Dear Cadets, Being An Officer Doesn’t Automatically Make You A Leader

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ken Scar

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared on The Military Leader, a blog by Drew Steadman that provides leader development resources and insight for leaders of all professions.

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, 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.

Related: 6 combat leadership tips from a badass Marine general »

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 deliberate part of your cadet experience — a daily personal pursuit and not simply an academic class to be passed and forgotten.

Find 10 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.”

This article, “ An Open Letter to Cadets,” originally appeared on The Military Leader.

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