Doing Better at Doing Good

VMI offers leadership model for all

May 25, 2013 

Editor’s note: This spring, Christopher Gergen was the first civilian to be leader-in-residence at the Virginia Military Institute. This column reflects on his experience.

Walking onto Virginia Military Institute’s campus feels like stepping back in time.

Nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains, the tall, fortress-like barracks look over a parade ground where most Fridays the cadets march in full uniform to the sounds of wailing bagpipes.

But gradually you realize: This is a place with its eye on the future.

Founded in 1839, the state-funded military school puts a heavy emphasis on cultivating leadership skills and a commitment to service in its students. To that end, VMI recently launched a Center for Leadership and Ethics, charged with fully developing its 1,500 cadets, half of whom commission into the U.S. military.

In a world that is changing so quickly and radically that we have to act and lead with imperfect information and try to make decisions that yield the best results – what can we learn from how a military institute like VMI prepares its leaders?

VMI’s traditional leadership development approach has been an “adversative” one. When one first becomes a cadet they are known as “rats” and immediately thrust into an intense six-month boot-camp filled with mental and physical tests of stamina and rule following.

With time, as rats become full-fledged cadets, they encounter increasing opportunities and expectations to lead. But what kind of leader are they expected to be? Strict rule following has its place (there is much to admire within VMI’s honor code, for instance), but VMI is coming to recognize that a more diverse set of skills will be required by tomorrow’s leaders.

So VMI’s stated leadership learning outcomes now include: “the ability to anticipate and respond effectively to the uncertainties of a complex and changing world; intellectual curiosity, imagination, and creativity; the ability to apply ethical considerations in decision-making; and the ability to act rationally and decisively under pressure.”

Fortunately, VMI can look to one of its alums for this kind of exemplary leadership.

George Marshall graduated from VMI in 1901 and went on to become one of our country’s most renowned military tacticians. Serving as President Franklin Roosevelt’s chief military adviser during World War II, he oversaw the greatest military expansion in U.S. history (growing the size of the army forty-fold), drove efforts to modernize warfare, and ultimately wrote the central strategy for the allies in Europe – earning him the honor of becoming America’s first five-star general.

Yet despite being shaped by war, Marshall is ultimately best known for what he did in the service of peace. In the volatile and uncertain aftermath of the war, Marshall (then President Truman’s Secretary of State) helped envision and establish a plan for European recovery through skillful diplomacy grounded in a deep understanding of the needs and interests of all participants. It was a remarkable demonstration of leadership and learning agility. The Marshall Plan ultimately earned its namesake the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

Marshall’s path and decisions, like any leader’s, were not preordained. Instead, he had been shaped by a series of experiences throughout his education and career that prepared him to lead our country and the Western world through extraordinarily treacherous waters.

So what are the implications for how we prepare today’s leaders? At VMI, there is heavy emphasis on experiential education in high-stress environments. Through a set of ongoing challenges, cadets have to determine how to work independently or in teams to solve for the unknown. Creativity, teamwork, honor, discipline and accountability all come into play.

It’s not a perfect system as any cadet, faculty or administrator will share. Truly innovative thinking, for instance, can suffer in a system made rigid by layers of tradition. Aspiring entrepreneurs, of whom I met several, don’t feel supported within a community so heavily influenced by the military. And classroom work can seem distant from the formative experiences of the cadets’ lives in the barracks.

Still, VMI offers a model from which we can all learn. Challenging environments, including those that encourage risk, failure and reflection, help build character, resilience, and community. VMI’s emphasis on service above self also instills a deep commitment of the cadets for country, community and each other.

In a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what the military describes as a “VUCA” world), these are precisely the kinds of leaders we need – not just in the armed forces but in all of our organizations and communities.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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