbon, or will reflect on your OER. These considerations should never be included as part of your decision-making process. Accept the fact that you will not always be rewarded by the system for doing the right thing, and just do it because it is the right or honorable thing to do. That, in and of itself, should be reward enough. When questioning the purpose, ask if you are doing this for the good of the unit or just for your own self interest. It is the intent that is most critical.

 

Do not lose sight of the fact that you will not always wear the green suit. At some point in time, the Army will pin a medal on your chest, shake your hand, show you the door, and continue to drive on in your absence. My point? Establish your priorities. Selfless dedication to duty and country is a necessity, but not at the exclusion of everything else. Do not forget your family. When your career is over and you've hung up your greens for the last time, it will only have been worth it if your family is still there. Learn to establish a balance. Though there will be times when mission requirements place the Army's needs first, do not overlook your family; they need to be a priority, too.

 

Do not be disillusioned when you realize that you will not be able to ride forth and effect great sweeping changes on the total Army. None of us at this level have that type of impact and even those in echelons above reality find it a difficult task at times. Instead, focus on your own little comer of the world and those soldiers you can shape and mold, for they can go forth and have a positive impact on others. This pyramid effect is what you should work to attain.

 

There may come a time in your career, when, despite what everyone has said, despite all the "1" blocks on your OERs, despite all of the ribbons on your chest, the Army will tell you that you are "just" an average, or even a below average, officer. For an ambitious, highly competitive individual, this can be a devastating blow to one's ego and self esteem. Many in and out of the military equate rank, schools, and awards with success. Do not fall into that trap. Success is how you define it! No one else can define it for you. If you let others do so, you will, in all probability, be continually disappointed.

 

Hopefully, once the dust has settled and the numbness has worn off, you will be able to look back upon your four years at West Point and recognize that you have had a unique opportunity that few others will ever have the chance to experience. Never should there be a day when you have to defend the fact that you are a West Pointer. The fact that you passed a highly selective acceptance process and four years of a rigorous academic, physical, and leadership curriculum speaks volumes of your abilities. By no means does this imply that you should flaunt your source of commission or become a "ring knocker." Let your confidence, attention to detail, and professionalism speak for you.

 

Periodically, I stop by MacArthur's monument to view what many consider to be one of the military's greatest icons and read the accompanying inscriptions etched in granite. Whether MacArthur was the epitome of professionalism or egotism is immaterial to me. What cannot be denied is the truth of his words, for nowhere is more eloquently stated the true meaning of what it is to be a graduate of this illustrious and historied institution: "Duty, Honor, Country." As a cadet, these words are, for the most part, just simply words and phrases that one is required to learn as a plebe, for a cadet's main battle focus is WPRs, Sosh papers, cow English, the Indoor Obstacle Course, class rings, and car loan interest rates. Upon graduation, though, your life will change forever. There will be professional duties and responsibilities to something greater than yourself: soldiers, units, and missions. Welcome to The Long Gray Line.