I recently received a letter from Lt. General Darryl A. Williams, Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Sent to all alumni, the letter reflects the high caliber of leadership that I was so honored to have experienced. It’s a powerful accountability example from West Point that is worth sharing.
LTG Williams wrote the letter to address a violation of the Cadet Honor Code involving 73 Cadets. They were accused of cheating on an online calculus final last spring. The Cadets involved represented a wide range of cadets, not from any “one club, team, company, or regiment”, LTG Williams wrote. All but one of the Cadets were in their first year at the Academy.
West Point has dutifully earned its reputation for maintaining high standards for honor. The West Point Honor Code explicitly states, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” These standards were set in place because West Point aims for its Cadets and graduates “to live above the common level of life.” You can imagine how hard-hitting this situation has been, for both the leadership and the Cadets not involved with the cheating incident. But what impressed me was how this same leadership took ownership of the issue.
Too soon in their training
He explained that “The global pandemic disrupted our developmental process. In an instant, our tried and tested leadership model was interrupted and for a short time the Corps was dispersed to 4400 locations around the world. In this environment our Cadets were void of those critical developmental engagements in the barracks, in the classrooms, and on the athletic fields that help them understand themselves and increase their commitment to the West Point and Army values.
The Cadets were wrong to cheat. However, the leaders of West Point, through a detailed decision-making process, recognized that the problem wasn’t one of character. Instead, it resulted from being physically distanced from the leadership model before they had gained essential values. The first year at West Point is perhaps the toughest of the four. When I entered West Point, I had already completed two years at a military junior college and even I was extremely tasked by the emotional, physical, and academic challenges.
Going into West Point, you know it’s going beyond a brutal test of your strength—physical AND mental. That’s purposeful, because there is no room for weakness when tough decisions need to be made. As a Cadet, you have signed up for something unique. Your parents aren’t there to step in and rescue you. You are on your own to rise up and meet the challenges that this training delivers, motivated by the desire to become the person you want to be.
The path to honor
The letter explained that all Cadets involved would be subject to review by the Honor Committee. Those who hold themselves accountable for their actions will be enrolled in the Special Leader Development Program for Honor, “a rigorous program of personal reflection and growth that is roughly equivalent to a 2.0 credit course.” The program includes about 50 hours with a developmental coach. Rather than pointing fingers and discharging the Cadets, West Point’s leaders are looking to support those who demonstrate accountability, individuals who have the integrity to stand up and accept the consequences for their actions.
“Developing leaders of character has been, and remains, my top priority for the Academy. We remain committed to the outcomes of the West Point Leader Development System, which is to graduate commissioned officers who live honorably, lead honorably, and demonstrate excellence.”
The decision for a second chance
The decision to give the Cadets a second chance was unique. In the past, we didn’t see this level of tolerance when it came to violating the Honor Code. However, I know that the Academy’s leadership adhered to the in-depth Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). This methodology looks at every aspect and the potential impact of each decision along the way. Arriving at the decision to grant a second chance to Cadets who owned up to their dishonorable action was not an easy one, I’m sure. The reward for holding themselves accountable was the chance to prove themselves worthy of continuing at West Point.
Accountability is a powerful character trait. It speaks to one’s integrity and honesty. And it’s a core value that I hold dear. What I share with this leadership decision is choosing to look at the source of the problem, not simply the action itself. Accusations and blame are counterproductive to effective, efficient problem-solving. Sometimes, when you treat the symptoms, you mask the cause. And isn’t the cause where you need to focus your attention?
Kudos to my alma mater and the Leadership Team for being decisive with the handling of a difficult matter..