I have had the honor to speak at the academy several times during both my SEAL career and as a leadership coach. This weekend was another honor to witness something quite rare: the ring weekend where the seniors are presented with their class ring.
Unique in the sense that the ceremony is a celebration not of hey look at my ring but of the tradition of character. Of the long grey line of building and passing on the only true value of a leader: character.
And I had the honor to see my daughter receive her ring and receive her reminder of the long grey line of the character it represents to lead the nation wherever and whenever the nation calls.
And no I am not a trader, not a navy SEAL, abandoning the navy for the army. I am acknowledging the reality of the premier leadership institution in the world today. The place builds character and that is what leadership really is about.
The speaker of the evening was Eric Shinseki, a graduate who spent 38 years leading and was the army chief of staff before retiring. During his speech he said something that awoke something I had put down after my 23 years in the seal teams. He awoke the notion that there is always a storm facing the United States. He reminded me that no class has escaped the storm of conflict that sweeps over the nation.
As a SEAL, I liked the storm and signed up to confront it head on. Yet the stark reminder was that the storm is always coming. And without the character learned at West Point, the leaders may faulter.
As my family and I sat listening I had to look at my daughter and the other young cadets and wonder what storm they would face, whether it was foreign or domestic in nature. I wondered what they had learned here at West Point would possibly prepare them for war. I also cringed at the notion if they had the character to put down the storm of domestic upheaval.
What is the character traits they impart here? My father was class of 1959, I was the class of 1990, and my daughter the class of 2020. We each had gone through hardship in Beast Baracks. The difficulty of learning to speak clearly without drama to the cadet in the red sash. The long hours of drill and being tired and dealing with being yelled at. We learned to work through problems at Buckner ad a team and to be proficient in the field as an individual no matter the weather or conditions. We learned to not lie, not cheat, and not steel.
The underpinnings of character to be sure. Tough times are needed to instill character.
It does take a great deal of character to keep things centered during really tough times when the enemy is at the gate, when the storm is upon you.
A great deal of character is needed to keep the promise of west point (duty, honor, country) as a mind set when there is no storm, when there is just grinding out training when there is no end in sight. That type of character is the real character of leaders that makes West Point unique. They keep the cadets, the future leaders grinding out excellence when the future seems so far away when there is no storm. It takes character to overcome doubt, to be patient with the process when the end seems abstract when it is grey.
Character to weather the storm and endure the calm. I would say most leaders without character cannot endure the calm. They falter, they let standards slip, they stop earning it so to speak. Imagine the character to endure the calm, when no storm is coming when nothing makes sense and when no one seems to care to train for the storm.
The reminder that the storm is coming was brilliant and much needed. The reminder of the character instilled at West Point like no other place was a great gift to receive as a ring to be sure.
I want to remind you that it takes character even if you are not in the military to weather your storms and endure the calms. Build character through tough times. Don’t run away from tough times. Build character by not cheating to succeed, building character by not lying to get yourself out of responsibility for an action done poorly, build real character by not stealing by thinking you are entitled to something not earned.
I would love to hear what storms you have and what you think Character is. Follow us on Facebook at Unbreakable or on LinkedIn at Thom Shea.
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