“No excuse, sir.” Of the four approved responses a West Point plebe may use, this one was hardest for me to say. But, everything we did at West Point had a purpose.
The purpose of teaching 18 year olds not to make excuses actually fulfills West Point’s purpose: To provide our nation with leaders of character.
A leader of character takes responsibility no matter the circumstances. A leader of character does not make excuses.
As a result of recent discussions with clients, I am reposting this from October 2012.
A Plebe’s Four Responses
- Yes, sir.
- No, sir.
- No excuse, sir.
- Sir, I do not understand.
Excuses Are A Habit
Among all the habits 18 year olds bring into West Point, making excuses is perhaps the toughest to break.
Like many 18 year olds, I developed a world-class habit of making excuses. I learned to deflect responsibility away from me. My favorite excuses included: circumstances, other people, and stupid rules.
West Point’s Response To Excuses
At West Point, when an excuse came out of my mouth, the upper classman were quick to correct me. I soon learned that taking responsibility was a better decision than making excuses.
I learned that voicing excuses is a weakness that would not be tolerated. Leaders are always responsible.
Now, I know the excuses I made then were not unique to me. In fact, they are still the favorites of a lot of adults. What’s worse is when it is a leader making these excuses.
What follows are some excuses I hear in business settings. After each excuse is a response a Firstie (senior at West Point) would likely deliver.
Circumstances: I would have been here on time, but I hit traffic on the way.
West Point Firstie: No excuse Anderson! The traffic wasn’t the issue. Your planning was. You did not leave enough cushion in case of traffic. Traffic is always a possibility. You did not plan for something that was a real possibility. That is your responsibility as a leader.
Other people: Sorry I am late, but my previous appointment started late.
West Point Firstie: No excuse Anderson! Whose schedule is it? You made the schedule. You did not leave enough time between your meetings. By cutting it so close, you allowed this to happen. Your planning caused this not your previous customer. Man up and own this. Be a leader.
Stupid rules: These new regulations take away sales creativity.
West Point Firstie: No excuse Anderson! Those regulations are the same for everyone. Do you think you were the only one affected? Others are adapting just fine. Besides, rules don’t become optional because you don’t like them. Leaders find a way to work within the rules. Leaders don’t blame rules for their own failures.
There is not a West Point Firstie who would not agree with this statement:
Making excuses as a teenager is not acceptable.
But, making excuses as a leader is pathetic.
My Habits Determine My Character
The response that was so hard to say at 18 years old became easier to say with practice. We change habits one decision at a time.
In fact my character can be defined as: My habitual way of operating.
- Character begins with my thoughts
- My thoughts lead to my words.
- My words lead to my actions.
- My actions over time form my habits.
- My habits determine my character.
The first time I screamed, “No excuse, sir.” Made it easier the next time. Each time I said “No excuse, sir.” I was forming a new habit and thus building my character.
What “No excuse, sir.” Teaches Leaders
“No excuse, sir.” creates a new habit in young cadets. By the end of plebe year, cadets have shifted from making excuses to seizing responsibility.
When a leader can be counted on to take responsibility, a few things happen:
- The leader is trusted by his superiors, his peers, and his subordinates.
- The leader is no longer stopped by obstacles.
- The leader works harder to find solutions because he truly believes he has no excuse for failure.
- The leader’s team develops the same “can do” attitude the leader demonstrates.
The Bottom Line:
We live in a world where people try to blame others for their mistakes. Lawyers make millions because individuals or billion dollar companies believe they have an excuse that justifies their actions.
The leaders of character that West Point develops for our country truly believe there is no legitimate excuse when leaders fail.
There may be reasons for the failure, but they do not excuse the failure. The difference is an excuse is used to deflect responsibility, while a reason is the obstacle a leader takes responsibility for learning from in the future.
Along with the Honor Code, “No excuse, sir” forms the backbone of character education at West Point. Perhaps they should do the same for us as individuals, in our homes, and in our companies.
That is of course is up to the leader. Unless there is a good excuse for not doing it…?
How many excuses do you make for yourself throughout the week? What if you started a new habit today?