Updated: Feb 18, 2019
As you might remember from my article, Competence Beats Confidence, I attended a private military college during my undergraduate years. Stylish camouflage daywear, lots of yelling, brutal soul-crushing discipline… good times.
I learned a lot during those years. However, the things that really stuck had nothing to do with military science, history, or literature.
In an environment that intense, you learn a lot about your real potential and strengths. You also learn a great deal about your weaknesses.
During my days as a cadet, attrition was not something that the institution avoided. Unlike most higher education institutions, a certain amount of attrition was a goal.
The underlying assumption was that every entering freshman class contained a certain percentage of recruits who would fold, quit, or otherwise implode under the mental and emotional demands that life at the institution required.
This was especially true during the induction phase, but there was also attrition in later years when cadets were expected to take on active leadership roles managing their classmates and training new recruits.
Adding to the stress was the fact that nearly half of the cadets were on ROTC scholarships that often required a massive and challenging course-load. A-level grades were expected. A certain number of B-level grades were tolerated. Anything lower and you might gone.
At best, the remainder of the induction and on-going training was designed to instill the strength of character that would forge resilient soldiers and civilian leaders. That was certainly true.
Of course, the shadier side of cadet life also included its fair share of mind-games, petty tyrants, and other sundry and creative forms of psychological and physical infliction of pain. As I said… good times.
This experience was a master-class in what happens when people come face-to-face with their perceived limits and character flaws. Most find courage and resources they didn’t know they had. They drive-on and improve. Other cadets crumbled; some fast, some slow, and some completely out of the blue.
There were three main reasons that cadets quit. Each contains a lesson for growing leaders under stress in any environment.
Unrealistic Expectations. Many cadets spent their high school years dreaming and working toward the goal of attending this school. It was the culmination of years of focused effort. However, once there in person the high-definition reality often didn’t match their romantic expectations. The institution they had in their head didn’t exist in the real world. Some cadets never got over this and spent their entire time on campus being disappointed that reality didn’t match their unrealistic expectations.
This same dynamic happens in professional life. All organizations, even the most admirable ones, are populated by people with flaws. Even organizations that earnestly strive to live out their mission statements, often fall short in obvious ways. Mentors and role models who are incredible at their craft, might be carry deep private flaws that you don’t see until you are up close and personal. Such is life.
Leaders must help themselves and others navigate these dichotomies and balance the need to be aspirational, while being grounded in the reality of human life. Strong leaders motivate their team to push closer to the ideal. They don’t constantly dwell on how everyone falls short.
Lack of humility. A common saying among cadets was that some people couldn’t handle going from high school hero to cadet zero. Ironically those who often had the most difficulty, particularly with the induction phase, were those who were the biggest “heroes” back home. They graduated high school as the captain of everything, dated all the right people, and were universally looked-up to and admired.