What the Army Can Teach Us About Leadership

April 5, 2015

What traits make for a good leader? Jim Collins, author of such renowned business books as "Good to Great" and "Built to Last," delves deeper into that question at West Point.

Renowned author, lecturer, and business consultant Jim Collins has been writing about leadership — what it takes and what it embodies — since his first book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, came out in 1994.

In 2005, Collins went to West Point to meet with a group of business and military leaders. Once there, he began to ask questions, and in the process, began to learn that his perceptions as to what makes a good leader were about to change.


The True Test of Leadership
"In the Army," Collins writes in the foreword to Leadership Lessons at West Point, "it matters to your very existence if your leaders are competent. It matters if your leaders are trustworthy. It matters of your leaders care more about themselves than they do about their people or the mission. Your life may well depend on it. Combine this truth with the larger mission of protecting national interest and advancing the cause of freedom, and you get a context for leadership rarely faced in the normal course of business."

In the Army, it matters to your very existence if your leaders are competent. It matters if your leaders are trustworthy. Your life may well depend on it.

Leadership Lessons at West Point is in and of itself a fascinating read, opening a window into what military leadership looks like on the ground, from the perspective of individuals across all rungs of the military ladder. It touches on how these men and women developed into leaders in their own right, without sugarcoating any of the missteps, questionable decisions, or lessons learned (more often than not the hard way) along the way.

The leaders who chronicle their personal development — from Dena Braeger, who speaks on the impact and pitfalls of charismatic leadership, to Doug Crandall, who gives a highly personal look into learning from failure — all have one thing in common: understanding that true leadership comes from "a special blend of personal humility and professional will — the capacity to channel your personal ambitions and capabilities into a larger cause or mission."

How to Become an Effective Leader
Throughout the book, as Collins states, "West Point answers the question, 'Can leadership be learned?'" It begins with the premise that, "whether you like it or not, you are a leader. The real question is whether you will be an effective leader."

Leadership, the chapters in this book teach, begins not with what you do, but who you are.

It's a question of what direction you'll like your life to take. How you'll shape the way you approach managing others, as well as what path you'll carve out for them to follow. Whether or not you're able to command (both vocally or silently, as the case may be) from the backseat when you need to, or if you can put your own needs behind the needs of either the people you lead, the organization you run, or both. And as this book frames out, there are infinite ways to learn those lessons, as long as that learning begins from within.

"The beauty of this book lies in the dualities of leadership," Collins writes. "knowing when to follow and when to not follow, the responsibility to question and the responsibility to execute, dedication to mission first and dedication to your comrades above all. These dualities highlight the point that disciplined action does not mean rote action. Disciplined action means that you begin with a framework of core values (be), you meld those values with knowledge and insight (know), and finally you make situation-specific decisions to act (do). Leadership, the chapters in this book teach, begins not with what you do but who you are."


Discover More About Leadership Lessons
Leadership Lessons at West Point is a fascinating look into the nuanced role that leadership plays in one of the most hierarchical organizations in America. It speaks to what separates a great leader from a good one, and what traits, skills, and sacrifices are needed to make that leap. To find out more about Jim Collins, visit his website.


By Lisa Merlini

Tag: Exploring Education

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