To Be Young, Eager, Committed and Have Honor

Posted by: Howard Silverblatt on December 7, 2009

Friday, I had one of those meetings that you come out of which you just can’t get out of your head. Several West Point Cadets came down to the hub of capitalism, dropped by two houses, the exchange and S&P. I was at, but not the host or ranking officer as they would say, at the S&P meeting. A few words, a few questions, a free sandwich, and a good chance not to answer questions on BofA shares or what low trading volume truly meant. So in they marched, in uniform, polite, regimented, and oh so young – 19, 20 maybe 21; they were just a few years older then my kids, yet a world of difference. They asked questions, we gave answers, but when it was all over I went away thinking about things that I knew, but didn’t really think about, and none of them had anything to do with the S&P 500.

Now, for the record, I wasn’t an SDS or YAF member (Students for A Democratic Society or Young American for Freedom from the sixties), neither I nor my immediate family has ever served in the military, and I was quite overjoyed when my draft number was 283. These kids however didn’t have a draft number. They actually worked hard to get where they were, which was a chance to serve. They are bright, young, eager, dedicated and committed – yet they were in West Point, not the halls of Ivey, and while they are guaranteed a job after graduation, it would appear that the reunions for certain graduating years are not as well attended. These kids could go places, be someone, work hard yes but enjoy the good life, and there was the thought that I couldn’t get out of my head. I guess this is one of those situations you know about in the back of your mind, but never think about, but it didn’t take me long to figure it out – they were going places. They were dong exactly what we all wanted to do when we were young – make a difference. But while most of us moved on to what we thought was reality, they already were in reality. They were committing their future, and let’s get real here – potentially their very lives, to serving. They put themselves second on the priority list. I have teenage children (and there is even a rumor that I might have been one at one time), and I see them and their friends, and the difference is amazing. It’s not the difference in preferences, politics, or cloths, but the commitment and focus I saw in that meeting room. From what I could tell, at least some of them are the children of West Point graduates and current or former military members, so maybe they are just following their upbringing, just as my son wants to invest in the market; but their goal is service.

However, what truly stuck me was something three of them said to each other; I was on the side and not part of the conversation. It dealt with a code of honor and regulations, which sometimes come into conflict, and that in conflict honor comes first. You can break the rules and pay the price, but you can not break honor. To me it meant doing the right thing, to them it was a way of life.

So what does this have to do with investing, nothing. But then again, maybe if ‘our’ people had a call to honor maybe there would have been a few less bubbles, a few less Enron’s, a lot less ‘yes, but we can legally do it by…’ and a bit more of the way we wanted it to be when we were young. And since this is suppose to be about advise, I’ll offer some to the military. Forget your ads, incentives, and aid programs, just let these young, naive, inexperienced and honor bound kids go out and do your talking. I don’t know which of the branches uses the slogan ‘be all that you can be’, but these guys sure seem to fit the bill, and in a dozen years they won’t be so young, so naïve, or so inexperienced, but I’ll bet they’ll still be honor bound. I’ve meet quite a number of smart, successful and rich people in my life, but I don’t recall so many gaining my respect so quickly. So my bottom line is that it was my honor to be able to meet all of them, and I can only hope they keep the faith.

Reader Comments

Paul

December 7, 2009 11:39 AM

The words "Duty", "Honor", and "Country" are inscribed on all West Point rings that a graduate wears. The words are found throughout the entire Academy, written everywhere. On the school crest. At the gym. When you drive in the gate. These three words describe what a West Point graduate strives to "be" as they learn how to lead and serve this great nation.

Sadly, most Americans would likely rank "Ipod", "Starbucks", and "Me" ahead of these three words. As Americans we just don't seem to respect the freedom we have, nor the effort it takes to preseve it. We take it for granted. We expect it.

What I hope for is that West Point's cadets hang in there, do their jobs as officers, and later return to lead our country in other ways. Maybe in the media. Maybe in the public eye. Maybe in government.

Maybe they can bring some of those values forward, and inspire us to stop looking only at what we want, what we have materially, and what we think we need, but instead consider what we can be, what we ought to be, and what we should be as citizens in this great country.

DanTe

December 7, 2009 1:32 PM

That's ok. MBAs are now committed to sign a piece of paper stating that they would act "honorably". The paper is everything, you see. Really, it's just like West Point training. Just with the added benefits of a lot more grease, slime and crap.

Kagendo Mutua

December 7, 2009 3:40 PM

I do not know how I harzarded to this page, but I am glad I did. I am not in the Profession of Business, but Education but none the less your reflections inspired me to comment. In my profession, I have the privilege of working with extraordinarily talented young people who are in pursuit of a higher education, and your remarks on what struck you about those young cadets is so reminiscent of some young people that I have had the privilege of working with: their naive faith in their own ability to change the world and change lives of others for the better in both tangible and intangible ways never ceases to inspire and challenge me. I agree with Paul that the lexicon of many young (and sadly, old[er] people) is liberally sprinkled with "I", "me", "mine" and other variations of words (and actions) that center around self. However, for those of us lucky enough to experience those fleeting brushes with the naiveté of a personal avowal to honor no matter the consenquence, and even luckier to recognize what we just ran into, perhaps it is us, who have the responsibility, not to wait around for the cadets to return to inspire us after years of honorable service--- ultimately having long lost their naiveté (hopefully not their honor), it is us having gained the momentary insight into what we (as a people) can be and should be, it is us who should assure that the cadets will return to serve the civilian country that still has people who are honorable and less egocentric. It is us who should assure that the cadets return to a civilian world that can and will inspire them. A civilian world that, by its character, makes worthwhile their lives' sacrifices.

Jim

December 11, 2009 10:32 AM

I have hope that the institutions we build can instill values like honor in people. I even believe that this happens sometimes, at places like West Point and others.

But Wall Street is not the only place where ethical rules are sometimes more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Young (and not so young) men and women instilled with the ethos of duty, honor, and country were responsible for horrible crimes at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, at My Lai in Vietman.

No organization as large as the armed forces can be expected to contain only saints. And the nature of war means that the ethical violations we see there will be weightier than those we see (perhaps more routinely) in the business world.

Which is why it is a shame that young people with a hunger to be inducted into a way of life that values honor seem to have few options other than the military.

War seems to create as many villians and victims as it does heroes. It is a destructive force. Which is why it would be wonderful if our society could find ways to inculcate the devotion to an honorable way of life into the civilian callings as well as the martial ones.

Emphasis on honor can be a tremendous force for good, and we could use more of it in business. Tying honor and the martial life together is tragically limiting.

Like you all, I hope those young people keep their honor and their idealism. I hope they don't see war, and that if they do, it neither destroys them nor turns them into destroyers. And I hope they bring their code of honor out of the world of warfare and into the other callings--soon!

We as a society needn't wait for their return, though. As Kagendo Mutua says above, we can start without them.

Barry Stokes

December 12, 2009 10:16 AM

Young and idealistic you say? They live in a bubble. That will change. It's human nature. Maybe you were impressed because they were not apathetic the way the flower children were. I was part of that generation but never participated in the turn on, tune, in and drop out nonsense. I was too busy working. I got to retire early, and enjoy life to the fullest. The apathetic are still complaining. I laugh when I see them working while on my way to and from the bank!

Giulio Negrini

January 13, 2010 4:57 PM

Way you don't see that all U.S. business need managers with honor.

Young, eager, committed that have honor their naive faith in their own ability to change the world and change lives of others.
giulionegrini.com

luis

August 29, 2010 7:45 PM

I served our Country, and retired from the Navy. I met many wonderful people with a sense of honor and duty. Only in the most difficult of times will these two words have any meaning; Our Country is one of the few nations that takes stock of what it does, and when it does wrong it recognizes it. The enemies of our Nation know this; and they accuse us because we have standards of conduct which are based upon the value of human life. Our enemies have no standards of conduct, and say that "god" is their inspiration; they are liars, and cowards; they serve the god of Cain who was a murderer. I thank the God of Love, the Creator for people who serve to protect, and upon the value of human life. We are created in God's image; man and woman, and children; not for their destruction. Those that disfigure woman do not know God, the Creator; they are children of the dark side.

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Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ben Steverman focuses on the latest moves in financial markets and emerging trends in stocks, bonds, and funds, always with an eye toward giving readers a better understanding of the sometimes confusing and often chaotic world of money. Standard & Poor’s senior index analyst Howard Silverblatt will also provide his take on companies’ finances and the markets. Voted one of the “Top 100 Finance Blogs” in 2007.

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