Learnings from the 2016 McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference
We are all human beings, not human doings. This was just one of the many inspiring ideas that Juan Tovar, 4th year Industrial Engineering student and President of Georgia Tech Society of Hispanic Engineers and Professionals, and Janvi Chawla, Spring 2016 Computer Science Graduate with a Technology & Management minor in Computing and Business, heard during the 4th Annual McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference (MCLC). The conference took place in at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York on March 31- April 3, 2016 bringing together 84 students and senior fellows, ranging from CEOs of global companies, professors to leadership coaches, from 32 countries.
The MCLC strives to create a space for a diverse group of undergraduate student leaders to “participate in team-based, experiential and analytical exercise that bolsters leadership skills, fosters critical thinking and collaboration, and develops potential strategies for addressing pressing global issues.” This year, students and fellows engaged in hard and meaningful conversations surrounding the topic, “From Failure to Inspiration and Change.”
“I went into [the conference] wanting to be impacted in a lasting way, to network, and be truly inspired,” Janvi recalled. MCLC did just that, pushing Janvi to reflect deeply about the moments of failure in her life and at Georgia Tech while prompting her to further examine her leadership from a different perspective. As improving and growing leaders, it is common to look back on failure and try to apply the lessons that were created from it, but Janvi now sees it as so much more. Through her participation in MCLC she now sees failure as a muscle that needs to be worked. Like the skeletal muscles in our bodies that tear and repair as they grow and improve, “improving leaders exercise the failure muscle every single day, purposefully, intentionally, and the more you work it, the better you will get at combating bigger failures.” Juan was inspired by this analogy as well, commenting, “If you take on one big risk without any preparation you will be scared and you will likely not be able to handle that risk; but, if you purposefully make the point to get outside of your comfort zone every day, then you’re going to be better at battling risk when it really counts.”
Juan and Janvi had many insights and revelations throughout their time at MCLC. Their best advice to someone who wants to improve as a leader? Start now. “You do not have to go to this conference or take a class to start. Leadership is a life-long process.” Janvi advises.
The senior fellows who were CEOs, members of the US Cabinet, and heads of NGOs, went through “long crazy life adventures that got them to where they are right now. They’ve all had points of adversity and maybe things that changed their lives.” Juan recalls Senior Fellow Ray Jefferson saying to him, “The death of a dream can be the birth of a destiny.” Juan urges aspiring leaders to enter uncomfortable spaces and realize that they are actually places of growth. In the future, you will remember this step as a decision that led you to changes in your life.
The feelings of connection and togetherness paired with stories of inspiration prompted Juan and Janvi to think about how they were going to apply what they learned. They both agree that MCLC gave them tools to use in their personal and academic lives, but more importantly it gave them a more well-rounded perspective and a different mindset. The idea of giving 100% made the biggest impact. Dr. Daniel Polisar, a senior fellow at the conference said, “Failure is not only wrong action, but also inaction. Failure can be not doing something that you had the opportunity to do and giving your 100%.” Janvi reflected on the times when she was presented with a failing circumstance in her life and at Georgia Tech. “When you don’t give your 100% then you have a regret - a disappointment - you’ve failed. If I want to live a life with no regrets then I need to, have to give my 100%.” Juan hopes to bring back what he learned at MCLC to his organizations on campus. He specifically wants to take one exercise back to his SHEP executive board: the life journey road map. In this exercise each member of the team maps out their life on a chart with the x-axis labeled “time” and the y-axis labeled “emotions.” Then they chart point by point - talking about low points, transitions, and the incredible moments. According to Juan, the real beauty was hearing everyone talk through everything in his or her life journey and witnessing vulnerability amongst participants.
To lead and impact others, you have to be doing something that serves others and that impacts social change. “Find out what you are fighting for and do it with integrity, honesty, and selflessness. Be a leader of character, not of position,” Janvi advocates. Juan adds, “The organization can be succeeding while the mission is failing. You can be succeeding in a position, while your mission and your passion is failing. If that is so, change it and keep pressing on.”