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From the pristine halls of government to the bleakest of battlefields the skill and confidence needed for leadership is needed. However, leadership is an especially important skill for an officer where a moment’s indecision can result in several lives being lost. Therefore any lack is felt deeply in today’s modern army. Accordingly, it was a fitting topic for West Point’s 500th night ceremony. The guest speaker, Admiral William McRaven’s, inspiring speech to West Point’s class of 2015 was both thought-provoking and full of practical advice.
As the 500 day countdown towards the West point cadets’ commissions began Admiral McRaven’s eloquent words rang out. While the head of US Special Operations Command’s speech encompassed a variety of points, it can be broken down using the Army leadership philosophy of Be, Know, Do. First is the “Be” part. This part focuses on being a person of character and an upholder of the Army values. In Admiral McRaven’s speech he gives many examples of the exemplary traits of current Army leaders.
He cites among others General Dempsey’s compassion, General Odierno’s fierceness, and General McChrystal’s creative mind. However, he notes that despite their varied character strengths they are all great leaders, and they all share certain traits. For example, Admiral McRaven comments that every great Army leader led from the front and displayed exceptional physical and moral courage. He states that one must hold their primary and ultimate loyalty to the constitution, not any part of the Army infrastructure.
One must be willing to follow others even when they appear to be incompetent or foolish. Admiral McRaven also praises the character of regular soldier’s whose character sometimes exceeds that of their commander. He gives examples of the persistence and optimism that soldier’s he met had in the face of terrible wounds and adversity. In general Admiral McRaven paints a picture of the character of a leader as someone courageous, persistent, and a model of excellence. The second part of the Army’s leadership philosophy is the “Know” philosophy. Although it is an equally important as the “Be” part of the philosophy it is easier to implement. The “Know” part of the philosophy focuses on the technical competency and skill of the leader. Naturally Admiral McRaven had less to say relating to the “Know” part of the philosophy as cadets are trained to excel in the tactical and strategic proficiency. He however, does specify that every Army leader should experience the hardest dirtiest job in their command. In short Admiral McRaven assumes that cadets are already prepared to maintain the personal standards of competency necessary. The “Do” part of the Army philosophy is by far the most important part because a leader is judged by what he does. While an excellent soldier is one that has good character and is competent in his area a good leader is so much more. Admiral McRaven makes this clear when he describes how “nothing is more daunting, more frustrating more complex than trying to lead men and women in tough times”. Leaders have to be able to fail repeatedly but learn from their failures and keep going, make decisions quickly sometimes without knowing all the facts, and holding both yourself and your soldier’s to an uncompromisingly high standard. Admiral McRaven though pays special homage to one thing that a leader must do that is often overlooked. This essential thing is to follow. Admiral McRaven emphasizes that “the strength of a good unit rests more on how well the officers follow the commander, than how well they lead their own soldiers.” While he notes that one must be willing to stand up to authority when it is necessary the quiet undermining of one’s leaders is very detrimental. It might be easy to dissent quietly but one must “avoid the rolling eyes, the whisper campaigns and junior officer dissension.” Admiral McRaven makes it clear that the leadership of a unit has a direct impact on unit morale, and the application of good leadership allows the Army to function. Admiral McRaven ends his speech with an explanation of the rewards of serving in the Army as he puts it “You will have adventures to fill ten life times and stories that your friends from home will never be able to understand.” Most importantly he states that “that there is no more noble calling in the world than to be a soldier in the United States Army.” With this in mind we should take the advice that Admiral McRaven gave to heart because even if there are considerably more than 500 days left to our own commissioning date soon enough we will be officers in the U.S Army. It is our duty to continue to train and prepare for that most noble calling.
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