Leaders Need a Moral Compass

YOGI BERRA has been quoted as saying, ``The future just ain't what it used to be.'' In similar vein, Berra's mentor, Casey Stengel, cautioned that ``forecasting is a very risky business, especially about the future.'' How right they both are. In a world changing more rapidly than ever, seeing what the future holds seems increasingly difficult. And yet that is precisely what any educational institution must strive to do, because all of us are in the business of preparing young people for that future. Perhaps it is even more pressing here at West Point, for the citizens of America expect our graduates to bear the special burden of keeping the peace - and of being prepared to lead in battle if need be. We have little latitude for error.

Contemplating the environment in which our graduates will live and work as our country moves into the 21st century, we have concluded that their world will likely be one of accelerating change - change so dramatic as to be potentially paralyzing. They must, as the summation of all other attributes, be able at the very least to adapt to such change; at the very best, to shape and direct it.

Our graduates must be prepared for anything, not just something. How, though, do we do that? How does one prepare leaders for anything?

It's obvious that tomorrow's leaders must be problem-solvers, for the coming decades will surely see no shortage of challenges - both human problems and technological problems. Accordingly, we teach cadets about people and things through a broad core curriculum of humanities and sciences. They must be comfortable in the technical realm, for the impact of technological advances is certain to be even greater in the years ahead.

But leaders, by definition, lead people, not machines. So they must also be comfortable with language and behavioral science and history and literature. They will need to have the ability to think with both halves of their brains; they must be mentally agile. In short, while specialization may well lead to the earning of a good living, it isn't the likely road to leadership.

There is still a more basic point to be made, though, especially in these times of apparent moral drift.

Leadership rests on trust, and trust rests on honor. The most important way to prepare young people to assume roles as leaders is to nurture in them a strength of character. At West Point, we believe our graduates must have a strong grasp of the differences between right and wrong, and they must then have the moral courage to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong. We try to develop in them an abiding commitment to fundamental values - honesty, integrity, respect for others, loyalty to our constitutional system. Whatever may be thrown at them, we want them to be spring-loaded to act in ways that are trustworthy, in ways guided by an internal ethical compass that points consistently toward right instead of wrong, or easy.

We teach those values in two basic ways - by living them and by studying them. On the first day after new cadets arrive at West Point, a senior cadet tells them that from that moment forward they may not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate such acts by other cadets. If they cannot accept that code, they leave. So, cadets start practicing immediately what eventually becomes a way of life. With those patterns of behavior a part of the daily experience, we discuss why we think they are good traits to form and to have. We talk about what is really valuable in human experience. Theory combines with practice so that at some point before the four-year developmental period is over cadets come to embrace the underlying values as their personal sign-post for life. This aspect of the West Point experience is the one most graduates remember most profoundly and proudly.

Armed with the ability to thrive in a milieu of change and to operate from a sound ethical base, academy graduates are as prepared for anything as we can make them. Of course, there is much, much more to leader development, but these two attributes seem essential if one is to get beyond the admonitions of Berra and Stengel.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.