It’s often said that the toughest test of leadership is managing through a crisis. Founded on the concept of translating military leadership principles to educate executives in the private and public sectors, Thayer Leadership has been readying corporate leaders to ace that challenge since its inception a little over a decade ago.
Then came March of 2020, when Thayer faced its own leadership litmus test. First, Covid-19 derailed a business model largely dependent on gathering corporate groups for a blend of custom in-person applied academic and experiential sessions set against the iconic backdrop of The Historic Thayer Hotel, located on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Second, the company’s executive director and one of Thayer’s founding partners, Karen Kuhla McClone, Ph.D., who designed its curriculum and ran its programs, was sidelined by a cardiac arrest.
To have your business revenue drop to nearly nothing and a top leader suddenly out of commission was the kind of one-two punch that could have proved devastating to any business. For Thayer, however, it became something else entirely—a crucible and a testament to the level of resiliency that strong leadership development practices can provide.
“Karen built this organization, and she trained everyone on our leadership team,” says Dan Rice, president of Thayer Leadership, a West Point graduate, combat veteran and author of West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage. “When she was suddenly out for several months during a time that our whole company had to pivot, the junior leaders stepped up to continue her vision. It was a classic example of strong development, everybody responded incredibly well because she had trained them incredibly well.”
Now recovered and back at Thayer, Kuhla McClone shares that view. “When these adverse events hit, our team members were able to carry on and to reimagine the organization to serve our clients during the pandemic by pivoting to digital learning programs,” she says. “It was a demonstration that we practice what we’ve preached in terms of preparing leaders to navigate in a VUCA—Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous—environment.”
LEVERAGING A LEGACY
Recruited from GE’s legendary Crotonville corporate university in 2010, Kuhla McClone spent the past 11 years developing and refining curriculum around military leadership practices applicable to corporations. “She helped us extract the best practices from the military and all of our personal leadership experience that best apply to business into a framework that became the basis of the Thayer leadership model,” says Sean Hannah, Ph.D. (Colonel, Ret.), a former instructor at West Point who has been part of Thayer’s faculty since its inception. Hannah, who was recently recognized by PLOS Biology for being among the top 1 percent of the most impactful researchers globally, worked with Kuhla McClone to design a model and assessment derived from the U.S. Army that aims to help companies develop and assess exemplary leadership across six dimensions:
MISSION-FIRST FOCUS: Focuses on achieving goals, capable of planning, organizing, resourcing, tasking, setting goals and objectives, and tracking execution.
PEOPLE-ALWAYS APPROACH: Assesses decisions in light of the human element—not only the toll on individuals of what is being asked of them, but also the effect on their growth and on building the culture of the organization and inspiring and engaging followers.
THRIVES IN VUCA: Demonstrates resiliency and adaptability, is able to persevere and overcome resistance and setbacks.
LEADER OF CHARACTER: Adheres to core set of values—integrity, honor, loyalty, courage—that guide actions.
LEADER OF COMMITMENT: Demonstrates dedication to achieving objectives.
LEADER OF COMPETENCE: Possesses necessary knowledge, judgment and skills, and is able to leverage the competencies of those around them.
The concept of applying the military’s approach to leadership to the private sector has resonated with CEOs. Over 400 companies and 100,000 leaders in diverse industries globally have participated in Thayer’s customized executive education programs, attracted by both the robust curriculum and an impressive faculty roster of CEOs and former military officers, many of whom had led in battle. “When someone like Lieutenant General Frank Kearney, who has led in some of the toughest situations ever, is standing in front of you talking about leading in crisis, it’s very powerful,” says Hannah.
A PERFECT PIVOT
When Covid-19 hit, companies needed leadership-in-crisis counsel more than ever—and Thayer, which already had invested heavily in digital delivery, starting in 2014, was able to move quickly to respond. “It was amazing how effectively we were able to pivot to digital and blended programs,” says Brigadier General (Ret.) Maureen LeBoeuf, Ed.D., a Thayer faculty member who pivoted to delivering keynotes and conducting educational sessions virtually in April of 2020. “After one of our virtual sessions, I remember saying, ‘I feel like I’m back at West Point.’ We were really connecting with participants, and it had the same feel.”
While Thayer has been able to resume in-person programs, the company plans to continue to offer online and virtual components, adds LeBoeuf, who cites benefits to employing a hybrid approach. “In education, there’s something we call ‘soak time,’ which is having the opportunity to let what you learned soak in, to test it and then come back and talk through what worked and what didn’t,” she says. “Spreading learning out with a mix of in-person and virtual sessions could give concepts and techniques more stickiness.”
Incorporating digital components to leadership programs also broadens their reach, adds Brigadier General (Ret.) Rebecca Halstead, who is also a legacy faculty member and has served as a senior advisor on both in-person and digital programs for Thayer. “It’s not always possible, due to cost or space constraints, to bring an entire team for in-person training,” she explains. “When companies bring their top leaders to West Point, they often leave asking, ‘how do we get this out to the rest of our people?’ The digital components makes that possible.”
While agreeing that digital programs may help entice executives hesitant to take time away from the office for a multi-day program, Kuhla McClone still sees in-person programs as the gold standard. “There’s nothing quite like participating in a meaningful in-person leadership program,” she says. “And there’s no better place to do it than the hallowed grounds of West Point, where the Army has created leaders for over 200 years.”
Developing Women Leaders
At a time when many companies are looking to overcome divisiveness, the idea of gender-specific executive education sessions might seem counterintuitive. Yet, women-only programs like Women Leading from the Front Lines can be highly effective at helping women executives understand and address the underlying challenges and personal barriers that may be keeping them from achieving excellence.
The programs were a personal passion for Thayer’s Karen Kuhla McClone, who felt that women executives would appreciate the opportunity to learn about the leadership experiences of faculty members like Brigadier General (Ret.) Rebecca Halstead, the first female graduate of West Point to be promoted to General Officer, and Brigadier General (Ret.) Maureen LeBoeuf, Ed.D., the first woman in West Point’s 200-plus year history to chair a department.
“They ended up being one of the most well-received programs we’ve done,” says Kuhla McClone, who says participants prize the opportunity to share experiences with others who may have similar backgrounds, which they might not be comfortable discussing in a mixed-gender course. “Leading is leading, and the courses cover similar content as our other programs. The real difference is when women are together, they can be their authentic selves. That’s very powerful.”