Opinion: Leaders should learn these 3 rules from West Point

John James

Each year West Point graduates a new crop of 20-somethings whom we expect to understand three simple rules:

► Leaders eat last

► No excuses

► Mission first, people always

How sad that we send men and women, two or three times those young officers’ ages, to Washington, D.C., and to state capitols all over the country with no such expectations.

I returned home from serving in combat with everything America sent me with, including her sons. I now serve in my community and know by experience that those three simple rules are imperative to successful leadership in this COVID-19 crisis. 

John James shakes the hand of Dr. Daniel J. Kaufman on his graduation day from West Point in 2004.

First, leaders eat last. While a leader who waits at the end of the chow line shows compassion by placing his soldiers’ needs before his own, it also shows wisdom. If the leader eats first and food runs out, those under their care suffer and the leader runs the risk of falling out of touch with the problem. 

The same parallel exists in government. Too many folks on our forgotten farms and in our neglected neighborhoods have been in a recession for years. In these places, health, wealth and security are constantly under threat. Yet it takes a crisis for government to act. These are only unprecedented times for those who've never eaten last.

Second, no excuses: At West Point, “plebes” (newly entered cadets) are intentionally given too much to do. We quickly learn there are only three acceptable answers to a question: “yes,” “no,” and “no excuse.” That final answer — "no excuse” — teaches future leaders that life and death decisions rest in their young hands and, if they fail, excuses won’t matter.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, a businessman from Farmington Hills, heads to the Macomb for John James event held at Villa Penna banquet hall in Sterling Heights on Monday, July 16, 2018.

Our elected leaders’ current efforts to enforce social distancing and provide temporary assistance for small businesses and the unemployed are absolutely correct, but when children start off the next school year even further behind and burnt-out teachers suffer through more pay and pension cuts, excuses won’t matter. When business owners — many of whom did not get to the relief funds before the money ran out — face the choice of laying off employees or increasing costs of goods and services that will crush families, excuses won’t matter. When society re-emerges and we learn that those struggling with abuse, addiction or treatable emergencies were not #saferathome, excuses won’t matter. 

Which brings me to my third point: mission first, people always. In battle, while in the middle of a crucial mission, I’d often receive a call for help from American troops elsewhere in enemy contact. I didn’t get to pick which to help. I had to save both. In business, I’ve recently had to make price concessions to a customer while also satisfying my obligation to keep employees on their health care insurance. I don’t get to pick which to help. I have to save both.

Keeping people alive or avoiding an economic depression is a false choice. Our political leaders don’t get to pick, they have to save both.

The American people are remarkably resilient. We respond amazingly well under pressure — I’ve seen it: We can take bad news. We can take setbacks. We can not take uncertainty. We can not take disunity. Our leaders owe us a coherent, apolitical restart strategy based upon both science and common sense immediately. Soon thereafter they must identify root cause and real enemy to gain a deeper understanding of why America was hit so hard. They must move forward with a future-focus and common purpose to ensure we are better prepared  to combat and avoid crises like this in the future. 

But, for now, I’d start with the three rules.

John James, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, is a former captain in the U.S. Army and currently serves as president of James Group International, a Detroit-based automotive logistics company.