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Public Affairs : 2015CLS

Cadet Leadership Series
Q&A with Austin Welch 
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Aug. 20, 2014) — This is the first in a series featuring cadets who have assumed brigade and regimental leadership positions this academic year. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Class of 2015 Cadets Austin Welch, the brigade commander.

Welch, a Management major, hails from Winnetka, Illinois, and serves as the cadet-in-charge of the West Point chapter of Team Red, White and Blue. He started a chapter in Annapolis with Class of 2015 Cadet Taylor Wilby while at the U.S. Naval Academy for the exchange program last year.

Pointer View: You served this summer as CBTI commander and now as first captain. Did you ever imagine you’d have these opportunities to lead at West Point?

Welch: I knew West Point was what I wanted when I completed the application. My dad had a couple friends who were graduates and kind of made some calls to find out where I was in the admissions process. Well, they got the answer back that Austin was a mediocre candidate with only so-so chances of getting into West Point. That crushed me. I mean, I was so … so bummed about that. My dad chides me a lot about that now, but that was one of the toughest things to deal with because I had put all my eggs into the West Point basket, and from that moment on, it was kind of an internal challenge to rise above that mediocrity. How could I prove that West Point was right for me and that it was what I wanted to do?

So every day was about earning it. I remember when I finally got that acceptance letter in that nice black West Point binder, and I’ll never forget when the lady from the post office handed me the package and said, “Oh, it’s from West Point” and I knew right away what it was. That was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever experienced in my life—a little bit relief but mostly immense excitement.

That feeling of excitement is something I hold onto every day, especially the tougher days. Fast forward to when I arrived to Beast, Cadet Angela Smith was the CBTI regimental commander, and the leadership she exhibited and the positivity she exuded made me think that’s what I wanted to do someday. I made a promise to myself that I would be Beast commander. Maybe that was just crazy New Cadet Welch talking, but that was the commitment I made to myself and three years later getting that opportunity to lead was amazing.

Pointer View: What are your plans to affect positive change in the Corps this academic year?

Welch: What we’re going to do this year is called the Ten Plan, and each company in each battalion in all four regiments will come up with 10 items that the brigade staff should focus on—things that need to be changed, things they might think are old-fashioned, things they want explained—it’s not a gripe-fest but we’re going to find ways we can improve the Corps.

Each regiment will compile a list of trends from their eight companies, and then the four regiments will create a list for the brigade of 10 ideas—10 things we can improve, and we’re going to be very transparent with the Corps about what we can and cannot do. There may be some things that simply can’t be changed and we can answer why and other things we can change by implementing a new way of doing things.

The concept going forth will be transparency—providing an understanding of why or why not on any number of things. For example, one point of contention has always been about civilian clothing, and there’s a ridiculously complex, several page-long memo on that topic, and for me, it’s about keeping it simple. So we’re going to look at that for an easier solution. It’s going to come up, and so we have to try and represent the best interest of the Corps.

A second thing I’m proposing is office hours every night, from 7-8 p.m., my door is open for anyone to come in. If you have a good idea or have an issue needing attention, we want to hear about it. If somebody is grumbling about something they don’t like, that’s not helping the Corps.

I also want to have a regular brigade staff lunch, and have representatives from each class there to sort of give us an idea of how things are going for plebes, for yuks, for cows. That can help us measure the impact of policies and procedures that we’re putting down, generate new ideas and give us a pulse on what’s going on in the brigade.  

Class of 2015 Cadet Austin Welch, first captain, meets with Brig. Gen. John Thomson during the key leader development training at Eisenhower Hall prior to the start of the academic year.

Pointer View: What was your immediate reaction upon learning you were selected as brigade commander?

Welch: I was excited. It didn’t hit me right away. The commandant called me, and I was actually outside the PX at Fort Bragg. Actually I’ll have to go back on this story a little bit. [Welch was on a CTLT with the 3rd Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment (HIMARS)] The night before, I was sitting inside a Black Hawk for a night flight at Simmons Army Airfield. I had been on the aircraft for about two hours and we were fully spun up, sitting on the apron when I my cell phone buzzed. With the noise-cancelling headphones on the rotors were like a dull whir and I thought it was quiet enough to take the call. I just wasn’t thinking. Obviously a Black Hawk is incredibly loud.

When I lifted up the headphones, the rotor wash came swooping back in and the person on the other end of the call couldn’t hear me, but I said I couldn’t talk now, I’ll call later. I sent the number a text that I would return the call later, still not knowing who it was. The text back was “On a C-130?” And I wrote, “No, a Black Hawk. Who is this?” The response was “B.G.C.” So I had that “Oh” moment where I knew it was a legit call and I knew who it was [Brig. Gen. Richard Clarke], and so the next afternoon he called me and we had a good laugh about what happened.

When he told me I was selected to be first captain the first thing I felt was humbled, thinking about all the great leaders—people I look up to—who had made their start here…be it recent leaders, like Charlie Phelps, who I went to high school with, or Douglas MacArthur, John J. Pershing and William Westmoreland…it was pretty unbelievable. One, I realize I’ve been put into shoes I will never be able to fill, but then the challenge is to do the best I can serving as brigade commander and try to follow in their footsteps and emulate some of the great things that they did. So I thought this has been an inspiring and humbling moment for me. The excitement was certainly there because of the challenge ahead, and getting to be a part of a great team.
Class of 2015 Austin Welch, from Winnetka, Ill., is serving the Corps of Cadets as first captain.     Photo by John Pellino

Pointer View: As you’re meeting with all the brigade and regimental command and staff members, what’s your initial assessment of this group of leaders?

Welch: The team selected to lead the Corps is absolutely incredible. I feel fortunate to be a part of it, let alone the opportunity to help lead it. That’s a testament to our class because there are some really great people in our class and some of the best now get to lead throughout the brigade. I’m excited to be a part of it.

Pointer View: Having seen the Corps led by former first captains Lindsey Danilack, Brandon Whittington and Charlie Phelps, can you draw from their experiences or do you go entirely your own course?

Welch: I think, as with any leadership position, you should be aware and understand the policies of your predecessors, but shouldn’t get bogged down by them. Charlie Phelps is someone I look up to immensely. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s just a terrific leader and I admire his command presence and ability to lead by example. He was always the standard of what right looked like and that’s something I hope to emulate.

Lindsey Danilack was also a CBT commander, and she’s been unbelievably helpful to me, and texted me pretty much every other day during Beast to see how well we were doing. The thing you have to admire about Lindsey is her passion and how much she really cares about people and that’s something I hope to emulate.

But at the same time, West Point has been doing this for 200-plus years, and there’s always going to be a new year with a new team. The team and team dynamics we have now are very different than in past years and so creating that unique team identity and being the right people at the right time for the right mission is what we’re going to do this year.

Pointer View: When the commandant spoke to brigade and regimental staff he said he owes the Corps the same thing that you owe them and that’s good leadership. So how are you going to pay what’s due to the Corps?

Welch: The four traits that we identified this year as critical to the success of being good leaders are transparent communication, servant leadership, trusted professionals and the creation of a winning spirit. A trusted professional is someone who is confident and competent in military and leadership skills. It’s leading by example and being a demonstrator of what right looks like. I can’t tell someone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. A servant leader is someone who places service before self.

At the end of the day, it’s about the people you lead and not about yourself. Especially, as cadets we are all moving toward the same goals and face the same challenges to get there. Nothing breeds cynicism more than an occluded understanding of what’s going on, so the tenant of transparent communication is having a purpose to every task given. Cadets will comply with what they’re ordered to do, but that doesn’t mean they’re committed to it. Providing that purpose can lead to a better understanding and a bit more of an ownership to exercise and execute missions within a commander’s intent.

We all realize the importance of having a winning spirit and a winning attitude. It’s critical to show support to all our teams and I hope we can get the Corps to participate and get behind every event.

Our motto this year is “We Will” and that can mean something different for everyone. But the idea of “We Will” is a contract, essentially, that we made with the Corps and for every cadet to abide by. We will be transparent communicators, we will be servant leaders and we will be trusted professionals with a winning spirit. 

Class of 2015 Cadet Austin Welch, the Cadet Basic Training I commander, briefs senior leaders at the end of the semester on the operational tempo of summer training. 

The second installment of the Cadet Leadership Series features Class of 2015 Cadet Nick Pappas, the brigade command sergeant major. Read more...