Be Humble - There's More to Learn with Allen Xu '21
Ep. No. 23 "Be Humble - There's More to Learn" with EMT Chief Allen Xu, VMI Class of 2021
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Transcript for Ep. No. 23 "Be Humble - There's More to Learn" with EMT Chief Allen Xu, VMI Class of 2021
ALLEN XU '21: Always be humble is the most important thing. Because when you come at it from a more humble point of view, you'll realize how much there's left to learn.
MAJ. CATHERINE M. ROY: Welcome to the VMI Leader Journey Podcast brought to you by the Center for Leadership & Ethics! Thank you for tuning in.
This podcast features conversations on leadership with members of our VMI Corps of Cadets, alumni, and high-profile leaders who visit The Center for Leadership & Ethics and VMI post.
We are on this Journey with you!
My name is Maj. Catherine Roy, Communications and Marketing Specialist. Today's podcast hosts are my colleagues, M r. Derek Pinkham, conference project manager with Ms. Emily Coleman, our assistant conference planner.
VMI Class of 2021's Allen Xu is our interview guest. Xu is a New Jersey native, a prosecutor on the Honor Court, president of the Omicron Delta Kappa honor society, and EMT chief. Xu plans on commissioning in the army and continuing his medical training toward the goal of becoming an army doctor. Xu said VMI gave him the opportunity to put his textbook understanding of leadership into practice. As an EMT, he's deepened his understanding of team dynamics, particularly in crises.
As you listen to our interview, it will be no surprise to learn that Xu's top personal value is humility; in this episode, we've titled "Be Humble. There's More to Learn." We think that's a great message as we conclude our academic year of exploration on this year's theme, "Teamwork: Out of Many, One.
And without further delay, we give you the VMI Class of 2021's Allen Xu.
DEREK PINKHAM: Allen Xu, welcome to the VMI leader journey podcast.
XU: Thank you for having me.
EMILY COLEMAN: Yeah, thank you for sitting down with us. So, we're just going to start off by you telling us a little bit about yourself and what led you to VMI?
XU: I grew up in New Jersey my whole life. I've moved around five times, but it's always been central New Jersey, and frankly, I don't really have any ties to VMI or any military background in the family, but I remember in high school was kind of teetering between two sides. Whether that'd be like a normal college like, for New Jersey, it'd be Rutgers, and I thought about West Point, VMI, things like that. And I remember having like this 'Walter Mitty' moment, just in high school, looking outside the window and just thinking I want to do something else. I don't want to sit in classroom all day. And so, I applied here.
PINKHAM: You got your wish, I think.
XU: I still sit in classrooms all day, in a different kind of sense. But yeah, I came here for an open house, and I… initially, I wouldn't say I fell in love with it. I thought people were a little bit crazy, but over time I came to appreciate how much effort they put in in their day-to-day.
So, this year I am the EMT chief. I'm a prosecutor on the Honor Court, and I help out Colonel Looney and Colonel Sanborn with ODK. So, I'm president of the Omicron Delta Kappa society.
Actually, I started off EMT-ing and back in high school, I think, when I was a junior in high school.
XU: So, I had some experience in New Jersey coming in, but then also took the EMT class here, just so I could get to know everyone who joins the program with my class. I think that's helped out tremendously.
PINKHAM: Sure. Right. And the EMTs work on post, right? Is that right?
XU: So we get twenty-four/seven coverage on post.
PINKHAM: So in this COVID, yeah, in this COVID time, do you, are you called upon to work in that situation as well?
XU: I'd say there is a lot more involvement during early return. So, we'd be screening all of the cadets and the family members. But lately, it's just been more like business as usual, you know, just like any other year. The only different thing is imagine, like, adding a filter where everyone has more PPE [personal protective equipment] for making sure we're following on safety guidelines. But beyond that, It's just the same day-to-day.
COLEMAN: Have your views changed of leadership from the time you enter VMI to where you are now with VMI?
XU: I'd say it's changed every single year, frankly. So, in high school and high school is more like textbookish. You know you think a leader is sometimes well-defined. It's always been one person that position where you're always going to be following that, whatever your she says, but now coming into VMI, especially as a rat, you start to learn more or less how you're always simultaneously gonna be a follower and a leader, no matter what position you're in. There's people who are looking to you to give guidance, but at the same time, you can also lean on someone else for their experience for what they can offer. And I think that goes all the way up until you're a First (Classman) too. You never stop being a follower.
I'd say it started from right here to first-class here. One thing I've learned is there's always gonna be a mentor in any class you interact with. So, every single cadet here should eventually interact with a total of seven classes, right? So, three beneath you, three above you, your own class. Even when you're First, I've found that I've been able to learn so much from the rats, so much more thirds. Within every class, you can find a mentor who just has something that you can appreciate. So, whether that's, you know, grit, or honor, or just discipline.
COLEMAN: Um, Hmm.
XU: I don't think you should ever put someone down just because they're not your age group. There's again always something to learn.
COLEMAN: In high school, were you familiar with the term followership?
XU: Followership is just, essentially another, another way to provide leadership to others, in my mind.
COLEMAN: That's really cool, and so, yeah, I guess VMI really throws you into the atmosphere of being a follower right away, especially as a rat.
XU: At a certain level, leading self again requires your own discipline your own motivation every single morning. But what I found to be like a driving force for leading others, and again this ties in with leading self is if you genuinely care about the people who are your followers, you'll do whatever, whatever it takes, for anything to get accomplished. And I think part of it falls back to like what you might experience as toxic leadership. People who just want things for the position, who don't generally care for the others, they're not going to be as effective that group is never going to function at the level they're capable of, but no matter what medium you're putting if you care about the people that are in your team, you're going to do anything for them. There's some book that I'm reading, and it taught me 'don't focus on the goals focus on the system.' You fix the system, and the goals will follow. The accomplishments will follow. So, don't, don't focus on, you know, getting all the touchdowns per se focus on training, practicing, just fostering that group mentality.
COLEMAN: For our leadership and ethics conference, we have three of our overarching themes are leading self, leading peers, and leading teams, and you were talking about teamwork within VMI. I was just saying, aside from trial-and-error, what is your experience in leading teams? And how has that improved your leadership?
XU: I guess leading on a team, you should always start out with more of the follower mindset. I can kind of find an analogy with this during our army times. So, like your freshman year, you're an MS1, they call it, and you're essentially a Joe in the platoon. You don't have much of a role. But then as you, as you gradually move up to say a squad leader, platoon sergeant, platoon leader, you're entrusted with more responsibilities, and by that time you will have the know-how in terms of how to actually show others what, what the right way is, or what the right methods are.
So, in terms of leading teams, before you even arrive to that part where you're successful leading others, I think you have to be a follower and learn how to make mistakes and grow from that. And I've made a lot of mistakes on my way there. Again, going back to army time when I was a freshman MS1, I'd always get lost, you know, doing my nav, or I might forget something that was pertinent that day. Yeah, I'd get blown up, you know. Things like that happen, but I'd remember it. I'd remember bringing it the next time or knowing how to get un-lost the next time.
COLEMAN: Learn from your mistakes.
XU: Right. And once you start learning, you can teach others, you know, as you move up through different positions. So now, as like a PL or Ph.D., you can not only view what you had made mistakes in, but I think you also grow it like a degree of sympathy if that makes sense. Understanding what it felt like when you were in that position where you had missed out or done something less than par. And I guess similarly when I was a S2 (regimental staff), I remember teaching the rats I was assigned to for an academics and stuff, study tips that helped me, or things that I learned just throughout the year, right? Like for example, you could fail a test to get a 40 [in] week three, but as long as you don't let that hinder you, you change your, your systems by the end of the semester, you can still get an A.
COLEMAN: So, that actually drives us into our next theme of leading peers. So, obviously, leading your peers can be hard, especially in the ratline, I guess, when you're all, everybody's put on that same level. Can you give any advice for leading peers or any experiences that you've had leading peers that you want to share that you've learned from?
PINKHAM: Right, something that you thought was actually pretty successful?
COLEMAN: or super unsuccessful?
XU: In terms of leading peers, frankly, initially, I really struggled with it, and some days it's not the easiest task just because you respect your period so much. You see them as equals. And so, as a rat especially, it would feel almost wrong in some sense to, to take the mantle. You feel kind of feels kind of dirty at times, but then gradually, I've come to learn that, if you're able to take over the position, and again, do it for the right reasons, right, not, not because you want power or like anything in that sense, but more in the, or more so you'd rather just make their lives easier, right? I think you can fall back on that kind of mindset where [you think], 'Hey, I can do this to help you.' I'm not so much self-interested.
PINKHAM: So, you're the chief of the EMTs. There's got to be a situation where, especially when it's a high-pressure situation, where sometimes you have to be directive, right? And these are your, you know, your buds, your BRs. You know them from other places, but hey, in this crisis situation, you know, I'm in charge and look, we got to have some order. You know maybe, maybe there's a situation there?
XU: When you're in the role of an EMT, your certification legally is just the same as everyone else's. So, in that sense, you're all peers; you're all equals. But when things happen or, everyone has to find the role almost naturally. It's not even a spoken thing. So, say someone gets injured. There's no time to discuss. There's no time to play, you know, rock, paper, scissors. You get to do what everyone just knows their role. So, when something like that happens, a lot of times, it's experience that comes through. So, maybe some of the newer guys will yield that that decision-making process to people who have been doing it for years before that. And when it finally does click for everyone, again that little maybe 10 - 15 seconds where people are figuring out what to do, it's almost e an orchestra. Music just plays. The progress starts, just starts going.
COLEMAN: You know, our boss at the Center, Colonel Gray at the Center for Leadership and Ethics, he's always talking about level one, two, and three initiatives. Level three initiative, from what I gather, is you are the one you're, you're the leader. You're making those decisions. You're making that initiative to do something, so that makes sense that maybe a junior level member on this EMT team looks to older people or looks to the more experienced people to say, 'Hey, you know, what do I do?' But when the crisis is there, they're like, 'Okay, I have to do this. I have to do that. You do this. You do that.' So, it comes natural. I wonder if VMI has helped cultivate any of that in you as becoming a leader?
XU: Yeah, absolutely VMI. VMI has provided so many opportunities again, like I've said earlier, to fail. I think it's through failing that you start to be comfortable under pressure. I remember one thing that a good friend of mine from the class of 20 taught me was pressure makes diamonds. So, I find out that you actually work way better when you're under pressure. Again, going back to that example of like some sort of emergency crisis happening, that's when you hit that… What's like a better phrase like 2020 vision… it's like you see things so clearly it all make sense all of a sudden.
PINKHAM: So, so, but I also imagine that you practice that. You guys, you know, especially since it's an EMT role that that maybe it's something you've you've even talked about, and that that you have a playbook that you all follow.
COLEMAN: Well, it's even like a VMI. I feel like you guys are… cadets are under so much pressure speaking of all the time, you know. You guys are under a lot of pressure to do the right thing and to do really good and excel and exceed and learn as much as you can and go out and do well and become these amazingly responsible citizens and, your… give back to your society. So, I would feel like if I were in a situation like that and I'm constantly under this pressure that's over my head when I get to situations that were a crisis, or I had to find how I felt when I was under this pressure from VMI, you know, it would just come more naturally. So, I would feel like that would really help somebody in this situation.
COLEMAN: What about a diverse team setting? Do you think VMI has helped you in how you act in a diverse team setting or how you lead yourself?
XU: When you're looking at all these different people's academic performance, right, they might come from a whole slew of backgrounds that you've never personally interacted with yourself. So again, people's backgrounds always differ. Someone might have a tutor all their life, and all of a sudden, they're on their own now. Or maybe someone else is used to studying on their own now and succeeding, and all of a sudden, they're failing. But learning how to understand where they're coming from, especially when you're sitting down with them one-on-one, you get to learn more about them. But seeing how their mindset works, how they actually get to the right conclusions, I think that'll help them with studying and then apply that mindset anywhere else, and I'm sure you could find success as well.
COLEMAN: What is one thing that you think is going to be the most valuable thing that you take away from VMI when you decide to commission?
XU: I think learning to always be humble is the most important thing. Because when you come at it from a more humble point of view, you'll realize how much there's left to learn. And I gave an example earlier that there's seven classes you'll, at least seven bosses you interact with here at VMI, and each one will provide some something different. Each person has something different to offer for you to improve on. So, like every day you wake up, you're never going to be perfect. You should never aim to be perfect that day. You should always aim for talking to someone, figuring out what, what you can learn from them.
PINKHAM: So, one of the things that we are talking about in our conferences here is his personal values. Is there one personal value that you that you make sure that is goes into your leadership? You talked a little bit about understanding who your peers are to be able to talk to them. That might be one value. Is there is there another one may be that you've seen that that is important to you?
XU: One thing that VMI always ingrained in each cadet is the value of honor. I think in today's society, that is more than valuable, and I think it's essential. And if you've ever reached a point where you want to care for your team, get the person to understand that there is a baseline of trust, and you can have that unless people are honorable. So, every single member of your team you have to be able to entrust responsibilities to, but if they're not, they're not going, to be honest with you if they're going to lie, right, break the honor code we value so much here, then at that point, I think the whole system just crumbles.
PINKHAM: Right. Good one.
COLEMAN: Definitely, yeah. So, what does leadership mean to you?
XU: When I think of leadership, I think of someone who would sacrifice your own time for your own, for your benefit. Someone, again, who generally cares for you beyond just the organization. To me, a leader, and this is gonna be really cheesy, but to me, a leader, when I was a rat, is gonna be like my CO (company commander) Patrick Doolan from [VMI Class of] '18. I'm not sure if it was like a superficial act. If it was, it was truly amazing, but he always has a catchphrase for us during rat training time. It'd be, "Still in the fight, right?" "Best on the hill, right?" "Every damn day, right?" And I thought that was the coolest thing ever. We'd all geek out. It turns out he'd practice that in front of the mirror, all day when he was in his room just to make sure it was perfectly time for us. Just perfecting these little things because he knows how much we are impressionable and how much of an impact he can have in our lives. Seeing that and now understanding it from an upperclassman point of view, it means just that much more.
COLEMAN: That's awesome. A little bit of lead by example. Well, Allen, thank you so much for sitting down with us.
XU: Yeah, absolutely. It was painless. You guys are awesome!
COLEMAN: The CLE would like to thank the following: Mr. Caleb Mynus '20 for the intro and backing music. Find more of his musical stylings on his Instagram page (@mynusofficial). Col. David Gray, USA (ret.), Director of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics and, of course, as always, our podcast Guests.
PINKHAM: Find this podcast and other CLE programming information on the VMI Center for Leadership & Ethics website or our try YouTube channel. Follow the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram accounts. See you next episode of the Journey. Thanks for tuning in!
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Edited by CLE staff.