West Point Leadership Lessons

Reflections and stories from speakers who inspire. 

Have you ever been to West Point? The campus has an aura of leadership. I recently spoke at the West Point Club as part of a West Point Leadership Academy event. Over a weekend, we told stories of great leaders as we gathered around General Custer’s grave. We offered encouragement to each other on Buffalo Soldiers’ field. I, and about 80 other speakers, took the stage to share insights. My favorite speakers were the headliners, Colonel Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (buzzaldrin.com) and Lt. General Russell Honore (generalhonore.com) — both West Point graduates.  

#getyoura**tomars

Yep, I met the Buzz who walked on the moon. The Buzz who inspired Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies. The Buzz who charmed us as a contestant on “Dancing With The Stars.” I was star-struck! As Colonel Aldrin took the stage, he unbuttoned his military jacket and showed us his #getyoura**tomars t-shirt. At almost 87 years old, he has every right to rest on his laurels, and I was expecting a grandfather-ly reminiscent presentation. However, once he started to speak, I was floored by his vision and enduring passion for space travel.  

He got his doctorate in Astronautics from MIT at 24 years old. His thesis was on a rendezvous technology that would facilitate the transport of people and products to expand the boundaries of space exploration. (You can see the rendezvous concept demonstrated in the Sci-Fi movie “The Martian.”) Then he joined the NASA team, and became part of John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon and bring him back again.  

Buzz shared: “When JFK first met with NASA, he wanted to go to Mars. The Moon was a compromise! By continuing space exploration, we improve life for everyone on Earth. The advancements in STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — will affect us here on earth, in everyday life. The iPhone is a direct result of the lessons learned from space travel.”

Buzz is still obsessed with getting people to Mars and back again and isn’t one bit disappointed that it won’t be him and probably won’t be in his lifetime. What a powerful vision, to understand that his mission is so big that it will take longer than one or two generations. That’s how leadership evolves into legacy. 

Thinking of slowing down? Starting to feel your age? Well, Buzz was heading to Antarctica after his West Point speech — “Because I haven’t been there yet!” In December, he and his son will spend a week scuba diving in the Maldives. These trips are squeezed in between his speeches, foundation work, meetings with politicians and investors (like Jeff Bezos!) and his book tours. He has two books about Mars travel coming out, one a children’s story. His #getyoura**tomars t-shirt sales support his Space Institute, which promotes the settlement of Mars. Buzz Aldrin’s brand of leadership is ageless.   

#don’tgetstuckonstupid

As General Honore walked to the stage, he was accompanied by a blaring recording of Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. As a peaceful gal, I was a bracing myself for a hawkish presentation. I was surprised and awed by his overarching commitment to humanitarian causes. He is a warrior, and believes there are wars worth fighting. He also shared that, “Unless we make sure that people on this planet have clean water, fresh food, shelter, and electricity, we will never build an army big enough to keep us safe.”   

General Honore was assigned to oversee the rescue in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The original response had been botched, and the area was more like a war zone than a disaster rescue. Tensions were high when Gen. Honore, delivered by helicopter to the Super Dome, commanded the soldiers to lower their weapons. He organized the rescue, delivering the leadership that soldiers and the community needed to handle the immediate crisis. 
At West Point, he shook his head and pointed to his PowerPoint slide showing a massive home built between a levy and the Mississippi River. He said: “This homeowner is suing the local government for ‘letting’ him build this house in a flood plain. Here’s a clue: If you can see water from your house, you are in a flood plain. We have to stop doing stupid. With (an) increase in population and structures, disasters are becoming more catastrophic. On any given day Mother Nature can break anything built by man. We have to be more prepared.”  

When asked about leadership, he extolled the virtues of mentorship. He shared that a teacher once told him, “Russell, you are not the sharpest knife in the basket. I encourage you to heed these three pieces of advice.”  

1.  Learn to do the routine things well. 
2.  Don’t be afraid to take on the impossible.  
3.  Don’t be afraid to act, even if you’re being criticized.  

Like Col. Aldrin, Gen. Honore could take pride in his accomplishments and call it a full life. He did retire from the U.S. Army after 37 years of service. Now his mission is to mitigate the effects of climate crisis and expanding population. He battles corrupt politicians and multi-national energy companies executives to hold the biggest polluters accountable. He campaigns for term limits to clean up cronyism and injustice. I asked him, “How do you not get discouraged?” He answered with a big smile and a deep Louisiana accent, “Oh, there are beams of light every now and then.” Gen. Honore’s particular style of leadership is flavored with resilience and optimism.  

A time when you have been “up against it?”  

During the three-day leadership event, one of our activities was to share a story about a time when we were “up against it,” and how we got through it. That very day, I was dealing with a business problem that was getting the better of me. I wondered if I had the leadership chops to resolve it. I didn’t know what to do. However, this inspiring conversation, and the wise words of Buzz Aldrin and Russell Honore, helped me put the problem in perspective. It certainly wasn’t impossible, like the situation after Katrina. And, it wasn’t like we were attempting a Mars landing. At a break, I assembled my troops (Ok, it was a GoToMeeting). I took the hit for mismanaging the project and assumed responsibility for getting it done. We got clear on the much larger mission, which is awe-inspiring if not flat out impossible, and came to a resolution on the immediate issue. Thanks, West Point!  

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” ~ John F. Kennedy

Ellen Rohr is president of the franchise company, ZOOM DRAIN, www.zoomdrain.com, and offers “in the trenches” insights to contractors and family business owners. Reach her at 417-753-1111 or ellen@ellenrohr.com. For free business tips, problem-solving webinars, money-making tools and lots of love, visit www.ellenrohr.com.

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