Collins offers insight
to Corps of Cadets
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 15, 2013) — Jim Collins, the author of such bestsellers as “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” ended his two-year tenure as the Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership, lecturing to a full house Nov. 6 in Eisenhower Hall Theatre.
With the Corps of Cadets in attendance, more than 200 cadet candidates from the Preparatory School and dozens more U.S. Military Academy faculty, staff and invited guests, the last leadership lesson was sure to be one of relevance and resonance.
In fact, Gen. Lloyd Austin guaranteed it and did so from thousands of miles away. The commanding general of U.S. Army Central Command and USMA Class of 1975 graduate spoke highly of his friend and mentor via video teleconference from Doha, Qatar.
Austin was commanding the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., when he first met Collins during a leadership seminar at West Point. Austin was captivated by Collins and said he still applies what he learned more than a decade ago. Years later, as commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps, he asked Collins to help him instruct general officers at Fort Bragg, N.C., simply because of his ability to make good organizations great, and great organizations even better.
“I promise you this will be one of the most beneficial and educational hours you will ever spend,” Austin said. “And you will apply what you hear tonight countless times over the course of your careers just as I continue to do each and every day.”
Before turning the stage over to Collins, Austin’s own words of advice to the Corps reflected his experience leaving the academy and taking charge of troops who had vastly more combat experience from multiple deployments to Vietnam.
“They were seasoned veterans and experts in their craft, and they taught me a whole lot more than I was able to teach them,” Austin said. “But recognizing this I was able to lead them and learn from them at the same time. And that should really be your goal as well. To be better leaders we must continuously strive to learn more.”
Austin said he has had the fortune of learning from the best in the world, and some of the people who’ve taught him the most about leadership have no military experience.
“Yet, over the years when I’m faced with difficult issues I often seek their advice and they have never once let me down,” Austin said. “And Jim Collins is the best of the very best. He is an exceptional individual and he is one of the world’s most renowned experts on leadership.”
But Collins wasn’t always that acclaimed on the topic. When he was a 30-year-old faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Collins taught a class on entrepreneurship. He needed help educating his students on how to build great companies and so Collins phoned Steve Jobs, who founded and was fired as head of Apple.
“He could have taken his fortune and retired to a life of ease and comfortable irrelevance. He could have been bitter. He was none of those things,” Collins said. “He came and sat in that classroom and exuded this incredible passion for all the cool things he could still do and all the products he could make. He wasn’t going to stop. He was going to get back up.”
Recently featured in an Inc. magazine article about the insights he’s collected from cadets while at West Point, Collins said he was fascinated about an institution where failure is imminent and often, yet the student body is confident, determined and, overall, happy.
U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., introduces the Corps of Cadets to Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commanding general of U.S. Army Central Command and USMA Class of 1975 graduate, who would welcome Jim Collins onto the stage at Eisenhower Hall Theatre Nov. 6.
Jim Collins, Class of 1951 Chair for the Study of Leadership, completed his tenure at West Point with a final lecture before the Corps of Cadets Nov. 6 in Eisenhower Hall Theatre. The Chair was established to enrich the study and practice of leadership and leader development at West Point and throughout the Army by various means, to include personal lectures and teachings and the development of research, internship and trip opportunities. Former chairs include Frances Hesselbein (2009-11), Michael Krzyzewski (2007-09) and the Honorable Eric K. Shinseki (2005-07).
Collins told cadets like the founder of Apple, they aren’t failing, they’re growing.
His impression was that West Point is special because success here is communal.
He found this to be true at the Indoor Obstacle Course Test where cadets challenge themselves to beat their peers for the best score. Still, they cheer and coach each other on, and seeing that selflessness was a revelation for Collins.
“That was a real turning point for me in understanding what’s very special about your culture,” he said. “It’s a very inspired idea, and never take this idea for granted. We succeed at our best only when we help others succeed. This is something to never lose. It is not common. This idea that you are not alone and when it is difficult and you are struggling, you find a way to help someone else. I hope to take that idea to the rest of the world because it needs it. And I hope that when you leave here you never lose it.”
Along with success and growth Collins said he learned a third dimension at West Point: service.
“It gives meaning to the suffering and the sacrifice,” Collins said. “The ethic of service, dedicating yourself to a larger cause, to the accomplishment of mission, to winning our wars and serving the country we all love runs through everything that I saw and experience in my two years here at West Point.”
Collins asked the cadets to think of service beyond the wearing of a military uniform. He said service doesn’t end because it is a life choice and cited the mantra of the former leadership chair, Frances Hesselbein, who said “To serve is to live.”
Collins ended his lecture by asking the Corps how they will change the lives of others.
“The number does not matter, but how will some people’s lives be different and better because you were there? Life is people. Be useful,” Collins said. “It has been my great honor and great privilege to have had the opportunity to serve you, the Corps of Cadets, the United States Military Academy at West Point and through you, the country I love. For that opportunity to have a slice of service in my life I am truly, truly grateful.”