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Public Affairs : MX400 Speaker Panel

New approach to speaker series benefits MX400 cadets

Story and photos by Mike Strasser

Assistant Editor

WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 5, 2013) — The U.S. Military Academy has long provided cadets with leadership lessons through variations on guest speaker lectures.

Col. Tony Burgess, Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning director, said the MX400 course is breaking new ground with an altogether unique format that was introduced March 1 at Robinson Auditorium.

“Our team has been asking ourselves this past year how can we do something new that will provide a different kind of engagement for cadets,” Burgess said.

The team from CALDOL has been working with the MX400 staff to make its speaker series more interactive and, frankly, less like attending an advice-dispensing lecture.

The focus instead is on storytelling as a teaching mechanism. Each speaker begins with a three-minute crucible story, a vignette from their deployment that would trigger further discussion and questions later on. To facilitate interactivity, an online application was incorporated into the panel event.

The speakers arrived to West Point a day early to rehearse their stories and practice the interactive format with the CALDOL team. Every Soldier brings home stories from downrange, Burgess said, but not everyone is able to be engaging in front of an audience.

Engaging is the operative word. Just minutes before the cadets entered the auditorium, Maj. Jason Wayne gave the junior officers a simple reminder: “Engage them.”

There were rehearsals a day earlier for that purpose. The panel featured five junior officers—four of them West Point graduates—and they practiced what they wanted to say within the allotted time, and then how they would draw cadets in during the panel discussion.

Interacting with each other wasn’t going to be an issue. They had all recently returned from Afghanistan, having served together in the same task force at the same forward operating base and could talk plainly about their shared experiences.

After each speaker addressed the audience, a short discussion period among cadets followed, with one from each of the 33 MX400 sections given access to the Glassboard app.

“We want them to discuss the key insights coming from the stories told and then as a group come up with questions to ask the officers,” Burgess said. “The benefit of that is they can pick out a question they can thoughtfully respond to and think about what they want to say.”

In all, 44 questions were posted—with some overlap, and 33 of those received at least one response. Maj. Jonathan Silk, CALDOL operations officer, said many had received more than one response from the panel which added depth to the input.

Burgess said this format should be an improvement over the typical Q&A where the questions may not be so forthcoming from an audience, and the responses themselves may not be fully articulated.

“But what’s great about this whole thing is for 24 hours after the event, the speakers continue to engage in the online app responding to questions,” Burgess said. “The next class meeting is designed to reflect on this event and they’ll have a lot more content to reflect on by revisiting the online app.”

Class of 2013 Cadet Luke Hutchison found it informative to hear the perspectives of different branch officers serving together.

“Listening to their stories gave me a good reminder of why we are here and the importance of doing everything we can now so we are ready to lead Soldiers in combat,” he said. “It also provided a good perspective on the intensity of combat we will face. One story in particular of a staff sergeant who had found over 300 IEDs in three months was particularly incredible.”

Class of 2013 Cadet Chad Vessell picked up a theme that ran parallel to much of the conversation—competence.

“Through consistently demonstrating competence, an individual can gain respect from and build trust with the individuals in his or her unit,” Vessell said. “Perhaps most importantly, competence allows leaders to decisively perform their duties in extremely stressful and dangerous situations.”

Class of 2013 Cadet Chris Broderick, Company I-1 commander, appreciated how the speakers’ stories were able to weave together into one narrative.

“They all worked hard at their job, recognized the importance of relationships within their job and completed their mission to the best of their ability,” Broderick said. “Their stories also brought to light some issues we will encounter as new LTs entering the Army in a few short months.”

Burgess said the amount of practical information being generated by this type of engagement is a quantum difference from any other speaker panel session he is aware of. On the surface, many panel discussions tend to generate a lot of advice, but absent any personal connection between speaker and audience. In this format, the junior officers were able to share stories that had practical advice built into them but not force fed to the cadets.

“They’ve heard these same things over and over again. I told the speakers the focus isn’t on the advice but on the story,” Burgess said. “In some cases we coached them not to even give the advice, just the story. We know if the cadets make those connections for themselves, that’s learning.”

MX400 is West Point’s capstone course for officership through the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. The course director is Lt. Col. Eric Weis and the senior mentor for the course is retired Gen. Fred Franks.

“My team has the privilege of being involved with MX400, to include taking lead on the guest speaker sessions,” Burgess said. “But the only reason we are able to do those sessions is because of Gen. Franks’ vision and the support of the Simon Center.”

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1st Lt. James Hall, a USMA Class of 2011 graduate, is a battalion assistant S-2 and in addition to his career in military intelligence, Hall has the benefit of enlisted experience. He shared with the cadets two good days and one really bad day as a military intelligence officer. Hall, who speaks fluent Farsi, was able to build relations with the local Afghani populace which led to the seizure of 10,000 pounds of weapons and improvised explosive devices.

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1st Lt. Joseph Langella, a USMA Class of 2010 graduate, majored in engineering and hails from Fremont, Neb. He was the A/1-23 IN fire support officer while deployed at Combat Outpost Mushan in the horn of Panjwai. He has served as a fire direction officer, platoon leader and HHB executive officer prior to deployment. He experienced the coincidence of replacing an officer downrange who was his roommate during Cadet Basic Training at West Point. He told the cadets they have to be themselves, despite wanting to emulate other leaders they admire. Soldiers will detect a fake leader, he said. “Who I am is what you see. That’ show I gained their trust, and once I gained that trust that’s when everything started clicking as a team,” Langella said. “We were knocking our air assaults after that.”
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First Lt. Patrick Sioson, 1st Lt. Laura Meade, 1st Lt. Joseph Langella, 1st Lt. James Hall and Capt. Darrell Fawley speak to cadets in the MX400 Course at Robinson Auditorium March 1. All the officers served with the 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in the Panjwai District in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. With the exception of Meade, the junior officers all graduated from the U.S. Military Academy.

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Small group discussions allowed cadets to review the key insights from the junior leader panel and the questions they had could be submitted to the officers via a phone application. At the end of the speaker panel event, several of those questions were answered but the app generated more responses long after the class ended.

 
THE PANEL

The MX400 Guest Speaker Panel included four West Point graduates and an ROTC graduate from Creighton University. Among them were two Infantry, one Field Artillery, one Military Intelligence and one Medical Service Corps officer. All five officers served on the 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in the Panjwai District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and upon returning home from deployment they agreed to share their insight and stories with the MX400 cadets March 1 inside Robinson Auditorium. At times, their stories overlapped and complemented each other as they had personal accounts of the same events.

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1st Lt. Patrick Sioson, a USMA Class of 2011 graduate, majored in civil engineering and was a member of the West Point Paintball Team. He spent the first few weeks of his deployment serving in the S-3 shop before being assigned to take charge of a platoon in A/1-23 IN. He is currently the battalion scout platoon leader. During the speaker panel discussion, Sioson spoke about developing a professional relationship with his senior noncommissioned officer and felt he was in good hands with his E-7 around.

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1st Lt. Laura Meade majored in business administration and was commissioned from the ROTC program at Creighton University. She is assigned to the 296th Brigade Support Battalion. While deployed, Meade served as a Battalion Battle Captain and then as a platoon leader in a Forward Logistics Element in 1-23 IN. She was responsible for synchronizing logistics for the battalion. She shared with cadets the experience of being a Medical Service Corps officer who was essentially given a supply shop assignment on deployment. She had the distinct impression going into the camp there would be resentment having a female officer sent in to fix their supply problems. Instead, she said, she did her job well and was accepted by the largely infantry population there. “The NCOs of the 1-23 were actually great. Luckily, everyone there was welcoming,” Meade said. “I don’t feel that I had more stress because I was a female.” She said by staying true to herself and “going native”—meaning, becoming part of the team—she was able to contribute to the fight.

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Capt. Darrell Fawley, a U.S. Military Academy Class of 2005 graduate, served in the 10th Mountain Division and deployed to Iraq with the D/4-31 IN, was an IOBC platoon trainer, commanded C/1-23 IN and is now in command of HHC/1-23 IN (Stryker). He related the story of an accidental fire that nearly burned down the forward operating base, and as the officer in charge, he took responsibility to account for all lost and damaged inventory. “There’s no battle drill for the FOB is on fire,” he said.

RELATED LINKS

MX400 Officership Course

Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic

Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning

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