On a warm spring evening, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. and his wife Shelly sit on their home’s whitewashed porch and reflect on a long career. The scene is bucolic; wicker chairs speckle the porch, and a small flower garden and manicured lawn frame the front of their picturesque house.
The placid setting of the building is juxtaposed to the function it serves. The address is Quarters 100—the home of the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., an institution responsible for commissioning roughly 1,000 officers per year to lead America’s soldiers in war.
Caslen, 64, had been in uniform for 43 years. On June 22, he retired. After leading more than 200,000 soldiers, under nine commanders in chief, deploying six times and running West Point, the institution from which he graduated in 1975, for five years, his thoughts and advice could fill a book. However, he is unequivocal regarding the most significant lesson learned during his time in service: “A failure in character is a failure in leadership. It’s as simple as that.”
Caslen views the oath of allegiance to the Constitution as the foundation upon which military members build trust with the American people. As with doctors, lawyers or any professionals, service members build trust with clients through competence and character within the execution of their duties. In the case of the military, the client is the American people.
“In today’s military, the most important weapon a soldier can bring to the fight is the 6 inches between his or her ears,” he said. However, from 2008 through 2009, while he was leading over 20,000 soldiers as a division commander, Caslen found himself in a dire situation: He was losing nearly as many soldiers to character issues as he was to combat losses.
During his 52 weeks in command in Iraq, he wrote 76 Article 15s or letters of reprimand for senior leaders. That was more than at any other time during his career.
Of the 76 offenses, only two were for tactical issues. The others involved instances of moral misconduct. The issues spanned the gamut, everything from leaders having inappropriate relationships with spouses of deployed service members online, to sexual harassment, to wearing unauthorized medals, to DUIs while on leave.
One tragic incident involved an officer being removed from command of his 700-plus soldiers mere months after the original commander was killed in combat. In the short period of about six months, the battalion was on its third commander. The organization was devastated.
When Caslen returned to the U.S. to assume his duties as superintendent of West Point, he took on a critical mission: ensuring academy graduates internalize West Point’s motto of “Duty, Honor, Country.”
He is adamant: From the moment cadets enter the academy until they graduate, “Duty, Honor, Country” must be part of their essence. Living those values is what will allow them to maintain the trust of the American people.
“The truth of the matter is that everybody will eventually have some sort of crisis situation in their life that is going to require a reaction without thought. I’ve always believed that when you fill yourself with a values set, it’s like eating spaghetti with a bunch of garlic: When you start sweating, you smell garlic. If you fill yourself with ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ … when you start sweating, you’re going to reek those values. Don’t negotiate the price of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Despite the logic of his advice, that is easier said than done. Countless leaders, in all walks of organizations, have succumbed to poor moral decision-making. In an ever more competitive global economy, with the world’s militaries perpetually teetering between peace and war, the U.S. needs every advantage it can muster. Yet too many careers of America’s brightest minds, both civilian and military, are cut short due to moral misdeeds.
Staying on Course
Caslen offered some pointers on how he managed to avoid this fate over more than four decades as an Army officer.
“Habits of the mind will determine where you tread on the ground,” he said. Honorable morals yield honorable actions. “It’s like holding a cup of coffee: When someone in a compromising moment bumps your elbow, what’s in that cup is going to spill out, whether you want it to or not.”
As a man of faith, he also reads the Bible daily, having read the Good Book from cover to cover on a 21-month deployment.
He is also emphatic: Having a strong accountability partner is key. Perhaps his strongest accountability partner is his wife of over 40 years.
During years of separation they endured through his long military career, Caslen tried to write a letter home or get in a phone call every day while he was gone. Keeping in touch was crucial to maintaining the family’s strong relationship.
While serving as a battalion commander during Operation Desert Shield, he recalled not talking to Shelly for nearly seven months, except for writing letters. And when his unit finally got access to phones, they were only able to talk for five minutes. “I remember waiting in line three hours for a five-minute phone call,” he recalled.
Importance of Family
However, in a demanding organization like the military, values-based priorities are critical, Caslen said. Successful careers only bring more demands, primarily in the form of time and energy that could be used to strengthen family bonds. In situations like these, it’s not uncommon to see people place family priorities behind career advancement.
Throughout his time in service, Caslen told each of his teams to make family the priority. “You don’t impress me by working late, and you don’t impress me by staying in the office until I leave. When you finish your work, go home. Sit down at the dinner table with your family and talk about how your day went. Then tuck the kids into bed and read them a story, so that the last thing in their minds is mom or dad talking to them and reading them a story. Then sit with your spouse, have a cup of coffee, talk about how your day went, and listen.”
In his farewell to Congress in 1951, one of West Point’s most famous superintendents, Gen. Douglas Mac-
Arthur, famously closed his career by saying: “I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads … which proclaimed most proudly that ‘old soldiers never die; they just fade away.’
“And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.
In the balmy night air of the porch at Quarters 100, the voices of thousands of cadets could be heard calling cadences in the distance as they marched back to their barracks to sleep before another day of training for war. It was growing late and the cadences finally stopped. “You know, we’re really going to miss this, Shelly,” Caslen said to his wife. “I know, Bob,” she replied.