Student Reflections: 2012 USNA Leadership Conference, Part 2

In Leadership, Student Stories, Undergraduate Students, Wharton on March 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm

U.S. Naval Academy Leadership Conference 2012
Visionary Leadership: Navigating through Unchartered Waters

In this 3-part series, three undergraduate Wharton students reflect on their lessons from the U.S. Naval Academy’s Leadership Conference in February 2012.  Students from over 20 different schools, military and civilian, gathered in Annapolis, MD for three days of leadership development workshops and experiences.

Reflections from Janani Ramachandran (W’11), Greg Rose (W’12) and Anna Pham (W’12) are featured.  This post is part 2 of a 3 part series.  

 Part 2: Greg Rose, W’12

I feel incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this year’s U. S. Naval Academy Leadership Conference on “visionary leadership”. I have seldom been challenged to consider the importance of leadership in life or death situations: scenarios in which there is no “next time”  for applying lessons learned. Thus, the military context that served as a backdrop for the conference’s panel discussions, breakout dialogues and keynote speeches helped to drive home a number of salient lessons about effective leadership.  

Three points that stood out to me most were the connection between strong character and leadership, the importance of having a “buddy” to help one overcome moments of adversity, and the powerful role that stories can play in communicating a message.

Strong character does not elevate one’s leadership potential; it is a prerequisite for it. This was the message repeated by Lieutenant Colonel Julie Nethercot as a panelist in Trailblazing: What is Visionary Leadership? The idea of a leader often calls to mind terms like visionary, consensus-builder, and team player. Lieutenant Colonel Nethercot argued however, that credibility, strong moral principles and an unwavering willingness to accept accountability are, in fact, equally important components of effective leadership.  They are fundamental to one’s ability to earn and maintain the trust of one’s team. Much to my surprise, in a conversation with a cadet from the United States Military Academy at West Point I learned the works of moral philosophers like Emmanuel Kant were required reading for her and her peers. I think it would be fascinating to find similar ways to include such material as part of our core requirements here at Penn.

 Rear Admiral Ray Smith (Ret.), former Deputy Commander in Chief of the 47,000 U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), also provided a unique perspective on leadership. He recalled an experience from his Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training during which he was struggling to complete a 2-mile open ocean swim despite being an experienced and talented swimmer. When he nearly reached the point of quitting, Rear Admiral Smith found himself relying on the emotional support of an unlikely individual, his swimming “buddy.”  This buddy was a weak swimmer and had never swam in the open ocean prior to the test. Rear Admiral Smith conceded that, were it not for his buddy’s encouragement, he might have never completed the exercise, let alone gone on to have an incredibly distinguished career as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Rear Admiral Smith’s message was clear – no matter how much confidence a leader has in his or her abilities, successful leaders surround themselves with buddies to whom they can turn for counsel in times of difficulty. I found it incredibly empowering to hear a man who had served for 31 years as a SEAL, a role that demands immeasurable perseverance and discipline, emphasize the need for leaders to occasionally look to others for reassurance.

The concluding keynote speech for the conference was undoubtedly the most thought provoking. Colonel Arthur J. Athens (Ret.), the current Director of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership spoke passionately about how stories can be a powerful way to convey a message. He argued that the best way for a leader to keep a team engaged, inspired and in tune with his or her vision is tell a story that captures its essence. In supporting his assertion, Colonel Athens cited the natural propensity of humans to describe events and objects with metaphors and the relative ease with which people remember narratives as compared to isolated facts and figures. When asked how he decides which story to use to support a given idea, Colonel Athens responded that he turns to a collection of stories that he has maintained on his computer for years based on his own experiences, interesting events about which he has read, and tales that others have recounted to him throughout his life. He added that he was always looking out for new compelling stories to add to his collection and thought preemptively about situations in which they might be relevant.

Colonel Athens’ message, though simple, was the perfect capstone to a conference that highlighted countless stories from a variety of perspectives, military and civilian. His speech resonated with me as a student leader always in search of new ways to rally my peers around a common cause. Moreover, I am confident that his words were an excellent call to action for all the students in the audience who were eager to identify new ways to improve their own leadership styles.


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