Ownership, not Entitlement
February 8, 2021
Following a career in the United States Army, Col. Mike Squires joined the Culver Academies’ staff in 2019 as the Commandant of Cadets. In addition to his role in CMA, Mike oversees the Health Center and Emotional Support Services Teams. When not spending time with his wife and two children, Mike can be found in one of Culver’s athletic spaces.
In the 1970s, psychological research identified a strong correlation between an individual’s self-esteem and successful outcomes in life. This led to societal investment in increasing adolescents’ self-esteem via a variety of measures, such as efforts to ensure every kid gets a trophy for mere participation versus demonstrated excellence, to improve life-long outcomes for individuals. The researchers conflated correlation and causation, mostly due to the significant difference between earned self-esteem and its manufactured look alike.
There is no doubt that self-esteem is critical to adolescent development, and it can be propagated in a variety of ways, such as self-talk and positive affirmations. Earned self-esteem, on the other hand, is typically developed over time through the mastery of something. That something is not nearly as important as the mastery component itself — adolescents often acquire a strong sense of earned self-esteem through participation and demonstrated mastery in sports, academics, music, or even hobbies like becoming a proficient yo-yoer or fisherman.
Mastery in a domain has carry-over effects to other domains as an adolescent realizes a couple things subconsciously: I am capable; mastery takes time, effort, and repeated practice. This earned self-esteem provides an individual the confidence to attempt mastery in other spaces, and this is the underlying strength of our development system to a CMA graduate’s lifelong success.
Most Cadets who arrive to Culver Academies have little to no military background, which is actually a benefit. In and of itself, no individual component of being a New Cadet is really that challenging. It’s not that hard to make a bed, tidy one’s room, shine shoes, wear a presentable uniform, or participate in the school’s educational programs. Learning and adjusting to this new world can seem daunting initially, and in its totality, it is challenging by design. However, Cadets slowly learn how to take care of themselves, and eventually how to lead others, gaining mastery over time.
A typical New Cadet’s shoes look like they were polished with a chocolate bar during the first couple weeks of the school year, but by the third or fourth week they have all learned how to produce a mirror-like shine. Mastery. At first a New Cadet’s wardrobe looks like a suitcase explosion, but in a week or two it is highly organized, neat, and orderly. Mastery. New Cadets look like baby giraffes learning how to walk for the first time when marching in formation in August. By the second parade you’d think they’ve been marching their whole lives. Mastery.
The military system enables students to demonstrate mastery and ultimately earn their self-esteem. Not every Culver student is blessed with the physical traits to demonstrate mastery by dunking a basketball in a game or singing beautifully in a school musical, but they all have the potential to demonstrate mastery within the unit. The New Cadet board system is one of the most impactful demonstrations of mastery; over the course of a week in the Winter, New Cadets execute a series of inspections, drill and ceremony performances, and a board interview to test their knowledge, understanding, and commitment to Culver’s virtues, values, and leadership system. Ask a graduate about this crucible event, and you’ll walk away amazed at the depth of impact and importance this event had in their development, even decades removed.
A Cadet’s responsibilities grow over time. At first, they are consumed with leading themselves, ensuring they aren’t the one marching to the dining hall like a baby giraffe. They grow to take care of others and ultimately lead entire units, ensuring their community (their unit) functions effectively. Cadets teach their subordinates how to gain mastery of military tasks like wearing a uniform properly, loading and firing the M3 105-millimiter howitzer cannon in the proper sequence, expertly driving the M35 2-ton and M37 ¾ ton trucks, conducting the proper 15-count manual of arms in unison with a M14 rifle, riding a Black Horse with precision during the pass in review, and performing the proper customs and courtesies when our nation’s colors are present.
More important than teaching these tasks to their subordinates, the Cadet leaders experience ownership by being held accountable for everything their unit does or fails to do. They receive the accolades when their unit performs well, and they are pulled aside and counseled for improvement on occasions when the barracks are in disarray or fellow Cadets are not living up to Culver’s virtues and values.
Although it might not be evident, boys crave structure. Culver’s military structure is simply a method of organization that produces a healthy community. This healthy community provides an environment for the Cadets to develop and demonstrate mastery across many domains during their tenure at Culver: academic, physical, leadership, and character.
Self-absorbed and self-interested teenagers become part of something larger than themselves, learning the criticality of service in a healthy society by pulling waiter duty in the dining hall, keeping the barracks clean, and calling minutes so that the unit is at the right place, at the right time, and in the right uniform.
Not all boys succeed immediately. In fact, it’s the rare student who excels in all domains upon arrival at Culver. Some find that they are challenged academically, others in the physical domain, and naturally there are always a few Cadets who struggle in the military realm. Overcoming those challenges are the key to a Cadet’s development.
Cadet Hagan Wells is a Second-Class Cadet in Company C who quite frankly struggled in some areas during his first couple years at Culver, particularly in the physical and military fields. He’s now expertly leading his unit as the company’s first sergeant, and Hagan is showing a great deal of leadership as a goalie on CMA’s Varsity A hockey team. Mastery takes time, effort, and repeated practice.
Culver Military Academy is not a reform school. It is not a place to send a child who requires constant oversight and handholding to participate. Those students do not fare well at Culver. Our military system provides multiple avenues for boys to feel ownership and accountability, rather than entitlement. It is a place for those who want to take advantage of all that Culver has to offer and develop into the best possible version of themselves.
Culver is a leadership school where students develop and demonstrate mastery while building self-confidence. Culver has been producing capable and confident leaders of character since 1894 and will continue to do so at a time when character is as important as it is elusive, whatever the pressures of the world.