Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Does West Point produce good leaders?

Many West Point cadets have written to me asserting that the academy produces good leaders, and is in face the premier place in these United States to learn about leadership. One cadet with prior experience as an enlisted soldier begs to differ. I quote this with his permission: West Point has a poor reputation within ...

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WEST POINT, NY - MAY 26: Graduates toss their hats in the air after taking the oath of office and graduating from the U.S. Military Academy May 26, 2007 at West Point, New York. The approximately 1,000 cadets who graduated were the first to enter the U.S. Miltary Academy after the start of the war in Iraq in March 2003.(Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Many West Point cadets have written to me asserting that the academy produces good leaders, and is in face the premier place in these United States to learn about leadership.

One cadet with prior experience as an enlisted soldier begs to differ. I quote this with his permission:

Many West Point cadets have written to me asserting that the academy produces good leaders, and is in face the premier place in these United States to learn about leadership.

One cadet with prior experience as an enlisted soldier begs to differ. I quote this with his permission:

West Point has a poor reputation within the Army, especially for producing petulant and imperious young Officers. This is a product of a thorough enculturation done here at West Point, one steeped in 1850’s systems of behavior. Hazing is enforced, not discouraged. Cadets are placed in leadership roles over other cadets at the Academy. Their first leadership lessons are taught to them by other cadets. Subordinates are to be treated with disdain as inferiors. Leaders are entitled to total deference from their subordinates, and special treatment. Fourth class cadets (plebes), pick up trash nightly from their leader’s rooms, deliver their laundry and newspapers, and stand outside their rooms calling out the time to let them know when to be at formation. This is all justified by the weight of history, in that everyone else here had to do it before.

Many of my experiences at West Point fly in the face of any idea I ever had about the nature of good leadership. This system of treatment will naturally produce some leaders who both take their position for granted, and habitually abuse their subordinates.  Often, good leaders are produced in spite of this system, rather than in consequence of it. One of my sergeants — a veteran of combat in Iraq — told me before I left for West Point that most all the Academy graduates he had worked for were poor leaders, except one, who had been enlisted before he went to the Academy.”

This is a pretty strong indictment. I welcome responses and comments, especially from soldiers in a position to know. I am especially interested in the observations of senior NCOs, company and battalion commanders. Is this prior enlisted cadet correct in his assertion that other soldiers look upon West Pointers as “petulant and imperious”?

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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