The Army academy now focuses on helping cadets succeed rather than winnowing out those who struggle
Robert Caslen and Franklin Hagenbeck met just after they graduated from West Point in the 1970s. Throughout their careers in the Army, which included combat operations, they maintained their friendship and their interest in education. Both decorated officers rose to become superintendent of West Point, where their variety of experiences — operational, staff positions, training and overseas deployments — could be put to good use. Both share the view that military education is no longer about creating the best “cookie cutter” programs and quickly culling cadets who don’t measure up. Instead, education at West Point is about personalizing programs and expectations to get the best out of the cadets. After all, the generals agree, West Point cadets are members of a rarefied group who could expect to be accepted at Ivy League colleges and other high-ranking universities. Michael Franzino, Korn Ferry’s president for financial services and a graduate of West Point, and Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer, conducted this interview on the military college’s campus in West Point, N.Y.
An interview with Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., 59th superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, 57th superintendent (RETIRED)
Q: We suspect everybody has some type of individual calling to serve their country. But we are wondering if there are some themes that you have recognized over the years that have changed?
Lt. Gen. Hagenbeck: My perspective is that this millennial generation, almost unequivocally, is looking for some way to serve, whether it’s in the community working at a hospice or doing something much larger to serve the country. They come at it from different angles, but in my view it’s very special when you choose to put on a uniform and serve your country. And that’s what they’re doing.
Lt. Gen. Caslen: I like to refer to this generation as the 9/11 generation. It is a generation that saw their nation attacked … the young men and women who come to West Point have come when their nation was at war. They know full well that they’re going to join an army at war. It puts them in a very unique group, the one half of 1 percent of our population that is wearing a uniform and serving. The fact that they want to stand in the gap between the evil that’s out there and the security of our country says a lot about selflessness and service, which is one of the Army’s values, but it says a lot about that generation as well.
Do you see any difference in the trends among enlisted troops and officers as opposed to cadets here at West Point?
Hagenbeck: I think there are some differences with the enlisted folks. They want to serve, and they come from a variety of backgrounds. There’s more commonality among backgrounds among the cadets that come here to the academy. Across the enlisted spectrum it’s a little bit different. Some may join the armed services to gain skills, join so that they have a G.I. Bill and can further their education at certain times. I think they look at it in a very different way than the youngsters that come to West Point.
Caslen: Those who come to West Point have a lot of other opportunities available to them. For every one that gets into West Point, about 15 applied here. But those that are fully qualified to come to West Point can go to pretty much any Ivy League school. A number of them could get full scholarships academically with their leadership abilities and things like that. But they come to West Point knowing they’re going to serve their country. That makes it unique.
Why did each of you join the Army?
Hagenbeck: My father was a 20-year enlisted veteran in the Navy. He was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, and he served in 20 of the major naval engagements in the Pacific in World War II. When it got time for me to think about going to college, I recognized that we really didn’t have the money to go, so I wanted to join the Army and use the G.I. Bill to go. That was the purpose, and it was at the height of Vietnam. He said, “Why don’t you take a look at the academies?” And so I applied and I was accepted both here at West Point and at [the Navy’s academy in Annapolis, Md.], and I chose here, West Point. My father thought it was a very wise choice. He didn’t like Navy from the Annapolis point of view, and it turned out it was a good choice for me.
Caslen: In my case, I was contacted by the football office to come play football. I saw it as just a tremendous opportunity. Ironically though — like Gen. Hagenbeck, I applied in early 1971 — and our nation was still at war in Vietnam, and none of my teachers had served in Vietnam. When I told them I was interested in going to West Point, most of my instructors tried to talk me out of it .... But the more I looked at West Point, the more I saw opportunities for a great education, opportunities for travel, to see the world, opportunities for a career that was not a desk job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated from college, but I knew I didn’t want to be a desk person.
Hagenbeck: I’ll talk the old days and let Bob talk about now. For me, I’d never been on an airplane, so going to West Point was my first time. I flew up here to J.F.K., got picked up by a family friend and came here to West Point sight unseen the night before we entered. We knew it was going to be a pretty demanding physical environment. … With most of us in pretty good shape, we got through all of that. But those dynamics have changed. When we were cadets, the notion was what we’d call an attrition model. … [Nowadays] we recognize all of the skills and attributes that youngsters bring here, and we try to expand upon those and develop them over time.
Caslen: The purpose of the first summer at West Point is to transition a civilian into a cadet. And then the purpose of West Point after that is to transition from cadet into an officer. The transition that takes place here is very similar to the same transition that any solider would go through in basic training.
If I were a soldier in the enlisted ranks going through basic training, I would probably go down to Fort Benning [in Georgia], and I would spend eight weeks in basic training and then probably another four weeks in my specialty. At West Point, they do something very similar. They learn all the basic skills of what it means to be a soldier. … Also part of this transition is a transition of values, because they come with value sets based on their upbringing, whether it’s their family or their school or the teams they’re part of or their church or whatever. That value set may or may not be congruent to the values that we have here of duty and country. So part of that transition is … the internalization of values, and that’s important. And like Gen. Hagenbeck said, we are a leadership-development institution. Our leader development is focused on military training, physical training, intellectual development and also character — character development. Like Gen. Hagenbeck said, I remember way back when, [under the attrition model] it was survival of the fittest. … Now our intent is to try to recognize the talent and to develop that talent, and when they graduate have them meet the standards of an officer in the United States Army.
Can you expand upon that a little in terms of the attrition model and how you now are recognizing character? Are there some tangible aspects of that?
Hagenbeck: [Under the attrition model] they threw a lot of obstacles at you, and the graduation rate was much less then, around 60 percent to 65 percent. So we were making a huge investment in these youngsters coming in, and the product was not really, ultimately — judged by the numbers anyway — what we would really hope to have. We recognized later on some important questions: How do we keep these talented youngsters? How do we get them recognized? How do we get them to excel? How do we help them overcome hardships? And, just as importantly, how do they become a member of the team? It’s much like athletics — you make the team and the team makes you.
Caslen: It’s all about leadership. It doesn’t take a lot of leadership to require someone to meet a standard. But it does take a lot of leadership to work with someone, to develop them, to help them develop — whether it’s the physical or the intellectual skill to study … and to invest of yourself in their development. That’s what leadership is. We’re here to develop leaders, so when you have a developmental model, our cadets are working with their fellow classmates and their subordinate cadets to try to develop academically, militarily and physically, as well.
Hagenbeck: Yes, you get evaluated on all aspects. So your first year here … you’re learning to be a follower. You’re learning about all those values we described and how to inculcate them over time. Now when you become a sophomore … it’s the first time you’re in a leadership position. That follows you over to your junior and senior year until, when you’re a senior, you’re running the entire 4,500-cadet corps. That training happens during the academic year; it happens during the summer with military training in particular.
So when do you see the biggest shift in the cadets? Is it in that first year? Is that the biggest obstacle to overcome?
Hagenbeck: I think if you talk to cadets, they will tell you the first year is the most difficult year, and they recognize the changes that have been made in them. But from where I sat, I think the senior year — when they take over running the corps cadets, virtually every aspect comes together for everyone.
Caslen: There are a couple rites of passage. To complete that first year, that’s a big deal. To get up there, to watch graduation for the seniors, and to know that you’ve successfully completed your first year, that’s a big hurdle. A significant rite of passage takes place the night before they go to class their junior year. Because when they go to class their junior year, the law says that they now are obligated to serve whether they graduate or not; they have to serve three years. If they graduate, they serve five years. So when they start that class … they make a very conscious decision that they are going to serve. And they recognize the first two years are kind of free years. So in order to memorialize the event of service and the decision to serve, the night before we bring them in the auditorium, give them a speech, and they all stand up and take an oath of commitment. That’s a significant rite of passage. The maturity takes place, as Gen. Hagenbeck says, when they become seniors, when all of a sudden they are the ones responsible for the standards of the corps cadets, the running of the corps cadets, and they’re the leaders. They’re the ones that are responsible. We, as officers, are mentors and coaches, but they are the ones that are in the arena making it happen. That’s a big maturity leap that takes place, but it’s really important for their development because the next step after that is they go out and do it for real as lieutenants.
What about the notion that at some point in time your life might be in danger? How do you face that?
Hagenbeck: It develops over those four years as you introduce them to former graduates. At least since 9/11, and probably before that, we bring back to the academy graduates who spend a couple of days with the senior cadets, in particular. They talk to recent graduates about their experiences both in peace and in war, and how those kinds of things evolve over time. So they know it’s out there, but they know it in a conceptual or a theoretical way. And you don’t really understand it until you experience it, but at least they have an orientation in that direction.
Caslen: Since this war has been a protracted war, many even stay in touch with their friends. So if a sophomore, for example, is friends with a senior, the senior graduates and then joins a unit that is going over to Iraq or Afghanistan — they stay in touch. With modern technology, they’ll … go on a mission, come back in the evening, and they will be able to write an e-mail or they’ll send a text to their friends back here in the United States, at West Point, about how it went. They share those real-life experiences regularly. And then we also bring them back and they come back and talk to our senior class — small groups, large groups. But it’s a great experience because here are these young men and women who have just experienced combat, and they come back to West Point and are eager to share their experiences. And they are sharing their experience to a group that is going to go and do what they just did.
How do you infuse into your student body what the Army feels makes a good leader?
Caslen: Our faculty is comprised of civilians and also some permanent military and a rotating faculty. We have about 65 percent rotating faculty. Rotating faculty are young captains and majors who have been in the Army for about six or seven years, then they go and get a master’s degree, and then they come back to West Point to teach. When they’ve been in the operational Army, they gain operational experience. When they come back as instructors, they share their operational war stories and experiences with the cadets. So the classroom is not just a classroom on the techniques or the technologies that are taught for that discipline. The classroom is for sharing experiences and mentoring and coaching as well.
Is there a model with some tenets that a leader in the U.S. Army must embody?
Caslen: Yes. For a profession of arms, competence, commitment and character are the fundamental attributes you really need. … You’ve got to be an expert in your profession and skill set. …You are not only committed to your profession, but you’re committed to the standards and the values of it, and you’ll be a good steward of the profession and a steward of the values. And then character … is the internalization of your values, the values of the Army. And they guide you to decisions that you make and how you treat people and the command climate that you establish.
Hagenbeck: We also think that those translate into the business world. If you’re going to be a successful leader, you’ve got to have those same values.
Caslen: You’ve got to be smart enough and intellectually agile enough to be able to understand environments and cultures and develop relationships within those cultures, so that you can be competent in it. And then physical I mean, the Army is a physical business, and leaders share hardships. Leaders lead from the front, and you can’t be in the back yelling and screaming at your soldiers and expect that they’re going to be out there doing the job. They’ll do the job when the leader’s out there in front leading them.
I watched your video on cultural astuteness. What are the key tenets to make someone culturally astute?
Caslen: Well, I would just say if you go back to our eight and a half years in Iraq, most people would agree we had somewhat of a rough start. We were probably heavy on the security side. It wasn’t until we understood the environment and understood the culture and knew how to operate within that culture and develop the relationships, the interpersonal skills, to make us effective. And the relationships that we established were the result of our cultural astuteness. It’s like a sweater that’s got these threads in it that are interwoven, and one thread can be a tribe, another thread can be a different type of tribe, another thread can be politicians, both at the local level and then at the senior level. Then you’ve got indigenous forces, and indigenous forces appear in both the military and the police. And then you have different types of police. Then you have the insurgent groups, and you have different types of insurgent groups. So all of those are all the threads in the sweater, and if you pull on any one particular thread, it just doesn’t come out very nice and neat. It yanks all of them altogether. You’ve got to have the cultural awareness to understand what the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-order effects are.
Hagenbeck: I would underscore that by saying, to me, leadership, it’s all personal. When somebody says it’s not personal, believe me, it’s personal. And you can see that in a variety of different ways.
I’ll give you one quick vignette. In the mid-1980s, I was the U.S. exchange officer to the Royal Australian Infantry Centre, and I lived on that installation with these Australians. Now, fast-forward to 2002, we’re in Afghanistan, I’m the commanding general, we’re getting ready for a big operation, and the coalition countries there, their senior leaders have got to approve that they will allow their contingents to work for me. They all did, and we went through what we went through. Now, two or three years later, I went to Australia to attend a conference. It was the first time I’d been back since I left. I ran into a senior general of the Australian army who told me that when the request came in from the U.S. government for their contingency to work for me, the prime minister picked up the phone and called him and said, “Do you know anything about Gen. Hagenbeck?” “Yeah, he’s a good bloke. He plays rugby and drinks beer.” And the prime minister said, “O.K., I guess we’re in.” It’s all personal.
Caslen: Overall, our mantra is you fight like you train. So when you’re at the front line at the fight and you’re engaged, you’re going to perform like you trained, which is important because when you do the training back here on the side, you want to make sure it’s good quality training, it’s training to standards, and you create the conditions that are going to be as battlefield-like as possible because that’s important. Just like a football game, you peak for the event but in the end you’re going to be executing on the field the way you’ve trained and you’ve developed. Our Army has modified its training since Vietnam, since we rebuilt the Army after Vietnam. Some of that modification occurred with what we call the training centers, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin [in California] and the Joint Readiness Training Center out at Fort Polk [in Louisiana]. And then at the same time, the Army — as part of the training event — takes a good look at itself. It’s like going in there and taking all your clothes off. I mean, you’re stark naked and people will evaluate and assess how you did, and then you assess yourself. And then you have these very open and candid dialogues and discussions. You have someone that facilitates that discussion where you really look at yourself and you ask yourself what happened, why it happened and then how do you fix it? And it’s … that candid assessment of ourselves under those very harsh circumstances that made our Army as good as it is today.
Hagenbeck: We are very unique among armies of the world, to be able to sit down and allow subordinates, among others, to critique you. It’s very revealing. And they do it to your face.