Sunday, May 28, 2006

Behind The Scenes At The West Point Commencement – A Study Of Contrasts In Leadership

I was honored to be invited to attend yesterday’s Commencement exercises at the United States Military Academy at West Point. President Bush was the keynote speaker. It is traditional for the Commander in Chief to rotate giving the commencement address at one of our service academies each year. This year, it was the Army’s turn to hear from the President.

The day began, symbolically enough, with the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains shrouded in fog – reminiscent of the proverbial “fog of war” that often obscures the vision and judgment of those in the midst of battle. As I drove to the Main Gate in the early morning haze, I observed a handful of war protesters – far fewer that I had been led to expect would be there - expressing their displeasure with our policies in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

By the time the Corps of Cadets and the crowd of dignitaries, family and friends of the graduates had filled Michie Stadium, the cloud cover had burned off and a warm May sun shone brightly on the Class of 2006. As the familiar martial strains of “Hail to The Chief” echoed throughout the stadium, the crowd rose in polite and dutiful welcome and acknowledgement of the President’s arrival. There were no hecklers in this crowd. Despite its East Coast location just a few miles from the home of the Clinton’s, West Point has the feel of a heartland community that is typical of many military posts. This was a conservative crowd of patriotic Americans – many poised to send their sons and daughters to war as newly minted second lieutenants. This was gathering of citizens that reflected the very quintessence of George W. Bush’s constituency. So, it was with great fascination that I observed the crowd – and observed my own response - as the President spoke. My training as a sociologist kicked in and I moved into “participant observer” mode.

Bush spoke - as he often does - earnestly. I wondered how this speech, coming on the heels of his recent mea culpa press conference in which he expressed regret over some of his impolitic cowboy language in the early days of our war against terror, might differ from speeches of the past. As he droned on, the President warmed to more and more familiar themes – themes I have heard him expounded upon dozens of times – often using the same shopworn language and cadences. The only truly moving part of his address was the segment in which he pointed out a member of the graduating class whose father had been New York City firefighter who had lost his life in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

The speech was interrupted with smatterings of polite applause, but the body language of the crowd screamed of boredom and ennui. Two rows behind me, a gentleman wearing a VFW cap and other accoutrements that spoke of his status as a proud veteran, napped through much of the speech. Shortly after the ceremony’s conclusion, I asked a gentleman, the father of two Army officers – and a Texan like Mr. Bush – what he had thought of the President’s speech. He rolled his eyes, and then remarked: “He said nothing I have not already heard many times before.” The core of the President’s constituency was responding to the entropy of his leadership with snores and yawns. I was observing the spectacle of a man who had lost his audience – not just on a Saturday morning in May - but, apparently, for the remainder of his second term in office.

In contradistinction to the President’s failure to rally the troops with warmed-over rations of cant and bromide, let me share a more private and inspiring moment that occurred an hour after the formal graduation exercises had concluded. When a cadet graduates from West Point, he or she is award a Bachelor of Science degree, and is also immediately sworn in as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. The Commandant of the Academy administers the oath of office to the entire graduating class as part of the graduation ceremony, but the real swearing in takes places in smaller ceremonies scattered across the campus. Each graduate selects a faculty member, or mentor who is a commissioned officer, to preside over a private ceremony in which the Oath of Office is administered and the gold bar emblematic of the office of 2nd LT is pinned to the crisp new uniform and beret. The Pinning Ceremony is often the highlight of the day for the new officers and their families.

I was invited to attend a Pinning Ceremony for two members of the Class of 2006. Stephanie Hightower and Kevin Kalkwarf have been dating for the past year, and it was important to them and their families that they hold their Pinning Ceremonies together. Stephanie had the distinction of being the First Captain – the highest-ranking officer among the Corps of Cadets. Because of this distinction, Stephanie was awarded the rare honor of being able to hold the Pinning Ceremony for her and for Kevin in the garden behind the residence of the Commandant, the Brigadier General charged with the overall responsibility of ensuring the state of military preparedness for the Corps of Cadets.

Stephanie went first, and was administered the Oath of Office by a Colonel with whom she had worked closely as she carried out her responsibilities as First Captain. He spoke in glowing terms of her leadership and her dedication to representing the interests and needs of the Corps to the senior administrators of the Academy. He emphasized that the quality of Stephanie’s leadership exceeded anything he had previously witnessed in his long career in the Army. He told her family to be prepared to attend many more ceremonies in the future in which she will be awarded new insignias of ever-higher rank, since she is sure to be promoted often! Stephanie, in her remarks, made it clear why the Colonel had formed such a profound impression of this extraordinary young officer. She was articulate and deeply moving as she thanked each member of the gathered bevy of family and special friends. She has been commissioned an officer in the Army Medical Corps, and has been accepted to the University of Texas Medical School. She has deferred medical school for one year so that she can pursue studies at Oxford University in England as a Fulbright Scholar.

Kevin’s Pinning Ceremony followed. He had chosen one of his professors, Captain Archer, to preside. Prof. Archer spoke with great fervor about the unique qualities that make Kevin, a former pitcher on the West Point baseball team, such an effective leader. He singled out Kevin’s winning and ubiquitous smile, his work ethic and commitment to excellence, and his understanding of the importance of the human touch in exercising leadership. Kevin spoke with characteristic humility and grace, thanking in a special way each person in the audience. Kevin will be heading to Ft. Rucker, Alabama to receive training as an Army aviator.

Kevin’s older brother, Kyle, is a 2002 graduate of West Point, and currently is serving in Kuwait. He, too, has been accepted as a medical student as the University of Texas Medical School, so he and Stephanie will eventually be classmates in medical school! Before his deployment to the Middle East, Kyle asked me for a reading list of books that he should bring with him. Kyle is perpetually in learning mode!

As I was finishing up the writing of this piece, my cell phone rang. On the other end of the call was 1st LT Socrates Rosenfeld, a graduate of West Point Class of 2004. He was calling to tell me that he was heading to the airport, and was on his way to his deployment in Korea, where he will be flying Long Bow helicopters.

My sense is that with the cadre of young officers like those I have mentioned in this article, our Army has never faced a brighter future. These Renaissance Men and Woman bring a sophisticated and humane style of leadership to the complex challenges that they will face as leaders in a rapidly changing and evolving military that will need to learn how to “win the peace,” as well as continue to win wars.

Their Commander in Chief could learn a great deal from these young leaders about communicating vision and leading with strength and compassion. Once again, as has often been the case throughout history, “the child is father to the man.”

Please pray for these young leaders as they carry out their new responsibilities.



jsavard said...

Hey Al,

GREAT post ...On May 12, 1962, at West Point, retired five-star General Douglas MacArthur accepted the Sylvanus Thayer award for his outstanding character, accomplishments, and stature in the civilian community. While addressing the Corps of Cadets that day, General MacArthur eloquently stated; "Duty, Honor, Country - those three hallowed words reverently dictate, what you ought to be, what you can be, and what you will be."

No matter what sociological role we play - as a parent or a child - those three hallowed words mandate our actions. Our actions must emanate from the principles of our souls! Stephanie and Kevin can and will serve as models for each of us to emulate.

Warm regards,
Jim Savard
USNA, 1965

D. Chase said...

This was a wonderful tribute to our new young leadership. Sadly, I do not think that our president has the intellect, understanding, nor the slightest hint of an open mind to learn from anyone... His time in office has shown that. Poor Texas, I would not want him to be my standard. His attempt at being a macho cowboy has led us to our lowest point in history...he has nearly everyone in the world hating us and putting us in more peril now than ever before.

These are sad, dangerous times that with an administration not run with testosterone may have put us in a very different place.

I must not be rude... Hello Homeland Security folk.