Cadet in the red sash

The hard lessons start on day one. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

It’s the first full weekend of summer (sorry, Southern hemisphere readers), and I can’t remember a season that’s been as anticipated as this one.

I’ve got plans; I hope you do, too.

That said, every year around this time, I find myself remembering to look up a specific date on the calendar of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

It’s what they call “Reception Day,” or “R-Day,” the first day of a long summer, and a long four years, for the incoming class of new cadets.

This year, that day is tomorrow. Actually, it’s tomorrow, Sunday, and Monday, since West Point divided it into three days to allow social distancing due to the lingering pandemic.

Now, I didn’t go to West Point, but I wrote a book about the academy, and that project basically consumed me for two years. We also have quite a few subscribers here today who are alumni—not a coincidence. So I’ve felt a connection for quite some time.

Thus, in honor of the new cadets sweating away this summer at what I like to refer to as "Hogwarts on the Hudson," I thought I’d share a little bit about leadership, West Point, and what they’ll doing there this weekend while many of us, I hope, will be starting a fun summer.

Leaders gotta lead

We’ll start with something that sounds obvious but actually becomes very difficult. If you’re in a leadership role, do you have the confidence to step up and truly lead?

In my book, In a Time of War, there’s a scene with a brand-new lieutenant named Joe DaSilva (West Point class of 2002), who took over as an infantry platoon leader in Kuwait in 2003, just days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

His troops had all been in uniform longer than he had. He was nervous. He had two choices:

  • Let the sergeants who had years of experience call most of the shots until he got his bearings.

  • Acknowledge his situation and his shortcomings, but step up and lead.

He chose the latter. Some of his soldiers told me they remembered him standing in front of them, just hours before the invasion, pledging to “give [his] life for any of you,” if necessary.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. But it made an impression and set the tone.

You can't lead if you can't communicate 

West Point cadets study a concept known as "commander's intent," which is a simple, direct statement that cuts through the clutter of a complicated order. (For example: "Take the hill, but don't hurt civilians.")

This sounds a little theoretical, so let’s illustrate with the most practical and (if true) tragic theory about military miscommunication I’ve ever heard.

This is the idea that President Truman might have accidentally given permission for the U.S. military to drop the second atomic bomb in 1945. How could that have happened? Here’s the theory:

  • When Truman was sworn in as president after FDR’s death, he learned about the super-secret atom bomb for the first time.

  • His military briefers told him there was one bomb in the U.S. arsenal ready for the first attack, but that the next bomb “of tested type” wouldn’t be ready until August 24, 1945.

  • What the briefers didn’t say was that there was also another bomb that wasn’t “of [the] tested type.

Without further orders, and maybe because Truman just didn’t realize there was a second bomb ready to go, the military dropped it on Nagasaki on August 9, killing between 39,000 and 80,000 people.

We’ll never prove this theory, but how’s this for circumstantial evidence: the day after Nagasaki, Truman ordered that no further atom bombs could be dropped without his express authority.

That’s leagues away from marching around in upstate New York, but isn’t it better to learn the importance of good communication starting on day one at West Point, before having to put it into practice in the real world?

You can't lead if you can't follow 

Let’s end this on a lighter note. On their first day at West Point, new cadets are required to report to higher-ranking cadets with a short, specific phrase:

"New Cadet [LAST NAME] reports to the Cadet in the Red Sash for the first time as ordered."

Sounds easy, right? But check out this video of how it actually works. With the chaos, noise, and nervousness, just about everyone has trouble following simple orders.

I think the point here is that you can’t expect to lead people until you learn how to follow—and thus, what it looks and feels like to be on the other side of the equation.

I don't know how often new cadets think about the bigger picture of leadership when they're in the middle of a 12-mile ruck march or rattling off memorized trivia in response to an upperclassman's inquiries.

But I can tell you this: Great leadership—at West Point and everywhere—has a lot to do with love. Not romantic love or unconditional love, but that caring, passionate drive that binds teams together to accomplish big goals.

That's the kind of leader I think most of us want to be, and the kind of leaders we want around us.

Leave a comment


Quick reminder: Understandably Live at 11 a.m. today with Andrew Hutton, CEO and founder of Day One. It’s #sponsored, but don’t let that dissuade you; we’ll have a great conversation about what it’s like to start a business in 2021—especially if you’re not going to go out and try to raise a ton of money to get going.

RSVP Understandably Live (11 am today!)


7 other things worth your time

  • What happened just outside Miami yesterday is horrific: Part of a 12-story beachfront condo building collapsed early Thursday morning, killing at least three people while trapping residents in rubble and twisted metal. Dozens or more were missing as of the time I wrote this. Rescuers pulled survivors from the debris as a cloud of dust floated through the neighborhood. (You can find video of the collapse here; I’m sharing the link but intentionally not previewing it.) (AP)

  • Codebreaker, mathematician, and artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing is being honored with a portrait on a Bank of England £50 note, becoming the first LGBTQA+ person to be so featured on British currency. The notes started circulating on Wednesday, which would have been Turing’s 109th birthday. (NBC News)

  • A pair of brothers in charge of African cryptocurrency exchange Africrypt are alleged to have absconded with $3.6 billion worth of Bitcoin from the platform. One brother sent a missive to investors claiming that the platform had been the victim of a hack and asked them not to report any losses to authorities just before the brothers and the Bitcoin vanished. (Bloomberg)

  • Colorado passed a law requiring employers tell prospective employees up front how much jobs pay. Now, “some companies are rejecting applicants from Colorado altogether,“ The Wall Street Journal's Chip Cutter reported. (WSJ, via Business Insider)

  • Rudy Giuliani’s law license was temporarily suspended on Thursday by a panel of New York judges who found he made “false and misleading statements” related to voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. (NY Post)

  • The UK is set to ban all junk food advertising online, and before 9 p.m. on TV, starting in 2023, as Boris Johnson “looks to deliver on his pledge to tackle the UK’s growing obesity crisis.” (The Guardian—I should have shared this one yesterday!)

  • After 4,368 episodes spanning 28 years, Conan O’Brien ended his career as a nightly talk show host last night. (He’s starting a weekly show on HBO Max.) In tribute, here’s the original mocking, scathing review that Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote about O’Brien just after his debut in 1993. O’Brien cites this review himself sometimes: “an hour of aimless dawdle masquerading as a TV program .. [hosted by] a fidgety marionette … a living collage of annoying nervous habits … [who has] dark, beady little eyes like a rabbit [and is] one of the whitest white men ever.” ("There’s more,” O’Brien once said in a speech, “but it gets kind of mean.”) (WSJ, WashPost)


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Mike Strasser, West Point Public Affairs. I also wrote about R-Day for Inc.com long ago. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.