An Open Letter to Cadets

Whether graduation is weeks or years away, the countdown that started at 1,460 days will eventually come to an end. Imagine it for a moment. You and your anxious cohort are seated for the ceremony. Proud parents are watching from the stands. The National Anthem is cued. Commencement speakers are on the stage. It’s your last day in a cadet uniform.


As you prepare for that moment, I invite you to keep close at heart the advice of Major C.A. Bach in a farewell address to the Student Officers at Fort Sheridan, c. 1919:

“These commissions will not make you leaders, 
they will merely make you officers.”

Whether you find yourself in a sterile research lab, or a cockpit at 40,000 feet, or in front of a formation of Infantry troops, every one of you will step into an environment of leadership. Leadership is everywhere people are. It is the element that converts the potential energy of our organizations into mission accomplishment. Without quality leadership, we fail.

Unfortunately, some cadets pursue a myriad of other college interests while assuming that the commissioning ceremony will magically bestow upon them the leadership talent required for success. In reality, leadership is so much more than wearing gold bars and issuing orders. It develops over a long journey of rigorous study, reflection, and hard-fought experience.

And that growth does not happen passively, as no one drifts into leadership excellence. If you want to be a capable leader on your first day as an officer, leadership must be a deliberate part of your cadet experience – a daily personal pursuit and not simply an academic class to be passed and forgotten.

Find ten minutes a day to do something, anything that relates to leadership or improves your future ability to exert positive influence on those you will lead. Books and articles are great, jotting notes and penning your own thoughts are better.

Have at least one conversation per day that surpasses the mundane and includes words like integrity, honor, influence, loyalty, discipline, character, respect, initiative, fairness, responsibility, clarity, excellence, growth, reward, failure, example, emotion, passion, ethics, perseverance, trust, expectation, duty, vision, effectiveness, inspiration, and humility.

Why?…because this is the language of leaders. And it’s tough to use these words in conversation without learning something meaningful.

Finally, get your leadership radar up. By that, I mean you should be open to discerning and internalizing leadership lessons that present themselves throughout your day. Actively note the behavior of others you wish to model, and even those you don’t. This trait not only fills your kit bag with useful knowledge you will rely on later, it will train you to be an intuitive leader in years to come.

Great leadership talent is tough to acquire, harder to implement, and always fleeting. As such, shape your cadet experience today so you will be prepared for the challenges that await tomorrow.

And heed the insight of the 19th Century English theologian, H.P. Liddon, who said:

“What we do on some great occasion will depend on what we are; 
and what we are will be the result of previous years of self-discipline.”

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Reed Bonadonna

    I thought this was good. Of course you can’t sum up all of leadership development in 500 words, but we all need reminders to take charge of our own leadership development, to be reflective about it and not let it just wash over us or be put on the back burner because we’re too busy and preoccupied, and it has to do with those value words you mention. It’s not just a bag of tricks.

  • Anonymous

    Do you really think that the immense amount of leadership training over the 1,430 (West Point is a 47-month experience, not 48) days as a cadet is supplemented in any way by a 500-word essay? Especially when you pop off with some BS about how there are cadets who never give one thought to leadership and spend the whole time pursuing other interests? This essay is deficient just for being based on faulty assumptions. And that’s a good leadership lesson for you: don’t pretend to know things you don’t.

    • Anonymous,
      It’s unfortunate that you did find any value in the post – no takeaways with which to become a better leader.
      I wrote it from my experience as an Academy graduate, which is clearly different from yours. I think you are lucky to have been surrounded by fellow cadets with a fully-fueled passion for developing leadership talent. The experience must have been formative and I’m sure that as a result, you have lots to share. Perhaps that insight might be more beneficial for The Military Leader readers than the above comment you left.
      If you would like to make more of an impact on the readers here (exceeding 8,700 since its publishing), then feel free to edit your comment or write a guest post.

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