Graham Plaster

culture + diplomacy + ethics + smart power + technology + humanities + entrepreneurship + philosophy

Leadership Lessons from Climbing Herndon

For some time I have wanted to jot down some of the leadership lessons I carry with me from climbing Herndon monument as a Naval Academy plebe back in 1999.  This picture is from the class of ’76 but captures some of the elements I remember about the experience. It’s a leadership parable really.


First, a little back story -Every year, at the end of the year, the freshman class of the US Naval Academy gathers around an obelisk-shaped monument which has been lathered with lard by the upper class.  The mission is to replace the military dixie cup cover (a hat) which is perched atop the monument, with an officer cover.  Generally, this takes a couple of hours and depends on the abilities of the freshman mob to remove the lard, create a human tower, and scale the side of the monument as a team.

What’s it like?

Have you ever been in an extremely crowded subway?  One where it was so tight, you weren’t sure if you might break a rib or asphyxiate? Probably not, but that’s a start. Then imagine you are packed in the subway with just your bathing suit on, and everyone in there is oiled down with lard, from head to foot, and after that, sprayed with hoses.  OK, that is kind of the feel of it – claustrophobic, slippery, exposed. | As we approached the monument, there was a rush of adrenaline.  Shoes and t-shirts were removed in order to be used for lard removal. As the thick white fat began to be removed, eager climbers tried their luck at scaling up the sides, but they were still slick.  No amount of shouting orders and stepping onto a stranger’s shoulders would get you there in the first few minutes.  Patience was required.  A foundation was required.  Volunteers stepped up to form the base.  Leaning their backs against the monument, they locked arms and invited others to step on their shoulders.  I was one of these, although not as well suited to the role as some others. Very quickly, the amount of weight put on our shoulders, 2 or 3 high, with shifting and climbing and sliding, became something that would be hard to bear for more than a few minutes.  Meanwhile, the pressure against our chests from the outer circle was building and a certain scene began to unfold, repeatedly.  Because family and media surrounded the circle, there were many students in the group who were aspiring to climb halfway up the human scaffold just to turn and have a photo taken. Then they would fall backward and crowdsurf into the mob until it swallowed them up.  It was an interesting visualization of ambition, as those who wanted to climb placed their lard covered feet onto the shoulders and faces of volunteers beneath them.  Literally, standing on faces – I watched it for over 2 hours, with many in the group shouting suggestions and commands to rally the mob.  There were many who were on the bottom, like me, who probably were not strong enough to hold the weight.  Many were.  Perhaps some of those on the bottom would have been more fit to climb, but they lacked the ego for it.  There were others, similarly, who were too heavy or lacked the strength to remain in the second level for long, but had the heart to at least go for it.  In the end, the one who made it to the top and accomplished the final task of switching the covers, stood on the shoulders of others who wouldn’t get the glory.

What did I learn?

  • For any given organization there is an overarching, ambitious task which can only be accomplished through teamwork.  Teamwork can feel like mob rule
  • There will always be those who consider the overarching task to be secondary to their own glory
  • There will always be those who fail to see where they could best be used in the organization.  Some of your best people need to be asked to go to the place where they will do the most good.  And then they need to be recognized for their performance in that role
  • Without ambitious people, your organization will not be able to accomplish the task because everyone will stay on the ground


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