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review of The West Point Way of Leadership by Larry Donnithorne

Posted by John Reed on

So says the book jacket of, and the advertisements for, The West Point Way of Leadership by Larry Donnithorne (Class of ’66). That dubious claim casts instant doubt on the subtitle’s promise that the book will tell you about “principled leadership.”

I graduated from both

I graduated from both of those schools. Donnithorne never attended Harvard Business School. I have both alumni directories. Few could peruse them and find West Point the winner of a Most-Leaders contest. Most West Pointers have modest, middle-manager-type careers. Most Harvard Business School graduates excel.

Leadership, yes

West Point probably is the greatest leadership school in the world. But politicians pick most of the cadets —based on politics or, at best, what they have accomplished by age 17. What’s worse, West Point’s graduates must join a bureaucracy after graduation. Harvard picks their MBAs based on what they have accomplished by age 25 and the vast majority enter private enterprise at relatively high levels. The dean once told us that most Harvard MBAs end up as founders and owners of their own companies. I am one of those.

West Pointers have played an important, heroic role in war. Harvard Business grads claim no such noble place. On the other hand, neither have they boosted their school by putting down West Point. Indeed, they are proud to occasionally be referred to as the “West Point of Business.”

How do you figure?

I called Donnithorne to ask how he arrived at that “more leaders” claim. He referred me to the publisher, but said he felt sure it was just based on the fact that every West Point graduate was in a leadership position immediately after graduation. I would agree that West Point has produced more military officers than Harvard Business School and that youthful military officers are typically given far more responsibility than their civilian counterparts (because the taxpayers are too cheap to pay for better qualified officers). That’s obvious. West Point, having started in 1802, has more cumulative graduates than Harvard Business School, which started in 1908. That’s a really lame explanation for the “more leaders” claim.

No excuse

West Point did not teach us to pass the buck like that. When a cadet is asked why he screwed up, he’s supposed to answer, “No excuse, sir,” not blame it on his publisher. Did Donnithorne protest to the publisher than the claim was dubious? Not that I know of. I would have raised hell about it had I written the book.

Kings of character

The thesis of this book is,

We West Pointers are better leaders than you civilian business executives because we have more character. Listen up and we’ll tell you how you can give yourself a little West Point home study course to correct your character deficiencies.


Donnithorne’s book is an insufferable auto-hagiography. I did not find it insightful or even credible on its main theme of character or its secondary theme of leadership in general. Donnithorne recites West Point’s party line, i.e., that its cadet honor code is necessary because officers must be men of their word—and that West Point has succeeded magnificently at producing officers of iron integrity.

Cadet honor code

I can vouch that the adherence to the honor code by West Point cadets was nothing short of wondrous when I was there (1964-1968). Donnithorne was a cadet from 1962 to 1966.

But not in the Army

But I must also report that officers at West Point, themselves recent graduates, told us unofficially but emphatically that we must not try to adhere to the cadet honor code as officers. They meant that on two dimensions:

  • you cannot trust the other officers in the Army
  • you have to sign false documents in the Army

False reports

Army officers in troop assignments are routinely required to sign false reports, most often, false arms inventories and motor-vehicle readiness reports. Several sheepishly told how the very first thing they had to do as officers was sign a false report. I’d guess the average West Point grad signs his first false report within one month of assuming his first troop command position. Accurate reports would reveal the “situation normal, all fouled up” status of the unit and would, when received at higher headquarters, end your superior’s career. Superiors don’t like that.

I resolved while a cadet that I would continue to try to adhere to the cadet honor code for the rest of my life. The result was I ran into a moral buzz saw in the Army.

Motor officer

For example, in Vietnam, I was made battalion motor officer in a communications battalion near Long Binh, the biggest U.S. Army base in the country. The next day, I was asked to sign a report on the status of our vehicles. In fact, 85% were unusable (“deadlined”)—typical in the always- screwed-up military. But the report said only 5% were.

I wrote an 8 in front of the 5 before I signed it. My superiors went nuts. I was “counseled” and when it became clear to them that hell would freeze over before I would sign a false report, they immediately took me out of the job and transferred me to an artillery unit in Phu Loi. I surmise the transfer to more dangerous duty was supposed to show the other junior officers what happens to them if they refuse to “play the game” as it was called. I had repeatedly volunteered for more dangerous duty previously so I just shrugged it off as a “whatever” event.

I was motor officer for about 48 hours. Had they allowed my accurate report to go up to higher headquarters (it goes all the way to the Pentagon), my commanding officers would have been summarily relieved and their careers would have been over.

My impression was that 99% of military officers routinely signed false reports. I only heard of one other who refused in my brief career.

A West Point full colonel whose promotion to general had already been announced admitted to me in a private “counseling” session in Vietnam that he had signed false reports.

Integrity poll

As I recall, an anonymous poll by Army Times or some such came up with an admission by 31% of Army officers that they had signed false reports. I laughed out loud when I heard that. “And another 69% of those polled admitted to lying one more times on the poll.” The mere fact that such a poll was taken by an organization intimately familiar with the military tells you all you need to know.

Great, but how did he get to be a lieutenant colonel?

Donnithorne himself told me that West Point Superintendent Palmer (1986-1991) was almost relieved of command in Germany when he was a battalion commander because he refused to sign false readiness reports. He was saved by the arrival of an inspection team that commended him for having the most accurate readiness reports in the area. That is a believable and welcome story as far is it goes. But my immediate question is, “If he made a habit of refusing to sign false reports, how did he get to be a lieutenant colonel and a battalion commander in the first place? How did he even make captain?”

Choice, not a course

Integrity is not an academic discipline that must be studied for years. Rather, it is a choice that can be made by anyone who knows the difference between right and wrong.

If you want to find honest men and women, men and women of character, seek out the self-employed. Not all are honest. But many are moral refugees of organizations where they were forced to choose between integrity and career. They went on their own because it was the only way they could have both. Integrity is not required of the self-employed, but it is at least permitted. Arguably, it is not tolerated in any other situation, certainly not in the U.S. military officers corps.

I agree that West Point is the better leadership school. But as I said my review of a similar book, Duty, Honor, Company, what they do at West Point cannot be reduced to book form. Both West Point and Harvard Business take too much credit for the success of their graduates. Both schools are extremely selective in their admissions policies. Their graduates would have been successful, although probably not as much, if the schools had been nothing but study halls. The question is how much value added do the schools create with their educational programs. It would be a tough question to answer precisely.

Harvard more successful

Clearly, Harvard Business School graduates are more successful by almost any measure. Harvard graduates almost all go to private enterprise where ability and diligence matter. West Point graduates all disappear into the belly of the federal military bureaucracy beast.

Most West Pointers in my era and since got out of the Army as soon as they could. Most of the ones that remained spent about three quarters of their careers as students in grad school and other army schools, as aides de camp, as staff officers, and as teachers in army schools. The typical West Point graduate only spends two or three years as a commander of troops in his entire military career. You wouldn’t guess that to listen to the know-it-all way they speak about combat leadership and to look at the rows of medals they wear, would you?

Compared bios

I checked the alumni directory bios of ten randomly-chosen graduates of each school from the classes of ’55 and ’56. The Harvard group included the presidents of the Norton Company, the Bank of New York, and several less well-known companies as well as high-ranking executives in other well-known companies.

The least impressive Harvard grad had the title lieutenant colonel after his name. He was deputy director of some state agency in a small state. That individual is not a West Point grad, but I suspect he is a graduate of the Naval or Air Force Academy.

The ten West Point grads included two presidents of their own company, an attorney, a couple of “managers,” a CIA employee, a vice president of a company, a scientist, and a couple of retired military guys whose career peak seemed to be teaching English at West Point and being the executive officer of a “group.”

None of the West Pointers were generals. Four, like author Donnithorne, made colonel, which is about par for a West Pointer. Two retired as lieutenant colonels. The others got out before retirement as lieutenant, captain, or major.

Men on the moon

Donnithorne cites the usual list of distinguished graduates to prove the superiority of West Point’s way including, “Two of the first three men to land on the moon were West Pointers.”

Actually, that’s not true. Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. He did not go to West Point Donnithorne means two of the three members of the Apollo 11 crew were West Pointers. Mike Collins (Class of ’52) piloted the command module that remained in orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Class of ’51) landed on the moon.

And if we’re going to cite Aldrin as evidence of the success of West Point’s way, journalistic ethics require that we note that Aldrin later admitted he was an alcoholic at the time of the Apollo 11 mission. Given the extreme selectivity of the Apollo program— especially for that mission —it must be assumed that Aldrin lied about his addiction to alcohol to his superiors, thereby violating the West Point honor code and arguably risking the lives of his crew mates.

Body counts, etc.

The public gets occasional glimpses into military integrity, or lack thereof, with scandals like the exaggerated body counts in Vietnam, claw hammers that cost $400, the Osprey Helicopter falsified maintenance reports, and Naval Academy graduate lieutenant colonel Oliver North’s admission that, “I mislead the Congress.”

Cannot be more honest than anyone above you in the chain of command

No one can be more honest than their boss. If you are, you will soon encounter a situation where your boss has done something you must protest. And when you do, you’re history. One corollary to that rule is that if no one can be more honest than his boss, no one can be more honest than anyone above him in the organization’s chain of command. Your level of integrity is limited to the lowest level of integrity above you. That’s because if you cannot be more honest than your boss, he cannot be more honest than his boss, and so on.

The U.S. military chain of command is the longest I know of, and it extends to the president and Congress, who are a bunch of politicians. Try being an honest lieutenant at the bottom of that pile.

Donnithorne has virtually no military leadership experience and no civilian business experience

Donnithorne has never worked for anyone but the government. And he was a line commander for only two or three years during his Army career. His career in the army included 13 years on the West Point faculty and staff. You’d think a guy who had so little military leadership experience, and who’s never met a payroll or made a profit, would have more humility when pontificating, and I mean that word almost literally, to businesspeople on how to do their jobs.

John T. Reed

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

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