6 Lessons Visiting West Point Taught Me

Last month I had the opportunity of a lifetime that was among the most incredible two days in my career as a speaker. I was invited to speak about leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, arguably the greatest leadership school in the world, to speak with the cadets—who will be commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army and one day lead men and women in protecting our country.

Even though I was there to share my knowledge, West Point also taught me a lot of valuable lessons in greatness that I promise will have a tremendous impact on my life. And I want to pass them along to you here. While on campus, I learned…

1. To lead others, you must first lead yourself.

Everyone who’s driven to be a leader probably wants a large following. But at West Point, your first responsibility is to lead one person—yourself.  As a freshman (also known as a plebe), self is your only leadership responsibility. 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. And finally, during their last year at West Point, seniors (firsties) have the opportunity to 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 challenging, but every cadet knows what they are signing up for before they arrive. The goal of the academy is grand, but because the mission is clear, cadets step on campus 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.

3. If you recruit well on the front end, you’ll have fewer issues with attrition and turnover.

Without question, succeeding at this school is not easy. Even so, the academy has a low dropout rate—this is a result of great, honest recruiting efforts. West Point recruiters are not busy trying to sell someone to attend, but, instead, they carefully and deliberately seek out students who align with their vision from the start.

4. Pull from your own experiences—successes and failures alike—as you help shape future leaders.

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.

5. Sports allow you to bring out the best of your competitive side.

They believe every cadet is an athlete. Whether cadets are participating on a varsity team, playing intramural sports or competing in running events, athletic participation is expected—and for good reason. Sports help cadets to discipline their aggressive pursuit of goals to maximum efficiency. The administration at West Point wants these skills to be practiced actively by every cadet.

6. Precision and teamwork are highly important to any great mission.

I had a chance to have lunch in the cadet mess hall. Incredibly, all 4,400 cadets are served their meals in 12 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.

Check in next week for the leadership lessons I shared with the cadets at West Point.

See how one brigadier general’s military training shaped her leadership approach throughout her service and then in running her business—“stay alert, stay alive” always ringing in her head.


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