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4 Things I Wish I’d Learned as an Undergraduate

I recently had the honor to speak with the CS and IT majors of the USMA (West Point) Class of 2010.  Recognizing that these young men carry an incredible burden for all of us,  I struggled for what I could tell them.  These young men and women, after all, are going to be the tools of our international efforts against terrorism for quite some time to come and in 5 years will likely see 2 combat deployments.  The price they pay for their “free” education is much higher than the one my partner and I paid and larger still than the 99.9+% of the rest of their generation (those that never serve their nation in uniform).

I settled on trying to pass along four things that I wish I had learned in school – before the Army and before becoming a civilian.  These aren’t four things that I wasn’t taught mind you.  I may have been taught some of them, and at any rate the burden for learning should really be placed upon the student – especially in college.  These are four things that I wish I had recognized, retained or learned on my own; four things that would have made my Army and civilian life much easier.  Here they are as I discussed them with elements of the USMA Class of 2010:

1)      Moral and Ethical Challenges Occur Frequently – More So Than You Might Think

It doesn’t matter if you are in the Army and parts for your dead-lined vehicle magically appear overnight or you are reviewing the use of company assets and find that people are using company assets for personal use – potentially in violation of company policy.  Sometimes even people who are on balance “good” make ethical mistakes.  And make no mistake, there are morally bankrupt people committing unethical acts at an incredibly high rate all around us.

Most of us, quite honestly, are ill prepared to address ethical issues upon graduation.  Many schools barely touch the subject.  Even the service academies, with their strict honor code, too often paint topics as black and white rather than the spectrum of blacks, whites and grays that occur in the real world.  As we’ve written in the past, the journey to moral bankruptcy isn’t one giant leap, but a series of small steps.  Draw lines in the sand early in your career so that you know you are heading in the wrong direction as you progress.  Build a support group of people who will tell you the truth and help guide you should you start to go astray.

2)      Smart People and Terrible Teamwork Equals Crap Technology

Intelligence is only one of many independent variables (inputs) resulting in the dependent variable (output) of overall team performance.  Behaviors of individuals within the team are another equally important independent variable.  Leadership and culture are important moderators of this equation.  It is possible to have brilliant jerks, incapable of getting along with anyone, who completely destroy the output of the team.

We should reward people on their accomplishments and their ability to work as a team.  Intelligence is great, but we simply don’t pay people for being smart.  Who cares if you are smart if you can’t either get something done or alternatively destroy team morale and throughput?  Consider using this 2×2 matrix presented within The Art of Scalability to evaluate the individuals in your team for both behaviors and accomplishments.

3)      Leadership is about EQ – Not IQ

Our frequent readers will also remember this from our postings abroad.  As Malcolm Gladwell has indicated within his book Outliers, all of the evidence points to the notion that the most successful leaders have some minimum IQ.  But IQ alone is not sufficient to be a successful leader.  The greatest leaders have high emotional quotients, often considered a combination of social intelligence and emotional intelligence.

Two of the world’s foremost experts on the topic of leadership and social and emotional intelligence, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee have written two wonderful books on this topic:  Primal Leadership and Resonant Leadership.  In keeping with our theme of 2×2 matrices, here is Richard and Annie’s representation of commitment and emotional quotient.  The Y axis indicates how mindful the leader is of himself/herself (emotional intelligence) and how mindful they are of others (social intelligence).  The X axis indicates their overall emotional tone towards others.  Successful (aka Resonant) leaders have on balance a positive emotional tone and are in touch with themselves and their teams.

4)      It’s All About Performance

See my brief discussion of the model for success.  Superior performance, I argue, is measured as improving long term stakeholder wealth.  This might be emotional wealth in the case of some non-profits or financial wealth in the for profit world.  This means getting things done on time, on budget, in an ethically appropriate manner, with the right quality and meeting the expectations of stakeholders.  Time and experience are just moderators to this equation; they only help performance.  Independent variables are intelligence, drive, commitment, behaviors, etc.  Look to build the right teams with the right behavior at the right time.  Don’t get tied up in how much “experience” people have.  I’d rather have a dedicated person with 5 years of experience than a lazy person with 20.

Comments RSS TrackBack 10 comments

  • Jack Reich

    in March 3rd, 2010 @ 22:27

    GREAT PIECE! May we know who wrote it??!

  • Fish

    in March 4th, 2010 @ 06:24

    Jack, our partner Marty Abbott wrote this post.

    Mike Fisher

  • J L Johnston

    in March 6th, 2010 @ 02:06

    The first was/is very important.

  • RichP

    in March 12th, 2010 @ 10:06

    Morals and ethics are very important. However, the honor code is primarily for show, as decades of rape and cheating scandals have proved, and the endless stream of lies by military officers about their war to incite terror and justify their parasitic existence.

  • Brent

    in March 12th, 2010 @ 11:48


    It’s a shame that you resort to such provocative terms and phrases such as “stream of lies” and “parasitic” to justify such a glib argument. It takes just a bit of further analysis to realize that perhaps these men and women don’t volunteer for their own self interest, but rather to further a beautiful ideal – the sincere desire that folks like you can badmouth whomever they wish, whenever,without an ounce of retribution.

    Full disclosure: I am a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and the IT/CS program who has had to face the reality that I will never see any of my classmates again so that both we and people throughout the world will never have to lose a family member or friend to senseless oppression. There is a price to pay for what you’re free to do everyday.

  • Wabb

    in March 12th, 2010 @ 12:43


    There are absolutely unethical people in the military, just as there are in other professions. I think that the Tillman episode is a good example of recent questionable behavior.

    But to claim that the honor code is for show is clearly somewhere between ill and uninformed If you had first hand experience, you would know that while not perfect it nevertheless is a force in these cadets’ lives. Can it be better? Yes, as with any system I believe so. But is it for show? That is clearly an ill informed and unfortunate statement.

    As for the “parasitic” term… Parasites to me sound more like “free riders” – perhaps a more fitting term for those who stand in judgement while others perform the dangerous work decided by our duly elected officials?

    We have an incredible system that allows people with little firsthand knowledge and information to offer an opinion. That system exists, to some extent, because some have been conscripted and others have volunteered to potentially pay an incredibly high price to keep it. Where and when they might pay that price is decided by others. Sometimes they are ill-advised, unfortunate and sad battles of very little meaning, and sometimes they change the course of world events and protect our freedoms. But always, they are battles decided by civilians. Very often, most recently, they are decided by civilians whom have never faced such a high price themselves.

    Feel free to have an opinion – but at the very least be respectful in your approach.

  • Fish

    in March 12th, 2010 @ 12:56


    The military academies, the oldest of which is West Point, have been producing military leaders for over 200 years. These are the brave men and women who have defended our nation and protected your freedom to make outrageous statements as you have done.

    Before you disparage the honor system perhaps you should learn more about it. It’s been in formally in place for almost 100 years and in spirit closer to 200 years. The honor code along with intellectual, leadership, and character training has produced for this country two presidents, several astronauts including the second man to walk on the moon, and numerous engineers and business leaders who shaped this country in every aspect imaginable from transportation to industry to technology.

    As to your accusation of the military leader’s “parasitic existence”, take a look at the current military pay, http://militarypay.defense.gov/pay/bp/paytables/Paytable_2010.pdf, and tell me that these men and women enter in service for their country for anything but selfless service. A new graduate from West Point who will be ask to not only risk their life but simultaneously lead our country’s men and women, makes a base salary just over $30K per year. Given their academic credentials they could easily double this amount in the civilian sector.

    The military still remains in the top most admired and trusted professions in our nation, see the following links.

    While there have been cheating scandals, they make the news not because they are common place but rather just the opposite. The academies set the standard for honor and when they stumble it’s a big deal. Contrast the scant number of past scandals at the academies with Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino’s study in 1993 which found 49 percent of college students admitted to some kind of cheating.

    I’m not asking you to stop making outrageous statements because that’s one of the benefits that our proud military leaders bestow upon you through their service. But I would ask that you debate in a mature and respectful manner.

  • Lex

    in March 17th, 2010 @ 13:14

    Thoughtful and beautiful writing, both in the original document and in some of the comments!

  • Pia Bakshi

    in March 24th, 2010 @ 18:43

    hey man come on this is good stuff

  • Newsletter – NoSQL | AKF Partners Blog

    in April 19th, 2010 @ 08:03

    […] If you are interested in a preview of the kinds of topics covered in the book check out our latest posts on GigaOM and VentureBeat.  We’ve also been very busy on the blog with posts such as 97 Things – Book Review, Ethical Concerns of China, a leadership example from the Battle of Shilo, and one of the most popular posts 4 Things I Wish I’d Learned As An Undergraduate. […]