With humility and passion, McGinnis begins First Captain tenure

By Jorge GarciaAugust 28, 2020

As First Captain, McGinnis is the highest ranking cadet at the U.S. Military Academy.
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First Captain Class of 2021 Cadet Reilly McGinnis, center above, leads the Corps of Cadets during the pass in review portion of the Acceptance Day Parade Aug. 15.
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A person’s attitude can be contagious and keeping the right people by your side to help you make important decisions can be the difference between being a reliable leader or one that leads his or her subordinates astray. For First Captain Class of 2021 Cadet Reilly McGinnis, this has been her personal adage since she began her cadet career at the U.S. Military Academy.

Team building and working in unison to achieve a shared goal where concepts instilled within her as a teenager playing soccer at Emmaus High School in Macungie, Pennsylvania. It was also soccer that led McGinnis to West Point. She still remembers Sarah Oswald, her club soccer coach, contacting her about West Point and suggesting she apply.

“(My family) didn't really know about West Point, it was never on my parents’ radar, but once we all started looking into it, they were so supportive. I remember my parents saying, ‘that school is for Reilly,’” McGinnis, who played varsity soccer at West Point before an injury ended her career, said. “I also remember thinking, ‘I cannot imagine myself in the Army,’ just because I had never thought about it before.”

She visited the time-honored halls and corridors of West Point and fell in love with everything from the campus’ classical revival architecture, to the opportunities the institution provides. But most importantly, what drew her to the academy was the people. Their selfless and personable appeal drew her in, and she became enamored with the culture.

McGinnis was captivated with how passionate every cadet was about developing others around them, and at that point, she realized that enrolling at West Point and becoming a cadet was the right path to take. The cadets’ attitude was contagious, and she understood that these self-assured and caring people would lead her through the path of humility and success.

“It's not the path I would have expected to take, but I'm so grateful that I did and now that I'm in the position I am in, my family is very proud,” McGinnis said. “I've received nothing but positive feedback and support from everyone in my hometown, which is very humbling.”

As McGinnis begins her final year at the academy, her leadership abilities will be put to the test as she serves as First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet position in the Corps. First Captain is the brigade commander over the Corps and McGinnis will be tasked with overseeing 4,400 of her peers amidst a turbulent year. She got a crash course in leading in a rapidly changing environment over the summer when her detail got changed at the last minute.

McGinnis had originally been selected as the commander of Cadet Leadership Development Training: a program that instructs firsties (seniors) on leadership skills in a simulated-training environment. She worked alongside command staff for four and half months preparing the training regimen only for CLDT to be canceled three days before it started, due to COVID-19. It was difficult to accept at first, she said, but this was a crucial learning experience.

Then, Brigade Tactical Officer Col. Kyle Marsh called and told her about a new project. She would command Cadet Leader Development: a two-week detail where the first week involved leader and character development. They spoke about the importance of resiliency and honor and how it relates to dealing with controversial topics that affect cadet morale during these trying times.

“We had informal discussions called ‘Tree Talks’ held outside at Trophy Point that encouraged people to actively listen to each other,” McGinnis said. “It was important to talk about these hard conversations, whether it was about sexual assault or all the racism that’s going on in the world, currently, and really build empathy for the people around them.”

She took the lessons from CLD and plans to use them as she takes command of the Corps as First Captain. Surrounding herself with encouraging people is a great part of what fuels her desire to be a prudent leader. Throughout her progression at West Point, learning how to mend the issues cadets faced was one of the most essential aspects in helping her understand the importance of improving her ability to lead.

Working as a liaison among the cadets, the senior faculty and outside organizations is one of many critical roles she fills as First Captain, she added. It’s not as simple as influencing the 4,400 cadets under her tutelage. Understanding the significance of her leadership role is essential when the Commandant of Cadets Brig. Gen. Curtis A. Buzzard and Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams are trying to get a pulse on the Corps to see what initiatives need to be executed to improve the quality of training.

“There are so many different demands, whether it’s academic responsibilities, physical training, concerns that are military related — there’s a lot on your plate that you have to balance,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis added that overall success as a cadet and leader at West Point isn’t entirely defined by individual accomplishments such as an exceptional GPA, or physical attributes, but rather by the positive impact you’re able to have on other people. Filling a leadership role comes with many tasks, one of them being the sustainment of the morale of your subordinates.

When confronted with a conflict that may affect cadet morale, McGinnis said it's important to take a step back to understand the scale of the issue and work efficiently with the cadet staff. Then, if necessary, involve the U.S. Corps of Cadets leadership such as tactical officers in order to come to the decision that best suits the other cadets dealing with the issue.

For McGinnis, helping cadets, coordinating with leadership, staff and faculty all coalesces into choosing a branch option before Branch Night. She and her classmates will receive their assignments in December by opening envelopes that contain their branch insignia of choice.

So far, engineering and military intelligence have piqued her interest. She has reached out to mentors and friends who have experience in those branches to get an idea of what those branches demand. She added that everything she has learned and all the experience she has garnered through the years as a leader can be carried over to any of the branches.

“At the end of the day, I know that your happiness is 10% based on your situation, but 90% percent based on your attitude. So, I know I will be happy wherever I end up,” McGinnis said. “Those are both amazing career paths. But when I go back to what sold me in the first place — it’s the people, and I know I’ll be surrounded by positive people despite which of the two paths I take.”

Serving as First Captain comes with a lot of responsibility, but McGinnis sees herself being a servant-leader for the long haul. Throughout her time at West Point, she has learned to build trust and unit cohesion with her cadets, but she learned that the most important aspect of her experience at West Point was the people and how they ultimately led her to West Point.