“What the Stomach Flu Can Teach You about Leadership”
Republished from West Point Magazine 2016 Spring Issue
Written By: Care Kehn (Current CVFC member)
On a recent weekend I received a knock on my barracks room door close to midnight. Thinking it was an early check to ensure I was in bed, I was thoroughly surprised at what waited on the other side of the door. He stood there panicked, sweaty, looking miserable and said, “Corporal, I just don’t know what to do. I’ve been throwing up all afternoon and nothing I do helps.” He, my freshman, or plebe, addressed me as “corporal” because as a second year cadet, or Yearling, I am his team leader. That is also why he came to me instead of calling his mother.
Although I had been trained to lead a subordinate like my plebe into battle using small unit tactics, I had no formal training on handling what resembled more of a sick child than independent warrior. I reverted to the basics: I told him to change out of his bathrobe into real cloths, assured him that I would take care of him and that it would all be okay.
That night was my first visit to Keller Army Community Hospital. It also provided a rare need to call the duty driver, a cadet assigned to drive other cadets to various places on the outreaches of the campus. At this moment, the responsibility of being a team leader seemed overbearing. After only one year, a sophomore cadet is expected to be the first line supervisor for another cadet. We are expected to know their goals, strengths, and weaknesses. Our role includes challenging, supporting, protecting, and encouraging them in every aspect of plebe life.
What left me feeling overwhelmed is that less than eight months ago, I was the plebe in that relationship! Overwhelming may be an understatement in situations like that night. Suddenly another person is dependent on you, relying on your advice to guide them through the twists and turns of their first year at West Point.
That night I had more responsibility than I ever had in my life. For example, every night at West Point we must be in our rooms by a certain time period. Although we had a legitimate excuse to be at the hospital instead of in our rooms, it took a lot of phone calls while my plebe was seeing the ER doctors to make sure neither my plebe nor I were mistaken as absent. West Point includes many other complicating factors. That night, however, my plebe trusted me with them all.
After a few hours with the doctors in the emergency room and receiving an IV bag of fluids and some prescribed antibiotics, we were ready to head back to the barracks. The official diagnosis was a severe case of the stomach flu, but I walked away with so much more than that. At a school with rules and standards for almost everything, handling a problem without a clearly predefined solution that night taught me about stepping up to the plate, or assuming responsibility for those under me even if I do not know what to do. The sincere open trust my plebe demonstrated reminded me that I do not have to be self-sufficient either. The Army is hierarchical, or run by a chain of command. I did not really realize how important that was until I was a connecting link in that chain. Last year, as a plebe, I was only responsible for myself and learning to follow.
Bit by bit West Point is giving me influence over others. For example, if I was unsure where to take my plebe that night, I could have easily called my superiors, my squad leader or platoon sergeant, for advice. Right now, I treasure the opportunity to be a leader for only my team of two, to test out my leadership style and priorities within this safety net. That late night in a hospital helped me remember why I came to West Point and more importantly, why I enjoy leading others.