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Comments on Scott Snook’s ‘Be, Know, Do’ article by John T. Reed

Posted by John Reed on

Be, know, do

Scott Snook is a West Point graduate (’80), husband of a West Point graduate and father of one West Point graduate and two more children who are still West Point cadets. (Jeez, that’s a lot of West Point in one family! May be a record.) He also was a leadership professor there and is now an associate professor at Harvard Business School. He retired after 22 years in the Army as a colonel. He is the author of West Point’s Cadet Leadership Development System training manual.

I am a West Point graduate (’68) and have an MBA from Harvard Business School (’77) and am married to another Harvard MBA (’78). We have three sons and I would have have done my best to prevent any of them from going to West Point or another service academy had I not completely convinced them not to want to go to such a place just by telling them stories about West Point when they were young.

I have written a number of articles about West Point and the military. While researching one, I came across an article Snook wrote called Be, Know, Do—Forming character the West Point way.

Snook’s article pissed me off. I sent him an email ( directing his attention to my articles on the same subject and asking him to point out the error or omission in my logic or facts. He responded:

I read several essays on your website and found them refreshingly provocative and well reasoned (agreeing with almost all of your analysis and facts -- with a few exceptions, most largely due, I think, to our having what appears to be two VERY different experiences of both USMA and the Army, I supposed based mostly on our different generations). It's not the analysis or facts where I found us disagreeing, but rather in the conclusions and implications you draw from them.

Claiming to disagree on conclusions, but not facts or logic, is an intellectually dishonest debate tactic. It is an attempt to discredit my facts and logic by characterizing them as mere opinion. If my facts and logic are correct, then, by definition, so are my conclusions. See my article on intellectually dishonest debate tactics.

Here are my pertinent comments on what Snook said in his article.

Snook said
Reed response
Snook response
Be, Know, Do This is an army training slogan. I agree with it. The problem is the Army talks a better game than they play. In other words, “Do as we say not as we do” would be a more accurate description of the Army’s relationship to “Be, Know, Do.” They do not live up to it. It’s not much more than hypocritical, public relations eyewash to the Army brass. I also did my best to align our
espoused values (the ones even you, if I read you correctly, recognize as having some merit) with our "actions in use" (Chris Argyrisian term), --once
again, with not as much success as I had hoped for. [Snook’s response begs the question of why, after he recognized that the Army was hypocritical about its values, he remained in that corrupt organization for 22 years and, indeed, how he did so without going along with the corruption or at least remaining silent about it when he should have protested. Essentially, he is agreeing with my allegations about Army hypocrisy.]
conventional wisdom says college is too late to change [character] USMA begs to differ Birth may be too late. Some people have honest DNA; some don’t. Snook did not make a persuasive case that character stems from nurture (training) rather than nature. West Point cadets behave extremely honestly, but that appears to be entirely the effect of their contract which says they get thrown out of West Point if they lie, cheat, or steal. The evidence that they are not permanently changed by West Point training is that many West Point graduates in the Army routinely lie, cheat, and steal. See my articles on military integrity, moral courage, Pat Tillman, Tillman whitewash, process orientation. I see (saw and still recognize) most of the same (manifold) faults in both institutions, but having seen them, decided to
invest much of my adult life trying to help (in my admittedly meager ways) both USMA and the Army fulfill its aspirations (espoused values), even though it seems that both do their damndest to get in the way of themselves at almost every turn (Pat Tillman, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Abu Ghraib, etc,). [Reed note: Once again, he agrees with me but tries to distance himself from the corruption of the institutions where he has spent his entire life. By the way, I do not share his condemnation of Harvard Business School in spite of his implication that I do.]
The civilian world can learn a lot from the way West Point instills values, shapes behaviors, and builds character. The way West Point instills values and shapes behavior is to spend hours teaching the Cadet Honor code, motto, and prayer and to impose draconian penalties on violators—expulsion, “silencing.” Civilian professions achieve approximately the same results with similar methods: much instruction on the subject and penalties like losing your license to practice if you violate. The problem is that West Point does not succeed in building character. They assume they do, but the evidence does not support that claim. West Pointers on active duty in the Army show virtually no reluctance to going along with each and every Army cover-up from daily motor-vehicle maintenance reports and daily training schedules to the My Lai massacre to the Pat Tillman killing.  
purpose of West Point is to provide the nation with leaders of the their communities, in business, and in nonprofit organizations. Sounds good. So where are they? I put a list of what seem to be the top ten most prominent living West Point graduates in my article on whether you should go to West Point. Only three of them—Iraq Commander General David Petraeus, Senator Jack Reed, and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski—are currently employed in prominent leadership positions. That article also has a list of prominent living Harvard Business School graduates. The Harvard list comes far closer to living up to Snook’s description of what he claims West Point has produced than the prominent West Pointers list. I invite Snook to name some of the many leaders of character to whom he is referring. By the way, Krzyzewski credits West Point for making him the man he is. Seems to me that his association with Bobby Knight, who was the Army coach back then, also had a lot to do with his subsequent success. Krzyzewski also was an assistant under Knight after graduating from West Point.  
Business continues to be rocked by scandal. And the military is not!? The media carry daily stories about military torture, murder, rape, the Tillman cover-up, the Osprey helicopter maintenance deceit, and so on. Business dwarfs the U.S. military in size. The military has far more scandals per person than the business world. Its scandals notwithstanding, the civilian business world has an infinitely better integrity record than the U.S. military. Most businesses are tiny and have to behave to keep their reputation and customers. You deal with them every day and trust them every day. I spend most of my efforts in my current job attempting to help HBS realize its espoused virtues as well, and just like the Academy, we too seem to do our damndest to get in our own way quite often! (e.g. many grads at Enron, and other financial institutions that don't seem to be fulfilling the School's mission, at least in my opinion). [Reed note: Again, Snook depicts himself as some sort of morally pure fifth columnist trying to revolutionize corrupt West Point and corrupt Harvard Business School from within in spite of having no allies in that battle. Why would he want to be a part of any such organization and why would such organizations permit him to stay if that’s the way he feels about his colleagues and employer?]
As a top tier university... West Point is a college, not a university. Universities award graduate degrees. West Point does not. According to my analysis, West Point ranks about 42nd to 86th among U.S. colleges in terms of the SAT scores of its students. “Top tier” is vague and may be misunderstood by many. As far as academic research and other non-SAT-score manifestations of being a “top tier university” are concerned, West Point is a bottom tier institution. That is arguably a proper result of their limited mission, but whatever the reason, it precludes them from calling themselves a “top tier university.”  
...the Army is one of the world’s most successful training institutions;... Bullshit! Their job is to win our wars. Which war have they won in the last 60 years? See my article “Is there really any such thing as military expertise?” for the U.S. military’s overall win-loss record. The Army’s approach to training is scandalously inefficient, clumsy, overly macho, and unsafe, etc. See my articles on V.I.P. demonstration training deaths, Army Ranger training, Army Paratrooper training. For example, they teach people how to jump out of airplanes, including me. Their jump school lasts three weeks full time. I just checked a local skydiving school. Their course, including the first jump, lasts four hours. The Army is a federal government entity. President Ford once said that if the government made beer, a six pack would cost $80 (1975 dollars). I would add that it would also taste like crap. The federal government is not the best institution at doing anything.  
As an institution, West Point will be judged by the character of its graduates. I wish. Here is a list of some of them who do not seem to factor into Snook’s verdict on West Point’s success at producing “leaders of character:” Abscam scandal convict Congressman John M. Murphy (’50), former corporate CEO Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap (’60), My Lai Massacre commanding general Samuel Koster (’42), censured Tillman cover-up general Kensinger (’70). I know what some will say. Every large group has a few rotten apples. Well, these particular grads were exceptionally highly regarded by West Point for most of their careers. Murphy was a U.S. Congressman and no doubt bragged about by his alma mater. Dunlap was featured on the cover of the West Point alumni magazine. Koster was the superintendent (top officer) of West Point after the My Lai massacre. Kensinger was the head of all U.S. Army special forces at the time of the Tillman killing and cover-up. On occasion, I have noted that although many former troops claim military service turned them into drug addicts and such, no West Pointers did that. I stand corrected. A front-page story in the San Francisco Chrionicle on 9/3/07 reports that Sargent (that’s his first name, not his rank) Binkley, a former Army airborne, ranger captain who graduated from West Point is in jail charged with robbing two pharmacies at gunpoint for painkilling pills, not money. Before he came to West Point, he was an Eagle Scout, literally. Now he claims military service in Bosnia and Honduras got him addicted to painkillers which led to his crimes. One person is too small a sample to prove anything other than that West Point’s character building is not universally effective. An article at Defense Watch by a protege of the late Col. David Hackworth says that four West Point grads were prominent in the Iraq body armor scandal. More importantly, there simply appears to be no resistance in the military, by West Pointers or anyone else, to daily or other routine requirements that false documents be signed. See my article on military integrity or lack thereof.  
...we concluded that there are three capacities cadets must develop to become leaders of character...often...moral courage The general tone of Snook’s article is that West Point has figured out how to inculcate moral courage into cadets. Apparently not. See my article “The U.S. military gives no medals for moral courage.” As far as I can tell, the U.S. military officer corps is all but devoid of moral courage and the graduates of West Point offer few, if any, exceptions to that rule. Indeed, almost the only significant example of moral courage in the entire history of the U.S. Army is General Billy Mitchell, a non-West Pointer. His reward for his moral courage? He was court martialed and thrown out of the Army. The president of that court martial board was Douglas MacArthur, West Point Class of 1903. I invite Snook to name some West Point graduates who have exhibited moral courage, that is, standing up for principle in a situation where that ended, or risked ending, their military careers.  

I have named names and cited other facts and logic to support my side of this debate. I asked Snook to do likewise. He should have done it without my asking in his “Be, Know, Do” article. His editors should have required it. Instead, all he offers is discussion of process and conclusory statements about its effectiveness. No evidence to support his conclusions. Instead, he mainly agrees with me and lamely claims to be the only person working for morality—ineffictively by his own description—at West Point and Harvard Business School. I surmise he figures that the two-centuries-old reputation of West Point shields its boosters from ever having to prove their claims. It does not, especially after the last 60 years of military defeats and military scandals and cover-ups.

Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

John T. Reed military home page

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  • If memory serves me correct, Captain (later Major) Snook was a part of the Behavioral Sciences & Leadership department when I was in attendance at USMA (1990-94). The department’s initials (BS&L) led us to joke incessantly about how the letters really stood for “Bull S*** and Lies.”

    Having worked in the healthcare field with numerous mental health professionals (all of whom were in possession of real-world experience) I have no respect for the BS&L folks. They may have received EDUCATION in their field – but, like most of the Army officer class, they had no practical experience in the subject. 2 years of grad school and 3 years teaching undergraduate Psych to a captive student body that MUST attend and pass classes in an effort to avoid punishment does not a “leadership” or “psychology” expert make.

    I have said it before and I’ll say it again – at West Point I met more than a few people who reported on R-Day as scumbags and who graduated 4 years later as even bigger scumbags. They then discovered a happy home in the Army where moral scumbaggery is one of the necessary qualities for success as a commissioned officer. I do not consider myself one of these folks, as evidenced by the company I have kept since a child, and I was scoffed at and ridiculed for my espousing the leadership/morality training I had received at West Point whilst serving in the Army. I, as did most of my peers, very quickly discovered that what we were taught at USMA was, essentially, a waste of our time and taxpayer money, as these tactics/techniques were not desirable (and were, in fact, shunned and loathed) by the Army scumbags who controlled our careers.

    I wish I could say that one should be able to expect rationality from someone such as Snook, but clearly that is an exercise in futility. As Jack so aptly states, were Snook’s smug, pretentious ass in possession of even a SMIDGEN of the expertise he purports, he would never have remained for so many years on Active Duty. Hiding one’s head in the sand regarding the insanity which surrounds said individual is a tactic to be expected from 6-year-old children, not from purported “experts” with advanced degrees and tenured professorship at one of the top institutions in the world.

    Jeff on

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