Wearily the Class of 2023 arose before sunrise on a cool, clear Saturday morning in February, just three weeks before the coronavirus quarantine would interrupt their freshman year. On this day, they weren’t awakened by their cadre; instead, the freshmen were in charge of themselves. The responsibility was theirs and the day belonged to them because the day’s Leadership Reaction Course (LRC) was designed exclusively to develop their leadership skills.
The freshman LRC is a relatively new event administered by the Commandant’s Office. The course has two main objectives. The first, to prepare cadets for future endeavors as cadets and throughout their lives by building moral courage within leadership. The second is to prepare freshmen for the transition to sophomore year. At the start of the exercise, freshmen were divided into random teams. The teams worked together in the various scenarios and LRC stations. The stations were difficult and wide ranging; some focused on physical endurance such as water jug carries, while others, like leadership lectures, were academic. At certain times, cadets were forced to rely on specific skills like planning, creativity and teamwork.
“It was definitely different,” said Cadet Lawrence Ferguson, an Army contract cadet. “As knobs we were always told what to do, but that role was different during the freshman LRC. The course showed me that leadership is difficult but worth the effort.”
Capt. Eugene Paluso, the commandant of cadets and a retired Navy SEAL who conceived the idea of the freshman LRC, said, “Moral courage is important for leadership and making tough decisions, whether you’re in the military, the government or working for Walmart. The importance of standing up, thinking as an individual, having that moral courage, especially in difficult circumstances, is what we’re trying to instill.”
Following Paluso’s guidelines, the LRC was created to challenge cadets with tough decisions not easily resolved. The cadets’ everyday approach to “only follow orders” during knob year was turned on its head, giving them the power to lead and make decisions. It was difficult at first. “At the beginning, we were really struggling to lead ourselves,” said Ferguson. “After receiving the tasks, it would take us a while to work as a group to get them started.”
Ferguson’s team did not delay for long. “As the day went on, different people began to step up and take charge,” he said, “and it helped us to get going.”
Another advantage of the event is the resulting greater sense of class unity and bonding among the participants. Instead of splitting groups by company, all cadets are put in random groups, forcing them to work with unfamiliar people. The new faces add a hurdle that increases the need for communication and good leadership to complete each mission—skills that are important in both business and the military.
“I’ve moved around a lot in my military career,” said Paluso, “and I can’t overemphasize how important it was to be able to see a familiar face when you’re in a new environment, and sometimes it was great not to have a familiar face because that forces you to really focus on your interpersonal skills and figure out who’s who in the zoo, who you’ve got to listen to, who you’re gonna listen to and who you can completely blow off.”
The stations and exercises—with all the new experiences, people and expectations that came with them—created a lasting impact on the freshmen. As the day continued, their confidence and their passion grew.
One station that made a lasting impression on Ferguson was the rope bridge station. Cadets built and navigated a bridge over a hypothetical river. The team’s mission was to get its equipment and personnel across a rope bridge suspended between two trees. Each cadet was outfitted with a harness and a carabiner that attached to the rope, with the goal of getting the team and two heavy jugs of water across without letting anything or anyone touch the river. The exercise was timed, and a leader was selected from the team to guide the unit across safely. “The rope station was tough,” said Ferguson. “We had never done anything like that before, but somehow we managed. Everyone took their tasks seriously, and we eventually were able to complete the scenario.”
Different groups achieved various levels of success, but mission success was not the goal. Instead, cadets were given the opportunity to try out their leadership skills, figure out what worked, and practice planning, executing, brainstorming and adapting to new scenarios as they arose. After each attempt, TAC officers, retired military officers, pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of each group’s execution.
By the end of the day, weariness was replaced with elation. Cadets were eager to engage and try new roles to give their best attempt at leadership for each station. Hesitation during interactions with unfamiliar people dwindled as members of the groups bonded with one another in their shared experience. They worked as a team through their communication and commitment to a common goal. Every cadet wanted to see his or her peers achieve goals for the greater good of the team.
The importance of interpersonal skills, adapting to change, and moral courage stopped being academic on that day, and as they now begin their sophomore year, the cadets are better prepared for the experience.
Trent Martindale, who wrote this story, graduated in May and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. While double majoring in English and political science with a concentration in international and military affairs, Martindale interned in the Office of Communications and Marketing. He is slated to begin pilot training in March 2021 at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.