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Leadership calendar    Jun 16, 2016

Prove People Right…

Chris Sugden shares his top 5 leadership takeaways from the 2016 CEO Summit.

“Work hard to prove people right NOT to prove people wrong.” This quote by Retired Colonel Pilar Ryan continues to stick with me six days after she said it at the Edison Partners CEO Summit last week. Trust, Authenticity, Innovation, Learning to Follow, and Empathy are not words or actions many expected to hear at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Yet these are several of the key principles used to teach and develop our future Army leaders.

Last week, we held our 5th Annual CEO Summit at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY. I believe I speak for the nearly 60 CEOs and members of the Edison Director Network who attended when I say that the Thayer Leader Development Group and West Point provided actionable learning, an inspirational setting and a greater appreciation for the men and women who serve our great nation.


Our theme for this year’s CEO Summit: Leading with Character in a VUCA Environment was a topic everyone in attendance connected with. VUCA is an Army acronym and stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity—which certainly describes an entrepreneur’s as well as high growth company’s world! We are challenged each day as leaders in high growth environments to motivate, excite and drive our organizations to greater success. While the U.S. Army is known for developing our best and brightest into military leaders, it quickly became clear that West Point’s approach to leadership has strong applications for developing leaders in business.

The focus on character and the whole person were two areas that will have a lasting impact on me. I believe it is safe to assume that everyone who attended the CEO Summit left with actionable ideas to improve their leadership skills and to develop leaders within their organizations. 

The top 5 principles that I learned at West Point and plan to apply both at our firm and with my portfolio companies are:

1. Work to Prove People Right NOT Wrong

For many of us, negative energy drives us. We want to prove the coach who cut us from the team or the boss who didn’t give us that promotion wrong. But, Col. Ryan’s advice of Proving People Right turns the paradigm 180 degrees with a focus on positive energy.

Consider the manager who gave you the promotion when you weren’t sure you were ready for it. What about the coach who gave you a spot on the team because he saw something in you. Those are the leaders we should want to work hard to impress. They have invested in you because they believed in you.

I love the idea of proving people right because it applies to both leaders and followers. Without someone giving us a shot we wouldn’t be leaders in the first place.


2. Build Trust NOT Obedience

This seems so obvious. However, ask yourself how many times you’ve used your power or standing in an organization to demand something gets done. In high growth environments we rely on our people to be proactive, creative self-starters. If your team trusts you as a leader, they will be much more likely to take a chance and do something great instead of just doing their job. ‘Trust’ in the Army means many things, but most of all it means ensuring your team has your back and you have their back. 

While trust in business is similar, we are not faced with the same life and death situations that soldiers in battle are faced with. But to a young manager each decision can feel like life and death. Does your team trust you enough to take chances? Do you beat people up for taking chances when they are wrong?

The Army has a saying that “a leader gets the team he or she deserves.” That should resonate with all of us in business. Does your leadership team trust you or obey you? What actions or behaviors can you eliminate that are eroding trust in your organization?

3. Promote Based on Readiness NOT Track Record

The Army promotes based on readiness for the next rank and potential, not track record. I didn’t believe this statement when Dan Rice, President of Thayer Leader Development Group first shared it with us. However, several other senior officers confirmed this to be the case. Your track record can certainly bar you from consideration but it won’t get you promoted. The idea that potential leaders should be evaluated on their potential to lead is a great business concept. In addition, the Army applies a pretty simple test: if you are asked to lead and you don’t say yes, you are likely not a real leader. This may seem a little too black and white for some, but doesn’t it sound right?


Col. Ryan also said, "Your leaders will always have to lead before they feel ready." That sounds like a high growth company environment to me. Most of the time we are looking for leaders or promoting people to higher levels because our businesses are growing. We never had Account Management before, but now we have so many customers, we need it. Was your first inclination to go out and hire an experienced Account Management executive or did you look for a high potential performer already in your company and give them a shot?

The concept is not advocating for on-the-job training and neither am I. Instead, think about the message you are sending your team if every time you need a new leader for a group or initiative, you go outside your company to find that person.

4. Have a Higher Calling

The U.S. Military Academy has 8 houses of worship on the base (campus), which is a large number for a relatively small student body of less than 5,000 students, including a non-denominational chapel. The Cadet Chapel is a beautiful building if you have a chance to visit West Point, make this a stop. The Army’s motto is: Duty, Honor, Country. Which is a pretty high calling when you consider what our volunteer soldiers are asked to do.

In business, we are fortunate that we are generally not risking our lives to achieve our objectives. Our core values and mission generally have a higher calling, but do we remind our team what that is regularly? The idea that great leaders get commitment vs. compliance from their team is compelling.

There is a lot of talk about how much different millennials are than prior generations (this is a topic for another blog post). One thing I see in young people is a desire to make an impact on the world around them. They say, “Cynics doubt the why while skeptics doubt the how.” If your team is full of cynicism when you talk about your mission statement or higher calling, maybe you need to make some changes. Leaders must continually remind their team what the Higher Calling is, and if they do, it will increase the odds substantially that everyone is bought in to achieve that calling.


5. Develop Your Own Leadership Philosophy

I have never been given this advice before. Major General Spider Marks  gave us this advice and shared his leadership philosophy with us. His was an acronym (everything the Army does has an acronym by the way): TIPS. Which stands for Talk to your people, Inform your team and stay informed, Predictable behavior (as a leader), and Sensitive to your team’s needs.

General Marks’ advice to develop your own Leadership Philosophy seems so obvious. But why didn’t anyone tell me this in my 24 years in business? Consider your leadership philosophy to be the behaviors you will hold yourself accountable to, and those your team can count on you to display.

I am still working on my making my personal leadership philosophy consumable to my team. I know I have one, but I have never written it down. Take some time to write it down and then share your Leadership Philosophy. Similar to your company’s Mission Statement or Core Values, how do you know what it is if you don’t share it?

West Point is a special place and if your company is looking to hold an offsite to develop better leadership skills or future leaders, I highly recommend Thayer Leader Development Group.

Chris is Managing Partner and Chairman of the firm's investment committee. He has been on both sides of the table as a successful entrepreneur. His experience includes leading sales, product, finance, business strategy and capital formation.