What would you do if a subordinate coworker was harassed by your peers, while a valued asset of your team condoned the behavior?
Or, if after an employee's promotion ceremony, he was physically assaulted by your bosses as a congratulatory beating?During the Cadet Character Development Program Leader Challenge, cadets analyze real-life dilemmas such as these, experienced by Soldiers in the operational Army. While the answers to the given problems are never straightforward or easy, cadets must decide what they would do in a problematic situation where their character plays a large role.
On Sept. 19, 3000 cadets and volunteer members of the staff and faculty came together to embrace the Leader Challenge.
Lt. Col. Ray Kimball, the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Leader Development and Organizational Learning (CALDOL) says the overall intent for the Leader Challenge program is to get people talking about difficult situations that don't necessarily have a clear answer.
"We work more in the gray area," Kimball explained. "A situation or story makes a good Leader Challenge if it presents a dilemma experienced by a real leader that two or more professionals can look at and disagree about the right thing to do or the right way to go about it, and that's where that conversation comes from."
And conversation, Kimball says, is key.
West Point has been using face-to-face Leader Challenges for the past 10 years to help facilitate conversations among cadets. The purpose--to have small group discussions to spread ideas and build character.
During the most recent session, cadets watched videos of Soldiers talking about difficult situations they've experienced in the Army. Broken up into 3-4 person groups within their platoon, platoon leaders and table facilitators asked cadets, "What would you do?"
"Cadets can talk to one another and discuss different courses of action that they'd take, and they can hear other peoples' perspectives, both fellow cadets and the staff and faculty coaches there supporting the platoon," Kimball said. "It gets them thinking early on about these different kinds of situations so that they can build that moral and ethical framework that we expect from a leader of character."
After a few minutes, cadets "starburst," or scramble, into different groups to quickly spread ideas throughout the room.
"They transport great ideas at light speed across the room," Kimball remarked. "They've had a chance to hear other peoples' perspectives that they can then draw from when they're making a decision."
Capt. Micah Klein, Operations Officer for CALDOL, as well as one of the 144 volunteer faculty coaches for the Leader Challenge, says the program allows cadets open up and share ideas within their small group discussions.
"Being able to work through these challenges as aspiring members of the profession, with members of the faculty and staff, is a really unique opportunity in that the engagement is quick and meaningful to them," he said.
"It teaches them, if they ever find themselves in a situation that is similar to this, whether it be hazing, saying no to an unlawful order, just how they would go about doing that, and what conversations they might have so that when they're in that situation, they're not seeing it for the first time," Klein continued. "They've already worked through this as peers and cadets."
Cadet Brook Solheim, the platoon leader in Klein's group, met with other cadets and staff and faculty coaches a couple times prior to the event to prepare for the discussion.
"We sat in the seats that everyone is sitting in today," Solheim started. "Got to ask questions and have discussions with officers and coaches that have a lot of insight so that was a great experience."
The training and insight prepared him to share ideas with the cadets in his platoon, which in turn, created an even further spread of ideas.
"I think this is a great opportunity for cadets," Solheim noted. "We have many opportunities to experience leadership dilemmas in classes and such but what this brings to us is real life examples, so someone who is in the Army that has experienced something like this kind of brings that example to our attention and allows us to decide how we would handle it."
He went on to explain the benefits of small group discussions.
"Oftentimes if you're in a classroom setting, you maybe hold back some of your personal opinions just because it may be a tougher environment for you to speak your mind," Solheim explained. "Whereas here, we break it down. It is cadets talking to cadets so I feel like there's less pressure… and there's not necessarily grades tied to how this is run, and instead people can speak openly on how they'd handle these situations."
The Leader Challenge is part of the larger Cadet Character Development Program and happens four times a year, allowing cadets to constantly have difficult conversations about real situations as they prepare to enter the Operational Army.