Grassroots Leadership: U.S. Military Academy

“You can’t lead without making sacrifices.” — Cadet Randy Hopper, U.S. Military Academy
  Keith H. Hammonds .FAST COMPANY. May 31, 2001

Recognized for: Grassroots Leadership

Home base: West Point, New York

Year founded: 1802

“Attention all cadets: There are five minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation. The uniform is battle dress under field jacket.” It’s 11:55 AM. It’s really cold. About 200 feet above a bend in the Hudson River, the wind rushes across the plain at West Point and slams into the six-story granite ramparts of the United States Military Academy.

This is a massive, fortlike place screaming of history. A statue of General George Washington commands the Parade Ground, flanked by Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Thayer. The stone barracks, square and stark, bear the names of Bradley, Lee, and Pershing.

“There are four minutes to assembly for lunchtime formation.” Inside, cadet “plebes,” or freshmen, stand at attention, counting off the minutes until the mandatory premeal convocation. Their cues come from clocks mounted every 50 feet or so along the halls.

Students tumble into the sprawling asphalt courtyards between barracks, as they do at least twice each day, every day, year-round. “Fall in!” The command is like an ionizing charge, driving loose bunches into perfect lines and squares — each square a platoon, four platoons to a company, four companies to a battalion, and two battalions to a regiment. “Attention!” Eyes shoot straight ahead.

Formation is a defining experience at West Point. Officially, it is a simple exercise in accountability: From platoon on up, officers must know and report how many cadets are present. But there’s more to it, of course. Formation is a nod to the past. Cadets have gathered in this way, on this spot, every day for nearly 200 years. More important, it is a reminder of the primacy of selflessness: Here, the individual yields to the greater whole — to the corps.

On dismissal, the cadets begin marching. The movement looks choreographed — a dozen drab soldier streams flowing in right angles out of the courtyard. In minutes, it’s over. A few thousand cadets have removed themselves. The courtyard is silent. And you think, That was one seriously weird exercise. A weird and beautiful thing.

That pretty much describes the whole place.

Leadership Lessons (I)

“The first lesson I learned as a plebe came from an upperclassman yelling in my face. He told me that there were four acceptable answers: ‘Yes, sir’; ‘No, sir’; ‘No excuse, sir’; and ‘Sir, I do not understand.’ He’d ask, ‘Why aren’t your shoes shined?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, it was muddy, and I didn’t have time.’ He’d be all over me. He was trying to teach me something: If you have to take men up a hill and write letters to their moms that night, there’s literally no excuse. If you have to lay off thousands of people from your company, there’s no excuse. You should have seen it coming and done something about it.” –James Kimsey, ’62, founding CEO, America Online

The “West Point of Leadership”

Each spring, West Point graduates 900-odd men and women, granting each of them a bachelor’s degree and a commission as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After six-week leaves, they travel to places like Kosovo, Germany, and Guam. Once there, they take on their first jobs as military officers.

This fact alone is stunning: As a nation, we are entrusting to 21-year-olds the safety of our enlisted troops, not to mention the care and deployment of weapons of mass destruction, the keeping of peace, and the occasional waging of war. The corresponding fact is this: By the time they leave West Point, most of these kids are unquestionably up to the job. From the day that they set foot on campus (in early July, before their freshman year), cadets are prepared to take on responsibility, to face challenges, to make decisions under stress, and to pursue the goals set out for them — relentlessly.

The U.S. Military Academy is a factory, and what it manufactures is leaders. Over the years, it has become probably the most effective institution for leadership development in the country. If Harvard Business School is “the West Point of capitalism,” well, when it comes to leadership, West Point is the real thing.

Of course, this leadership factory supplies the military. In return for a free college education, graduates are required to serve the U.S. Army for at least five years. After that, however, many spin out into areas like government, education, and, most often, business — where they thrive. “You see them everywhere,” says Geoff Champion, a 1972 graduate and a partner at Korn/Ferry. They sit atop, America Online, Commerce One, SciQuest, and many other successful companies.

Why? Understand this about West Point: Everything that we have read and heard about it — the rules, the structure, the rigidity, the conformity — is essentially true. This is a school where students learn, in one class, that “the mortar is your best friend.”

But understand this too: There’s more to the story. The academy’s complex and arcane education hangs on an intriguing tension. Think of it, as West Point’s own leaders do, in terms of Athens and Sparta. The structure, the monotonous regime, the rote memorization — that’s Sparta, and it’s important. Yet West Point also nurtures creativity and flexibility — the Athens.

In the chaos of battle, as in business, leaders can’t expect to stick to a fixed plan. They depend on the predictable competence of their subordinates (instilled by all of that training) as well as on their own judgment. Military officers are given orders, but how they get the job done is up to them. “Everything that happens at West Point serves a question,” says Ed Ruggero, a 1980 graduate and the author of Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders (HarperCollins, 2001): “How do you develop an organization that can thrive amid constant change?”

“This is a unique world, where everyone is trying to develop you,” says David Sattelmeyer, a senior, or “firstie,” and a battalion commander, one of the highest-ranking cadet positions. “You’re constantly watching others to see what works. And people are constantly looking at you. The place keeps pushing you.” Everyone is following, and nearly everyone is leading, all the time. Everyone is evaluated — all the time. Every action is taken as an opportunity to learn.

Leadership Lessons (II)

“I had a former roommate who committed an honor-code violation. When he told me what he’d done, I didn’t bat an eye. I reported him. Not because I didn’t care about him; I cared deeply. But I knew that the principle was more important than his being given a second chance. I was 18, and I realized that my first responsibility was to the principle of honor.” –John Grisillo, ’87, president, Compass Group

The Leadership Formula: Knowing, Doing, Being

“People say you can’t change someone,” says Lieutenant Colonel Scott Snook, “but we’re privileged here. We have some of the best and brightest potential in this country, and we have them for 47 months, 24-7. We got ’em at night, on weekends, all summer long.”

He is not boasting, exactly. He is marveling at the opportunity. “We have them when they’re 18, which is a crucial moment,” says Snook, who graduated from West Point in 1980. “They’re ripe for change. Not only do we have them, but we’re also empowered to change them. The country asks us to change who they are!”

Back in rural Pennsylvania, where he grew up, Snook wanted to be a doctor. To his own surprise, he has stuck with the Army for 21 years since his cadet days. He was the executive officer of a company in Grenada, where he was wounded by friendly fire. He earned an MBA and a PhD in organizational behavior at Harvard, where he returns regularly to teach in executive programs.

Snook now heads West Point’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Analysis. His mandate is to confront the academy’s well-worn apparatus for leadership development and to seek a scientific basis for a system that’s rooted in experience and inertia: Why are things done the way they are? What works? How does it work? Could it work better?

The first Army leadership manual, written 25 years ago, coined the expression “Be, know, do.” It was a neat summation of how effective leaders operate, but it also pointed to the central challenge of leadership development. The capacity for “knowing” and “doing” is relatively easy to build up in a student. It’s a function of education and training, which is what most universities are good at.

But knowledge and skills are perishable — both because they’re not applied all the time and because they can become outdated. It’s the “be” piece — your self-concept, your values, your ethical makeup, who you are — that lasts. That’s what consumes Snook: What does it mean to be an officer? And how can West Point shape the “be” piece for each of its 4,000 cadets?

Snook really loves this stuff. West Point has devised a mechanism, perhaps unwittingly, that forces 18-year-olds to grow up. Cadets advance by confronting moral ambiguity, by resolving competing claims on their identity. That’s how you get at the “be” piece. “We don’t know if we have it right,” Snook says. “But it happens through experiences, if you’re passionately involved. And bottom line, the sorts of experiences that change you are those that get you out of your comfort zone.

“Sometimes,” Snook continues, “the biggest window for changing someone’s self-concept opens when he fails. That’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about development. It might be when he fails a course for the first time in his life or when he commits an honor-code violation. When that happens, he’s open to self-reflection.”

Leadership Lessons (III)

“West Point is a uniquely humbling experience. I came from a small town, where I was a good student and captain of my sports teams. I showed up at West Point and found that 60% of my classmates were team captains, and 20% were valedictorians. One day you’re the local star, and the next you’re just one of thousands of bald heads.” –Dave McCormick, ’87, senior vice president, FreeMarkets Inc.

To Build Confidence, Teach Humility

The typical West Point cadet looks something like this: male and white (though 15% of students are women, and 25% are nonwhite). Top decile of his high-school class. Jock. Middle-class, middle-American. He came to the academy because it is free, but he is also patriotic on some level.

The norm isn’t definitive, of course. Any community of 4,000 people is a community of 4,000 distinctive individuals. But in practice, the cadets who reside in the standard-issue cinder-block rooms of Bradley Barracks look pretty much the same. They say pretty much the same things. Hell, that’s part of the deal here: Everyone is part of a team, no individual more important than the mission of the whole.

“Why do we make these kids endure such a spartan four years?” Snook asks. “You stay in stone barracks. You can’t put garbage in the garbage cans before 9:30 AM, and the sinks must be clean and dry at all times. So many rules and regulations. Why?

“Because when you graduate,” Snook continues, “you’re going to be asked to be selfless. For a lot of hours while in the Army, you’re going to suffer. You’ll be away from home for Christmas; you’ll sleep in the mud. There are a lot of things about this job that make you subordinate your self-interest — so get used to it.”

This is the essence of what cadets learn. They hear it in the classroom, but they also witness it around them, every day. The great leaders they see inspire and motivate because they care for their soldiers and because they’re willing to do themselves whatever they ask of others. “Look at any leader who’s made a big change,” says firstie Randy Hopper. “The key is servanthood. You can’t lead without making sacrifices.”

Hopper, a 22-year-old cadet from Baytown, Texas, is commander of Company C-2, based in Bradley. There are 32 such companies, each comprised of about 128 students, each with its own nickname (C-2 is the “Flying Circus”), cheer (“Go Circus!”), and culture. The company is the core organizational unit at West Point. It is also the crucible for experiential leadership development. Here’s how it works.

Plebes are, as ever, at the bottom. They learn how to follow, absorbing and acting on the orders of their superiors. Second-year students, or “yearlings,” are assigned teams of one or two plebes. In this first, modest experience as military leaders, yearlings learn to develop intimate relationships with their subordinates, rooted in mutual trust. They are held directly accountable for their plebes’ performance.

Yearlings report, in turn, to third-year students, or “cows” (a long story), each cow responsible for squads of two or three yearlings and four to six of their plebe charges. Cast in the roles of noncommissioned officers of the cadet brigade, cows must exercise indirect leadership. They are accountable for the plebes as well, but they must direct behavior through the yearlings. They must learn to motivate by example.

Firsties run the show. The summer before classes begin, they direct the eight weeks of military training for incoming plebes and yearlings. Come August, they take the roles of commissioned officers in the cadet hierarchy. Platoon leaders report to company commanders and their staffs, who answer to battalion commands, regiments, and the brigade.

Everyone leads, and everyone follows. Everyone models, and everyone assesses. Cadets’ formal evaluations of their subordinates’ performance count toward final grades. “Everyone’s a teacher,” says firstie Chris Kane, a platoon leader under Hopper in C-2. “That’s what I love about this place. We’re all teachers.”

In this 24-hour leadership laboratory, students acquire humility. As leaders, they are nothing without followers. “You learn from the beginning that you’re not in a position of leadership because you’re smarter or better,” says firstie and C-2 executive officer Joe Bagaglio. “As soon as you think you know it all, you get burned.”

And they must perform under stress. Cadets face a daunting crush of academics, sports, and military activities. The academy’s administrators know that there is enough time, in theory, to get it all done; they have studied this. In practice, though, cadets learn to prioritize — what must come first and what can be left undone. More than that, they come to accept that, amid chaos, the only thing that they can control is themselves. Under fire, “you don’t ask how to get it done,” says Kane. “You just do it.”

Major Tony Burgess follows all of this with reactions that range from concern to bemusement to pride. As the tactical officer attached on a full-time basis to C-2, Burgess, ’90, is likely the single most influential person in the development of the company’s 128 young cadets. He is, as he likes to put it, their “teacher-coach-mentor-disciplinarian-den mother.”

Burgess himself is a leadership junkie. The son of missionary parents, he spent his childhood in Mexico and entered West Point with grand visions. “I was going to get out of the Army after five years, and by age 30, I was going to be a millionaire in business,” he says. “I didn’t know how, but I was going to do it. Then, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with leading.”

Burgess has spent 10 years in the infantry, and he will tell you that there is no better job in the world than commanding an Army company. He grew passionate enough about it to start up a Web site, — an unauthorized (but unofficially welcome) resource for company commanders that has attracted many users. With his classmate and best friend, Nate Allen, Burgess has written a book on the same topic, Taking the Guidon: Exceptional Leadership at the Company Level, which is available on his Web site.

Among his cadet charges, Burgess radiates intensity and enthusiasm. He is at once approachable and reserved, a buddy and a boss. His success depends on maintaining a fine balance — guiding students’ decisions without actually making them, giving students enough rope but knowing when to haul it in. He is the one who must look out for developmental opportunities and failures. He must be ready to influence.

If Burgess succeeds — if West Point succeeds — his cadets will emerge, he thinks, as the “go-to” people. “They’ll be the ones who you know will make it happen,” he says, “the guys who will do better than we ever imagined possible.”

Leadership Lessons (IV)

“I led a team of incoming plebes during basic training. I thought I had to lead the way that I saw others doing it — with stress and shouting, like a traditional drill sergeant. Well, my unit performed very badly. And they hated me. That experience shook me up. I realized that leadership isn’t rule-based. It isn’t about stress. It’s about inspiration, about setting and communicating a vision. It’s about gaining trust. Once you have someone’s trust, once you get them on the same sheet of music, they don’t want to disappoint you. Then leading becomes very easy.” –Christina “CJ” Juhasz, ’90, director in online ventures, Merrill Lynch

West Point’s Leadership Curriculum

Until after World War II, there was no explicit leadership instruction at West Point. Back then, the academy was known primarily as an engineering school. How could leadership possibly be taught? How do you teach judgment or inspiration in a classroom?

Hike to the top floor of Thayer Hall, and you will find Lieutenant Colonel Greg Dardis engaging small groups of firsties in discussions of classical-leadership theory, dissecting such leading-edge thinkers as Morgan McCall and Peter Senge. Cadets today can actually major in leadership. And even if they don’t, such instruction is deeply ingrained in the curriculum.

In their third year, cadets must take a course called Military Leadership. The timing is significant. At that point, cadets have returned from a summer spent interning with Army units around the world, often temporarily replacing platoon leaders in the field. They have served as team leaders in their cadet company. “They have experience under their belts,” says Dardis, who graduated from West Point in 1979 and now heads the leadership and management studies program. “They’ve observed both good and bad leadership.”

The object is to reflect on that experience, to assess it in terms of theory. Early in the course, cadets are asked to write about their leadership philosophy — a graded exercise that forces them to reflect on their talents and weaknesses. They write reflection papers that explain theoretical constructs in terms of their own experiences.

Cadets also take on a raft of case studies penned by West Point faculty, most of them rooted in combat situations. The students also engage in action-learning projects — some of which are distinctly non-military. When Snook taught the class, he would take his students to the elementary school that serves West Point families: “I’d say, ‘You all think you’re leaders? Well, you’re going to lead a recess.’ ” The assignment: Develop a plan for overseeing seven minutes of playground activity.

Most often, cadets responded by thinking in terms of command and control: First we’ll play dodgeball. Then we’ll move to the swings. I’ll direct every movement of every kid out there.

Then they watched the teacher lead an actual recess. As kids poured out onto the playground, there was chaos. And then order emerged, as the children basically organized themselves into teams. The exact order that resulted was unpredictable — but it was entirely predictable that some form of order would emerge.

“I asked them to rate recess,” Snook recalls. “Well, they said that everyone had fun, and no one got hurt. So I asked them to tell me about the leader. ‘Well, the teacher just stood there,’ they said. So, is leading that easy? Is it totally hands-off? No. The way you influence complex, chaotic systems is by setting the starting conditions. You set the starting conditions, the left and right boundaries, and the minimum specifications. The teacher had a fence around the playground, and she established four or five rules. After that, her job was managing by exception.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of West Point is thinking about the institution’s exceptional past — and challenging future. The academy exists on a razor’s edge. To stay effective, it must retain much of what makes it different — yet it also must continuously accommodate changing external demands. “We can’t be so different that the notion of being the Army of a democracy fails,” says Lieutenant General Daniel W. Christman, the academy’s well-regarded superintendent. “We have to reflect what society demands of us.”

The 1965 graduate believes that in order to fortify its relevance in the post-Cold War era, the academy must adjust its mission. It must reflect the new ambivalence with which America regards its armed services. That means equipping its graduates less for combat leadership than for “officership” — a vague notion that encompasses any number of the roles that the Army may fill. “We need to educate cadets in a way that doesn’t constitute a military straitjacket,” Christman says.

That may be so. West Point produces young officers who have been encouraged to act as entrepreneurs, to act quickly and decisively, to operate effectively amid chaos. These are traits that clash with the reality of military service in peacetime. So here’s the irony: If the academy’s education has become less applicable in the Army, it has grown more relevant in business. “Running a company, especially a startup, is not unlike a battle,” says Mark Hoffman, a 1969 graduate and now chairman and CEO of online-exchange giant Commerce One. “Bombs are going off all around you. The market and the competition are changing constantly. Your stock price is falling. You have to stay calm in the face of strife.”

West Point dedicates itself to producing graduates who will, as its mission statement avers, “dedicate a lifetime of selfless service to the nation.” The vague wording concerns those who believe that such service should be strictly military. But as a nation, we are short of great leadership in every sector. We may lament West Pointers’ abandonment of the military. But guess what? Business has become the new national defense. Service to economy, selfless or not, constitutes service to the nation.

Sidebar: The Grassroots-Leadership Agenda

Who: West Point alumni

Who: Leadership lessons for business

Why: In an era of great change, business feels a lot like war

What are the leadership qualities that give West Point grads an edge in business? Academy graduates reflect on what they learned.

Responsibility: “This is the underlying theory,” says Mark Stabile, ’90, a senior partner at Greencastle Associates Consulting. “If you give people responsibility early, give them the opportunity to go out and do things, they’ll go out and do them.”

Trust: “Your ability to get people to follow you up the hill into gunfire or into the next Net meltdown is based on your ability to convince them that you have their interests at heart,” says Dave McCormick, ’87, a senior VP at FreeMarkets Inc.

Flexibility: Structure is important, and predictability of behavior is critical. But in chaotic situations, leaders must be able to decide on the fly. “When you go into battle, order quickly disintegrates, and you have to take action with limited information,” says Mark Hoffman, ’69, chairman and CEO of Commerce One. “You have to make decisions about what to do. You need individuals who can decide in the heat of battle.”

Failure: “At some point, everyone fails,” says entrepreneur Donald A. Hicks, ’90. “West Point makes you deal with the fact that you’re capable of doing far more than you think – and that at some point, you can’t do any more.”

Planning: Cadets plan everything – all the time. They imagine the consequences, and they devise contingency solutions. “It’s an internalization that forces you to start thinking ahead,” says AOL founding CEO James Kimsey, ’62. “It causes some degree of paranoia, because you try to think of every outcome so that you will achieve success.”


The Single Best Way To Develop Leadership Skills


Alice Korngold. FAST COMPANY.   March 26, 2012



You might learn a great deal in school, but it’s doubtful that you’ll actually develop as a leader by reading a book or taking a course. The military is right about experiential development: People grow and become leaders by making a commitment to a cause, and having personal responsibility and accountability.

For those of us in civilian life, there are also ways for us to develop as leaders through experience: through volunteer service. There are myriad nonprofit missions from which to choose, roles and positions in which to engage that are meaningful and productive, and paths for personal and professional advancement.

Nonprofit board service is particularly compelling for business people and professionals seeking to develop as leaders. While the CEOs and staffs of nonprofits build and run programs and services, boards of  directors provide strategic and financial leadership to ensure each organization’s vitality, integrity, and fulfillment of its mission. Business people who bring valuable skills and experience as well as diverse backgrounds and perspectives are uniquely equipped to help regional, national, and global organizations to achieve success in addressing poverty, education, health care, conservation of natural resources, and other key issues.

Through nonprofit board experience, business people participate with the CEO in envisioning an organization’s greater potential, creating the revenue model, and achieving success. In fact, nonprofit board service is the ultimate experience in ethics,  accountability, leadership, group dynamics, and crisis management and  communications.

Here’s the secret to making the most of a service experience:

  1. Choose a cause that’s meaningful to you, and where you like the people. Determine how you can be useful–whether helping with strategic planning, inviting friends to a fundraiser, serving on the advisory council, or serving on the board. If you’ll be serving on the board, be clear about what will be expected of you so that you can fully commit yourself.
  2. Be open to opportunities to raise your hand and say, “I’ll help.” Before you know it, you could be chairing a committee, and eventually perhaps serving as a board officer. (And women, take note: When it comes to nonprofit boards, there’s rarely a glass ceiling.)
  3. Be alert to potential mentors–on the board where you serve and among your friends and colleagues. Talk with other people who serve on boards to share experiences, lessons, and advice.
  4. Always remember the mission. It must be at the forefront of your mind as you participate in discussions and make decisions.
  5. Be generous with your time and your contributions.
  6. Help to recruit and mentor the next wave of volunteers to assist in developing them as leaders.

Once you get involved, you’ll be surprised at how aware you will become of who’s a thoughtful leader who gets things done, and who’s not. Whom you want to emulate, and whom you don’t. And then books and various readings on leadership development and board governance will become more meaningful in light of your personal experience.
Having volunteered since I was 10 years old, built and run a nonprofit enterprise that engaged tens of thousands of corporate and community volunteers in service to hundreds of nonprofits, and consulted to global corporations on corporate social responsibility (CSR), I’ve seen firsthand the power of service in fostering leadership development. Most of the hundreds of business people I’ve trained and placed on boards have ascended to board leadership positions; the key has been that the match was right, and the board candidate was committed and ready to say, “I’ll help.”
Through service, you have tremendous opportunities to develop as a leader, become a more valuable professional where you work, and make a meaningful contribution in improving your community and the world.

Innovative Methods to Develop Leaders

Patrick Sweeney – Talent Management. May 8,2013

Consider these five tips when putting together a leadership development program.

Successful leaders, by their very nature, are consumed with what they are doing — connecting with clients, motivating talent and inspiring those around them. In particular, enlightened leaders are in a position to create a new future for their organization by identifying the potential and developing the talent of those who could replace them.

Here are some things learning leaders should consider when putting together leadership development programs:

Stop looking for silver bullets. Developing leaders is not about looking for the next big innovation. It is about focusing on the people. Get to know workers’ potential and personal aspirations and whether they have the drive and motivation to get to where the organization needs to go.

Recognize that no leader is going to be around forever. The focus is not about you. It is about what the organization can become. The most important job of a leader is to develop individualized plans for top performers and a succession plan for the organization. Learning leaders must begin with that mindset.

Recognize potential. When hiring, don’t just consider whether someone can succeed. Equally important, consider whether the new hire can grow with time. Consider an example. Tom Gartland, a regional president at Avis Budget Group, said: “Right now, I have five assistant vice presidents who run Canada and the United States. So, if anything were to happen to any of them, I need to know what we would do. Our company’s success is based on my having a clear vision and understanding of who the next leadership team is.”

In all, to have an eye toward the future, leaders must be sure that the right people are in the right roles and that others are prepared to take over in an emergency.

Always be developing future leaders. Fulfilling the leadership pipeline is never complete. For instance, Gartland provided this example: “We had personality profiles conducted for everyone in our sales organization. That gave us a baseline view of each individual’s potential, strengths and limitations. When we match to their current performance, we are able to view them from where they are now, how we can help them meet their goals and where we see them moving next.”

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How Leaders Mistake Execution for Strategy (and Why That Damages Both)


 Ken Favaro.STRATEGY + BUSINESS. Feb 11,2013.
When leaders substitute visions, missions, purposes, plans, or goals for the real work of strategy, they send their firms adrift.


When discussing strategy, executives often invoke some version of a vision, a mission, a purpose, a plan, or a set of goals. I call these “the corporate five” (see exhibit, below). Each is important in driving execution, no doubt, but none should be mistaken for a strategy. The corporate five may help bring your strategy to life, but they do not give you a strategy to begin with.

Nevertheless, they are often mistaken for strategy—and when that happens, real damage can ensue. If the corporate five are the cart and strategy is the horse, leaders who put the cart first often end up with no horse at all.

Before they get to the corporate five, companies need to address five much more fundamental, and difficult, questions. Let’s call them the “the strategic five”:

1. What business or businesses should you be in? 2. How do you add value to your businesses? 3. Who are the target customers for your businesses? 4. What are your value propositions to those target customers? 5. What capabilities are essential to adding value to your businesses and differentiating their value propositions?

Although most companies can articulate a vision (for instance, “to be the leading biotech company”), a mission (“to find and commercialize innovative drug therapies”), a purpose (“to improve patients’ lives”), a plan (“to develop molecule X, enter market Y, and partner with company Z”), or a goal (“to bring three innovative molecules to market by 2025”), few convincingly answer all five strategic questions, especially with one voice across their top teams and down their organizations.

They can’t answer those questions because often they haven’t asked them in a very long time, if at all. Instead, the corporate five have become a mask for strategy. When that happens, the real substance of strategy—making deliberate and decisive choices about where to play and the way to play—is lost. There is no foundation for decision making and resource allocation. Everything becomes important. Indiscriminate cost-cutting and growth become the order of the day and, sooner or later, with no strategy as a guide, a business drifts. Consider Procter and Gamble. It has a mission (“to touch and improve the lives of more consumers, in more parts of the world, more completely”) and a CEO who says he is “totally focused on the plan.” Yet the company is struggling to regain its footing and direction because the strategic five has been lost while the vast, complex enterprise strives to operate in a more volatile economic environment.


IBM, on the other hand, is an example of getting it right. When Lou Gerstner took over the reins of the troubled company in 1993, he famously declared, “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” This was widely interpreted as a statement that execution would be the priority and strategy would take a backseat, at least while Gerstner was busy turning around the company. But he proceeded to redefine IBM’s business boundaries (from computer hardware to hardware, software, and services), value proposition (from best products to corporate solutions), and essential capabilities (for example, from selling to the IT department to selling to the C-suite). In other words, he focused on the strategic five—not the corporate five—to make his elephant dance. Gerstner was as strategic a CEO as they come. James E. Burke, former CEO of Johnson & Johnson and former IBM board director, said of him, “He thinks strategically about everything. I once asked him if he thought strategically about his dog.” Gerstner knew that IBM was suffering from a lack of clear and coherent strategic choices and that fixing this was far more important to the company’s immediate needs than was envisioning the company’s longer-term future. Without the former, there would be no need for the latter.

All this is not to denigrate the role and power of having visions, missions, purposes, plans, and goals. Strategy is the primary tool a leader uses to guide decision making and resource allocation for a business and its people, but the corporate five give the leader a means to excite, focus, inspire, mobilize, and challenge. A vision paints a picture of the future around which your company can rally; a mission articulates an objective that defines what the company is seeking to achieve; a purpose describes why your company exists and gives meaning to what it does and the people who do its work; a plan lays out a set of actions to be undertaken within a certain time frame; and goals define how your success and progress will be measured and evaluated. None of these gives you a strategy, but they do play an important role: They motivate an organization to perform at its very best in the context of that strategy. That is what execution is all about.

Gerstner knew this too. After stabilizing the company and establishing IBM’s strategic five, he did, in fact, create a vision: “To lead big companies into the brave new networked world, IBM will devise their technology strategies, build and run their systems, and ultimately become the architect and repository for corporate computing, tying together not just companies but entire industries.” But, even then, he recognized the need to connect that vision to the strategy (and execution). “Vision is easy. It’s just so easy to point to the bleachers and say ‘I’m going to hit one over there,’” Gerstner told a CNN interviewer in 2004. “What’s hard is saying, ‘OK, but how do I do that? What are the specific programs, what are the commitments, what are the resources, what are the processes in play that we need to go implement the vision, to turn it into a working model that people follow every day in the enterprise?’ That’s hard work.”

If you want to have a bit of fun sometime, just ask your head of strategy or general manager how the corporate five differ from strategy. A typical response will be, “Who cares? Aren’t they all about giving direction to a business? Does it matter what you call ‘direction,’ as long as you have it?” Now, you have an answer. Without addressing the strategic five, your company will lack the foundation and the context for making the choices and allocating the resources that are critical to superior execution. Without the corporate five, your organization will lack the perspective, commitment, and alignment required to perform at its very best.

Three traits every CEO needs



Justin Menkes. CEO  FORUM .May  2011.


No matter how successful or seemingly secure any business appears, there are no longer periods of calm seas for leaders in any industry. A broad statistic reinforces this fact emphatically: More than half the companies that were industry leaders in 1955 were still industry leaders in 1990. But more than two-thirds of 1990 industry leaders no longer existed by 2004.

Leaders today need to be at home navigating a ship through 40-foot waves — oceans that will never again be serene — and still be able to guide their crew safely from port to port. They must remain highly effective in an environment of extraordinary, ongoing stress.

In researching my new book, Better Under Pressure, my colleagues and I sought to identify the qualities that define leaders who excel in this environment of duress. We gathered performance data for approximately 200 candidates being assessed for the CEO role at major U.S. corporations. These candidates were divided into three groups, with the top-performing quartile labeled “highly successful,” the middle two quartiles characterized as “average performers,” and the bottom quartile as “highly ineffective.”

What emerged was startling. Certain attributes — three in particular — were highly consistent within the top performers, regardless of industry or job type. Clearly, this mental architecture was responsible for the execution ability of the most effective executives operating under pressure. What’s more, these attributes were almost totally absent among the bottom-performing quartile.

To further my investigation, I then conducted in-depth psychological interviews with more than 60 current and retired CEOs to help clarify the role each of these factors played in their leadership. One core conclusion emerged: the best CEOs had been, and continued to be, distinguished by their ability to manifest the very best from their workforce. In my interviews with the CEOs, it became even clearer that the three attributes had become even more important by the beginning of the 21st century.

To perform their best in today’s turbulent atmosphere, leaders must possess this highly unusual set of three traits that often run counter to natural human behavior. These attributes are catalysts for the mastery displayed by the world’s best CEOs — and, together, they add up to a new definition of leadership:

  1. Realistic optimism. Leaders with this trait possess confidence without self-delusion or irrationality. They pursue audacious goals, which others would typically view as impossible pipedreams, while at the same time remaining aware of the magnitude of the challenges confronting them and the difficulties that lie ahead.
  2. Subservience to purpose. Leaders with this ability see their professional goal as so profound in importance that their lives become measured in value by how much they contribute to furthering that goal. What is more, they must be pursuing a professional goal in order to feel a purpose for living. In essence, that goal is their master and their reason for being. They do not ruminate about their purpose, because their mind finds satisfaction in its occupation with their goal. Their level of dedication to their work is a direct result of the extraordinary, remarkable importance they place on their goal.
  3. Finding order in chaos. Leaders with this trait find taking on multidimensional problems invigorating, and their ability to bring clarity to quandaries that baffle others makes their contributions invaluable.

In my work assessing candidates for CEO positions in the country’s top companies, I look for people who demonstrate all three capabilities. No organization should hire or promote into a leadership job someone who doesn’t have the full suite, and each is a must-have for any aspiring leader today.

The good news is that these three capabilities can be learned. People can change. By learning about these attributes, you can become aware of them and choose to build them in yourself. And this can help you bring out the best in those you lead.

Real leadership is recursive: It’s a continuous process that starts with a leader and is echoed in that leader’s people. My research has shown that the best leaders work with the people they lead to seek their mutual maximum potential together; they co-create their success.

Leaders who embody realistic optimism, subservience to purpose, and the ability to find order in chaos can use these catalysts to craft contexts in which they and others can realize potential. We are all born with an innate urge for triumph, but are not born aware of this need or how to meet it. It is up to a leader to create a work environment in which every employee can experience the deep satisfaction of triumphing in pursuit of a worthy goal.

The most critical responsibility leaders have is to help their people flip the switch of engagement toward realizing their potential as human beings. When leaders create a context for people to realize their potential, they create a virtuous cycle that elicits people’s best selves — the selves that induce the gratification we all feel when we overcome significant challenges and realize our potential.

This is how a leader creates an organization that harnesses the utmost effort and resiliency from all employees. In today’s business environment of ever-escalating competition, such an organization is the only kind that is built to survive.

Happy New Year


I wish us all a very happy and prosperous new  year.

I pray that we shall have the grace to provide excellent leadership,that we’ll be  much more innovative in our use of reources (especially our minds),that our Enterpreneural endeavours shall succeed in the generation of wealth for us and others,and that we’ll have sufficient strategic insight to stay ahead of the pack.In Jesus name.Amen.



Nigeria moving forward

Thank God the governorship elections in Ondo state (southern Nigeria ) have come and gone.

Although 12 poitical parties participated in the elections,there were just three major contenders: Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) represented by Rotimi Akeredolu,Labour Party (LP) represented by Olusegun Mimiko and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) represented by Olusola Oke.

When counting was concluded, incumbent governor, Dr Olusegun Mimiko of the Labour Party (LP) was declared winner by INEC,the electoral commission.

Surprisingly,the elections went on very peacefully in a state known for extreme electoral violence and political thuggery although she boasts the largest number of  Professors in Nigeria.

The security arrangements made by the Federal Government obviously made an impression on the political thugs in and around Ondo state; this ensured that a permanent lid was placed on whatsoever plans they intended to execute.

According to the punch newspaper of 20th October 2021: 11,000 policemen, and three Commissioners of police were deployed to head the security units in each of the three senatorial districts in the state.

This figure is besides the number of heavily armed soldiers,Civil defenders and secret service personnel that were asked to literally sweep the entire state.

In fact according to the Tribune of Friday the 19th of October 2012, the General Officer Commanding, 2 Division, Nigerian Army, Major-General Abubakar Mohammed said his men ‘… were free to shoot at anybody caught making trouble and does not want to be arrested.’

I wasn’t in Ondo state during the elections, but I followed the proceedings on radio and television and what I saw was a community of eager and willing voters.

The 2006 census puts the population of the state at 3,441,024 of which 1,646,666  were registered voters for the 20 October 2012  gubernatorial election in the state.

A post mortem of the elections shows that the electorate stepped out with a vengance,and I wasn’t surprised:

Firstly, after being governed for 4 years (2003 – 2007) by a PDP led administration without any progress or development to show for it, the people of Ondo state ensured by their vote that the PDP would stay out of power (at least) in the next 4 years, in the state.

It is very sad to note that this same party -the PDP has been the ruling party in Nigeria since 1999.

By their consistent supply of mediocres and charlatans, the PDP has filled critical offices in government with individuals that are nothing but greed and corruption personified. How do you explain a situation where 75% of the annual budget of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is spent on only 2million people in a country of 167million individuals (this argument was made by the minister of National Planning, Shamsudeen Usman).Where in the world does this happen? And  according to Fela, ‘…which kind contirii bi dis one sef?.

If the results of the ondo state election is anything to go by,the PDP may have seen better days even at a national level.

Secondly, the people voted against the ACN, again this does not surprise me. The Action Congress of Nigeria is the ruling party in 5 south western states in Nigeria, namely Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ekiti, and Edo states. The major problem with the party is that a dictator and an authoritarian is at the helm. This fellow goes by the appellation asiwaju (which by interpretation is frontman, or leader).

It is common knowledge in Nigeria (see the Punch Newspaper of 3rd April 2012) that the Asiwaju of the ACN rather than allow the emergence of the party’s candidates and representatives via primaries, single-handedly picks individuals; the most recent being Rotimi Akeredolu. While party faithful secretly seethe at his undemocratic practices, none is apparently bold enough to challenge him.

The asiwaju’s main preoccupation is the  narrow minded pursuit of the so called Yoruba integration, a project that seeks to unite the entire south-western part of Nigeria under the ACN with him as the undisputed leader of the Yorubas ,(when national integration would have stood him out as a true visionary).

Adding their state to the number of asiwaju’s conquest must have been both unbearable and  unthinkable to the good  people of Ondo state hence their vote against the ACN.

The electoral commission finally declared  Dr Mimiko the winner. Congratulations to him.

Whilst this  win gives the impression that Mimiko is very popular amongst the people, this assertation would imply an apparent injustice to the other candidates because they also had some votes. Governor Mimiko did not win by a landslide, there is still in Ondo state a sizeable number of people that believe other candidates can do a better job than him.

For Gov Mimiko’s information, the story most likely would have been different if the PDP and the ACN had formed an alliance just like the Torries and the Liberal  democrats did in the UK.

This last point actually throws up a number of questions about the Governor’s first term in office.

The economy of Ondo state is basically agrarian with strong bias in farming, fishing, lumbering and trading. The state is reputed for large scale production of cocoa, palm produce and rubber. Other crops like maize, yam and cassava are also produced in large quantities. Sixty-five percent of the state labour force is in the agriculture sub-sector. The state is also blessed with very rich forest resources where some of the most exotic timber in Nigeria abounds. The State is equally blessed with extensive deposits of crude oil, bitumen, glass sand, kaolin, granites and limestone. Therefore, the state has great potentials for rapid industrial growth in view of its raw materials base. The tourism potentials of the state is also high as its historical sites, long coastline, lakes, forest and cultural events can be developed for tourism. However, these very huge investment potentials in the state remain largely untapped over the years due to a combination of technical and administrative reasons’.

Ondo is one of the oil producing states in Nigeria,meaning in addition to the regular Federal allocation to states, it gets an additional 13% via derivation.

Now considering the natural resources and the economic potential of Ondo state, have the people of this state been given a fair deal in the last 4 years? Can  Governor Mimiko truely say that the quality  life of  Ondo people has been improved by his first term in office?.

Campaign promises made by Nigerian politicians are mostly ridiculous and lacking in intellectual deepth : they say “when I become governor,or President or so and so, l’ll build roads, schools, hospitals, ultra-modern markets …” the list just goes on.

May I announce to governor Mimiko and the other governors in Nigeria that campaigning for office on the platform of these shallow and poorly thought out promises especially in the light of the resources available in the country is simply insulting the intelligence of our people.

Building schools, roads and hospitals are basic requirements of any society; for God’s sake, people pay taxes what less should taxes be used for?

If government collects  taxes from people, it is immoral to give those same people the impression that you are doing them a favour by building basic social infrastructure for them.

The lack of visionary leadership in Nigeria has been the bane of our society. While governments in other parts of the world are taking decisive steps to tackle unemployment ,reduce government spending, improve  living standards, tackle corruption, and guaranty good governance, the situation in Nigeria is the exact opposite.

75% of our annual budget is spent on recurrent expenditure; and we still lie to ourselves that spending the balance 25% (actually a substantial part of this balance is stolen) would give us a place amongst the 20 biggest economies of the world  by 2020.

Our law makers have been a perpetual burden on our economy  carting away undisclosed sums as salaries, allowances and benefits (and to their shame they are ever asking for more).

Contrast  this with  Senegal, a fellow west African country were the new government of Macky Sall just adopted the unicameral system of government after years of practicing the expensive bicameral system that our senators and house of rep members are determine to hold onto.

What exactly is wrong with this country?

Our educational system is on life support. In fact foreign universities find it very profitable to establish offices here in Nigeria and they routinely conduct intensive marketing campaigns to admit Nigeria students into their schools.

How about our hospitals, our roads, our agricultural sector, manufacturing, national security to name a few? Nigeria appears to be a big joke, and the tag line ‘giant of Africa’ simply amplifies the joke.

Is not strange that while Rwanda, a small central African country that experienced one of the most terrible examples of genocide is currently prospering and more united (under its current President Paul Kagame) ;Nigeria, whose civil war ended more than four decades ago is tottering dangerously towards a very scary end.

While Rwandese are proud to simply refer to themselves as such, Nigerians are imprisoned by anti-development issues: ‘the north,south-south,Niger Delta,Islam,sharia,Christianity,Federal character,Pension scam,Fuel subsidy scam e.t.c’

The job of any governor/national leader is to create a climate that would ensure the prosperity of his people and lay the ground work for the development of future leaders.

When will authentic leaders emerge in Nigeria?

Futher  Reading

The Secret of Rwanda: Pushing Leadership down the Line