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Reflections on the Growth of a Leader through Service

By Cadet Jane Ma, Golf Company

"Good leaders make people feel that they're at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning." —Warren Bennis

Knob year is never easy, not for anyone. Ultimately, it is an endurance race that belongs to those who have the drive to persevere. And I will be the first to admit that it was not and is not a perfect system, but the potential for truly and unerringly good lessons regarding strength of character and ethical leadership to be learned here is immense. It’s all a matter of carrying the good lessons and discarding the bad examples—both are valuable learning tools if used properly. One lesson that I carried with me from knob year relates to the concept of motivation, a word that is regularly bandied about here.

About midway through my first semester, I was definitely drifting in motivation. It seemed that I was endlessly being told what to do, and it didn’t matter at all if it made sense. I felt aimless in many ways but didn’t consider quitting only because I wasn’t sure what I would do if I left. Every day passed in an exhausting litany of harsh, grinding routine. I went through the motions, but felt no true commitment to them. But that changed the day I was promoted to private, signifying the end of the knob training period.

On that day, I looked my company commander, first sergeant, and platoon sergeant in the eye and realized that I had had a purpose all along. They told me that I was a part of Golf Company, that I had a place among my classmates, that they needed me for my mind, my talents and my perspective. I had an unenforceable responsibility to use what I had learned and would learn—because leadership is really a constant mode of growth—to contribute to the good of the collective, and they believed that I would rise to the occasion. It was a moment that I recalled again and again to remind myself of the answer that arises in response to the question “Why are you doing this?” It is a moment I recall now, still, sitting here on the other side of knob year, which was, after all, only the beginning.

Herein lies a crucial piece of my developing philosophy on leadership through service, because I believe that there are many pathways to this ideal of principled leader—words that we use often but perhaps don’t always stop to consider. It is all an issue of finding out what makes people tick and helping them to realize that that is something they need to adhere to and that they are capable of using it for good.

The lesson that I learned that day was reinforced a few scant weeks later when all the cadet freshmen were sent out to local schools throughout the surrounding community to discuss heroism with students that were younger than us. Imagine a group of tired, worn-down, and altogether weary fourth classmen, suddenly thrust from a world in which they had no power into a world in which they were supposed to be the leaders, the fortunate ones, examples to be looked up to. And we were looked up to, asked questions about how we’d come so far and treated a little bit like the heroes that we talked about. I saw a change come over many of my classmates and felt it in myself.

Under the weight of their expectations, under the press of all those young eyes, we felt our backs straighten. Our chins lifted a little bit higher. Our words flew more easily and authoritatively. Because those children believed that we were capable, we became capable for them. Because we had been tasked with the responsibility of influencing and teaching impressionable minds, we discarded our previous roles for a day and accepted that duty. Suddenly our own troubles—the fact that we were tired, that we had shoes to shine and work to do—didn’t matter. We were empowered, and we could make a change that would give back to the community around us. It was a good reminder.

One year later, I was fortunate enough to be able to flip my perspective as a sophomore cadet. I was one of three cadets in charge of a team that worked on a park cleanup project in which our fellow volunteers were a small but enthusiastic band of special-needs adults. I realized the work that had been done for us our freshmen year was what we were doing for these people with special needs. They belong to a population that is segregated, that is used to being simultaneously helped but also alienated despite the best intentions from the common majority.

These are people that want to give back to the community that is constantly helping them. Giving them this opportunity to do just that empowered them and inspired them. As we picked empty Cheetos bags and discarded soft drink cans out of the chain links that surrounded the park, one of them said excitedly that one day soon he was going to dedicate a day to cleaning up the public fence near his house. It was a humbling and rewarding experience and another reminder of why I do what I do.

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