West Point isn't just a military academy, writes Ed Ruggero--it's "America's premier leadership school." Or at least it's one of them. Ruggero, a graduate and former faculty member who now specializes in leadership training, went back to his old school for an entire year to figure out how West Point builds leaders. "If the successes of its graduates are any indicator, the Academy's approach offers a template for leader development in and out of the military," he writes. And so Ruggero profiles a cross section of West Pointers, from first-year cadets enduring difficult initiation rites to the school's superintendent overseeing the whole process. Duty First
prefers showing to telling: there are more stories and anecdotes on its pages than analysis and discussion. It doesn't offer very many clear-cut lessons that, say, business executives might apply to their own leadership dilemmas. The book is primarily about West Point culture, and Ruggero provides an excellent overview of what the school is really like, with its emphasis on strict discipline, the constant tension between military and academic training, and the supreme importance of beating Navy at the annual football game.
But he is not afraid to criticize an institution he generally admires: "The culture is not one that encourages cadets to excel in any one thing; instead, they are conditioned to handle multiple tasks. The result is an education that, some critics say, lacks depth. With so much on their plates, some cadets learn how to get by with minimum effort in many areas." He also wonders whether the cadets are "too isolated from their civilian peers." After just a few months of training, they begin to see others as "unmotivated, slovenly, fat, and lazy.... [As a result] some cadets are ill-suited to relate to the young soldiers they will lead." Despite this, Ruggero finds much that is good at West Point: "The [cadets] who learn their lessons well will succeed in and out of uniform." Duty First will find an audience among readers interested in leadership formation, and, perhaps especially, among high school students thinking about enrolling, as well as their parents. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
Novelist Ruggero tries to explain precisely what makes the United States Military Academy, better known as West Point, a breeding ground for future leaders. He should know: not only is Ruggero a graduate, he taught English literature there for several years and has written a novel, The Academy, set at the school. By following a handful of cadets through their first year, Ruggero approaches anecdotally the attributes that set West Point apart and presents a variety of viewpoints on sticky subjects like the demanding honor code. At the outset, Ruggero, who co-authored the army's field manual on leadership, acknowledges that the academy's approach to teaching leadership is experiential rather than scientific. In an early training exercise, first-year cadets are required to enter a building filled with tear gas and remove their masks. According to Ruggero, the exercise is designed to take the cadets outside their "comfort zone," helping them to develop self-confidence and character. While West Point undeniably fosters fierce loyalty in many of its graduates, Ruggero makes clear that the experience is not for everyone. The military life is five parts tedium to one part excitement: "For every hour a soldier spends in the field, he or she will spend two or three hours cleaning and repairing field equipment." The minute attention to details of dress, etiquette and hierarchy may make for good soldiers, but they do so at a cost. At least as portrayed by Ruggero, the cadets come up strikingly short in self-awareness and intellectual curiosity, despite the fact that they are expected to lead others at an early age. But then, that may be the point. In presenting the question of how to develop leaders, Ruggero offers a balanced portrayal of West Point by a true insider that is likely to become required reading for incoming cadets much the way that Scott Turow's One L has for aspiring Harvard law school students.
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