Best Defense

Leadership vs. followership: what does West Point produce?

West Point graduates generally do well in the Army, according to several hundred pages of West Point studies I’ve just finished reading. “Battalion Commanders report that our graduates possess a solid intellectual foundation, are comfortable with technology, are good problem solvers, are self-directed learners, and take the initiative to learn about foreign cultures,” concludes a ...

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West Point graduates generally do well in the Army, according to several hundred pages of West Point studies I’ve just finished reading.

“Battalion Commanders report that our graduates possess a solid intellectual foundation, are comfortable with technology, are good problem solvers, are self-directed learners, and take the initiative to learn about foreign cultures,” concludes a 2008 survey of graduates and their company commanders. That’s a pretty good report card, especially for a so-called “community college.”

The other reports, from 2007 and 2004 (three were done that year) are also mainly positive. Even taking into account that this is West Point reporting on itself, I found the reports generally pretty reassuring.

But being a reporter, I also kept an eye out for the negatives. For example, on the same page as the quotation above appears the comment that West Point grads sometimes didn’t feel they are prepared to “think outside the box.” This was one of several themes in the reports that made me suspect that West Point really teaches followership more than it teaches leadership. 

–A 2004 survey of 51 former battalion commanders reported that “some USMA grads had difficulty relating to NCOs.” (As one commander put it, “I had lieutenants that wouldn’t listen to their platoon sergeant with lots of experience . . . ‘it’s my way or the highway.'”)

–One theme that surprised me was that West Pointers were socially awkward. “ROTC, OCS graduates were much better at dealing with the real world, much more socially aware,” stated one commander. “The Military Academy guys were at a distinct disadvantage in this area.” 

–This social ineptness actually would alienate others so much that it affected their ability to lead. “Technically, they had the skills to be as good as anyone else, but they lacked the people savvy that made them good leaders,” said one commander. “Whether it was rolling their eyes, or arrogance, or standoffishness, those sorts of things to me are leadership aspects, and that to me is probably one of the biggest places where Military Academy graduates did not always do very well . . . They demonstrated a degree of social immaturity that directly impacts their ability to lead.”

–The same study found that West Pointers “continued to be perceived as . . . somewhat self-serving” and careerist. One commander said that one of his battery commanders complained that three football-playing cadets from West Point assigned to his unit during the summer “did not want to go to the field, because it was interfering with their workout schedule . . . . Being a military officer for five weeks was actually a deterrent for them versus the ROTC guys that we received in the summer.”

One surprise to me is that almost every report mentioned that West Pointers tend to abuse alcohol more than other young Army officers. “Binge drinking seemed to be a favorite activity,” said the 2004 survey of battalion commanders.

Another of the 2004 reports contained this troubling quote from a commander: 

I will tell you that a lot of the young, more specifically West Point lieutenants, seem to live together, hang out together, and party together. It was almost like letting someone out of a cage and watching them get into trouble. Those that stayed out late and had several alcohol problems were all West Point lieutenants.”  

By contrast, said another officer, the ROTC and OCS officers seemed to have gotten all that out of their system by the point they became second lieutenants.

So what does this all tell us about the value of West Point? I would say it remains unproven. There is not an overwhelming case to be found in these documents that the additional cost of the academy is justified. The 2004 survey of former battalion commanders found that “differences in military skills among sources of commission largely were not observed at the rank of captain.”

(BTW, in response to some of the e-mails I am getting: I don’t think length of service measures value of service. I have no problem with the guys getting out now who have done three year-long combat tours since graduating six years ago. That’s a lot more blood, sweat and tears than the guy who camped out in a few nice posts in Germany from 1975 to 1995.)

thethirstymoth/flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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