The US Military Academy and Developing Leaders of Character: Why Ethics and Results Go Hand in Hand
I recently had the honor of visiting the United States Military Academy at West Point and one thing that continued to come up while learning about their storied history and traditions, and touring the immaculate grounds was a commitment to developing leaders of character. In today's pressure-driven business environment, it is easy to focus solely on results while compromising on ethics and values. However, the West Point Leaders of Character approach reinforced how developing principled leadership not only does right but also inspires excellence.
West Point's mission is to produce "commissioned leaders of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, and Country." Their Developing Leaders of Character approach builds trust and accountability. While designed for the military context, many of the principles offer insights for business leaders seeking to strengthen character and achieve high performance with integrity.
Three key outcomes provide the foundation: Live Honorably, Lead Honorably, and Demonstrate Excellence. Leaders exhibiting these traits act with transparency, care, and discipline. They make principled choices even when difficult and bring out the best in their people. An unflinching commitment to ethics is not just noble, but pragmatic - it builds confidence and motivates top performance.
Some best practices that stand out:
- Emphasize character development and ethical reasoning as much as skills training. Technical expertise alone does not guarantee effective leadership. Providing opportunities for reflection, mentorship, and peer accountability around issues of character strengthens integrity and judgment.
- Take a systematic approach to leader development. Leadership is a learnable skill that must be intentionally cultivated over time through progressive challenges and experiences. Mapping out those developmental experiences and assessing progress is vital.
- Build a culture that reinforces values. Values like duty, honor, and excellence take root when they are embedded in day-to-day actions and traditions. Consistent role modeling and ceremonies that celebrate character help sustain the culture.
- Make leadership development a shared responsibility. While formal training has a role, leadership is developed through experience. Empowering employees at all levels to be role models and coaches builds leadership capacity.
- Assess and improve. Continuous assessment of outcomes and organizational culture, and acting upon the findings, is key to making improvements over time.
In high-pressure business environments, there can be a dangerous tendency to prioritize results over ethical considerations, even when it comes at a cost to people or core values. The mindset becomes "win at all costs," without regard for the damage caused along the way. However, developing principled leadership is imperative for any organization aspiring to have a real impact. West Point offers inspiration in its systematic approach to strengthening character across an institution. Business leaders invested in doing right, by their people, and society would do well to emulate. And to top it all off, the US Military Academy shows these practices yield exceptional results. Not only in the interests of the United States but also in the many graduates who have become business leaders after their time in the service.
- West Point's Developing Leaders of Character guide offers insights for business leaders seeking to strengthen ethics and performance.
- Key outcomes: Live Honorably, Lead Honorably, Demonstrate Excellence
- Principled leadership builds trust, motivates excellence, and achieves results the right way.
- Best practices: emphasize character development, take a systematic approach, build an ethical culture, share responsibility, and continuously improve.
- In a pressure-driven business climate, it's tempting to overprioritize results at the cost of values.
- West Point shows that developing ethical leaders not only does right but inspires high performance with integrity.
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