Learning to Rely on Each Other with Josh Austin '20
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Josh Austin, Vice President of the VMI Class of 2020, says that the military-style structure at VMI was something he sought in a higher-education environment, but that the practice and routines of that structure gave him a kind of template he could maintain off-Post during the Coronavirus shut-down. His role as class vice president helped him understand the value of leading by example. We talked extensively about his role in that position, which includes duties on the General Committee that evaluates and applies accountability for cadet infractions, and the dilemmas of peer-to-peer leadership.
Our Center's mission is to enhance the VMI citizen-soldier journey with programming that educates, engages, and inspires critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and leader development. The VMI Leader Journey podcast is an outreach program where our guests can share insights from their own leader's journey, and where VMI may have contributed to their personal growth. In this episode, we touched on the following leadership competencies taught in the mandatory course on leadership in organizations (LEAD344) and addressed in the VMI Leader Journey publication: decision making, self-development, empathy, responsibility, and responding to change.
Transcript for "Learning to Rely on Each Other" with Joshua Austin ’20
Former Marine Reservist, VMI Class of 2020 Vice President, and International Studies Major with a Minor in History
JOSHUA AUSTIN ’20: [Episode Teaser] I think first and foremost VMI creates an atmosphere in which you have to exercise peer leadership at some point, whether it's in a classroom project, whether it's correcting someone else, just as you know, through the General Committee, whether it's having some kind of rank, participating in an NCAA athletic activity or a club sport regardless, you know, VMI takes people from all these different backgrounds and puts them all together in one place and says, essentially, you have to rely on each other. Now you have to have each other's back. You are brothers, regardless of if we're men and women, the spirit of brotherhood unites us.
DEREK PINKHAM: Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics Leadership Journey Podcast!
EMILY COLEMAN: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit The Center for Leadership & Ethics and VMI Post. We are on this Journey with you. Hey, I’m Emily Coleman.
PINKHAM: And I’m Derek Pinkham. We are your hosts for the podcast. Josh Austin has lived in many states around the U.S. but claims Virginia as his home. He is the vice president of the Class of 2020.
COLEMAN: We talked about his role in that position and the dilemmas of peer-to-peer leadership. In our conversation we covered leadership competencies such as decision making, self-development, empathy, responsibility, and responding to change.
PINKHAM: And without further delay, we give you graduating First-Class Cadet Josh Austin. Welcome, Josh Austin to the Leadership Journey podcast. Emily, take it away.
COLEMAN: All right, Josh. We just want to hear about where you're from and how you ended up at VMI.
AUSTIN: Alright well that’s a bit of a complicated story, my dad is a career active duty Air Force officer, so I grew up moving around quite a bit. I was never we were never living outside of the country, but I sometimes if feels like you live just about everywhere within the country. I was born in Florida. Then we moved to North Carolina, Idaho, Alabama, Idaho again and then ended up back down in Florida, and that's where I completed my high school education. And I then matriculated to VMI from there. But my family is from Amherst, Virginia, which is, if you don’t know where that is, a little slightly north northwest of Lynchburg and my mom and my dad grew up about half an hour apart from each other here in Amherst County, and at different points over the course of my life, we've always managed to make it back here to visit our family. And this is the area, Amherst, that I consider to be home.
COLEMAN: Awesome. So, you're, you're from a military family. So, did you know that you always wanted to go to a military school? Is that something that you've always wanted to do?
AUSTIN: I didn’t. For quite a while, I was really interested in being a lawyer. I did a lot of debates in high school. And my family seemed to be on board with that idea. They seemed to like it. And I thought that was what I wanted to do for quite a while. But towards the end of high school, I really started to sit down and think about what I wanted to do with my life, and what my purpose was going to be and I definitely think that it’s possible to be an honorable lawyer and to do good as a lawyer, but I didn't think that that was the right path for me. And I had always had military service in my background since I come from military family and I have always been interested in military history. I've read a lot of books that my dad brought home with him from different professional development courses. When I had this moment of introspection, it was pretty easy to settle on the idea of the military as a way to serve
COLEMAN: Awesome [overlapping].
PINKHAM: So, how'd you hear about VMI then?
AUSTIN: Being from Virginia, originally, I've always known about VMI and then also knowing my military history, I'd read a little bit about VMI's part in the Civil War and my dad is actually a Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets alumnus. So, I grew up seeing his ring and his behavior and hearing his stories about what it's like to be a cadet at Tech. When I started thinking about a military career. I wanted to go to college that I felt would prepare me for that. And that is what originally got VMI on my radar. But it wasn't just that once I started learning more about VMI, I really realized that this was a place that was grounded in a lot more than that. It was a place that would prioritize and emphasize integrity and self-improvement and I was really looking for somewhere that would make me better.
COLEMAN: Awesome. Yeah. So, are you majoring in history then?
AUSTIN: I'm an international studies major but I'm a history minor, and a love history and I've continued to do historical reading on my own over the past four years as well.
COLEMAN: Okay, so that's how you ended up in Colonel Gray’s class?
AUSTIN: That’s exactly right.
COLEMAN: So, what else have you gotten involved with at VMI? And are you in any leadership positions now?
AUSTIN: I am. So, over the course of my cadetship I feel very honored to have gotten a taste of, I think, just about everything that the institute has to offer. I did cadre myself for a couple years. I was a company clerk and then a master sergeant my second-class year. I considered it my biggest honor to have been elected vice president of my class early in our fourth-class year, and they tell me it's for life so I hope that I can measure up to that responsibility. I've been involved in a couple of club sports, the combat shooting for a couple years, but they got a little much with my other responsibilities. I ended up dropping that, but I've continued to do club jujitsu. And lastly, I've held various leadership positions in ROTC. Last semester, I was the Marine company commander, and then this semester, I am the senior bulldog advisor, which means that I'm responsible for helping to prepare the second classmen who are going to OCS [Officer Candidate School] this coming summer.
PINKHAM: So, you are graduating in a week or so, is that correct?
AUSTIN: Yeah, man.
PINKHAM: And so, you're commissioning this week, right?
AUSTIN: That’s right.
PINKHAM: So, what's that going to be like?
AUSTIN: Well, not the way that I originally imagined it, but frankly, I’m just grateful to have gotten here. You know, there was a time when all this was just a dream. I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to get here and I'm very thankful to all the folks who helped me along the way. So, we... me and my family are going to be here on the farm in Amherst for the for the ceremony we're going to do a Zoom call with all the Marine Corps commissionees as well, on May 15th and then after that we'll put on and conduct our own individual ceremonies.
COLEMAN: That's awesome.
PINKHAM: Like you said, it's not what you had expected, but it is it is closing a door and opening another one and getting on with it, right?
AUSTIN: It is. I think that that’s a good description. This is a time of transition. And, you know, it's funny because when you start out at VMI as a rat, or even as a as a third classman and everything seems so new. VMI, it can be very opposing. It's a big, big system with lots of moving parts and visas. Just like any new system, it takes a while to get used to it. It’s a new place, you know you're away from home for the first time in your life. But over time, over the past four years, the Institute has become my home. I've become very comfortable there, especially being a first classman. And this year, I find that I know just about everybody there. And I've gotten into a routine that I'm comfortable with and I feel like I've mastered the game. And unfortunately, the way life works is that once you get to that point, it's usually time to move on.
AUSTIN: So, this is a bittersweet time for me. I miss my brother rats already; we've unfortunately been apart for the past month and a half or so. I’m gonna miss VMI, believe it or not, but I think it's time to move on. There are bigger, bigger challenges await me in the future.
PINKHAM: So, what are the duties of the vice president of somebody's class?
AUSTIN: Well, first and foremost, to help the president do whatever he needs to do. And, Sam Trepp is our President, I'm sure you've had and in fact I know you've had on your podcast before.
AUSTIN: Just take a moment to just say what a fine, upstanding man I think he is. It's been an honor to be to be his vice president.
PINKHAM: He was a lot of fun to talk to.
AUSTIN: I'm sure he was. Absolutely.
AUSTIN: Yeah. So, I've seen myself as his right hand, man for the past four years. I've tried to do that job well. But then in addition to that, one of the biggest responsibilities as the vice president has is to organize Ring Figure. I was really busy fall semester of last year, and for about a year or so before that, putting together our ring committee, supervising the design of the ring, getting orders all coordinated, and taking care of planning, Ring Figure, where would occur, who would be there, who would speak, how all that would take place. And it was a long process. It took a lot of time, but I have some great folks that helped me along the way. Couldn’t have done it without ‘em and it was just incredibly rewarding to see our class come together for that big event. Third major duty that vice president has is that I sit on what are called GC [General Committee] trials. I can elaborate on that for your listeners if they haven't heard that.
PINKHAM: Yeah, go ahead.
AUSTIN: One of the biggest missions of the General Committee, and I should say here that the General Committee is a committee of leaders composed of the president, vice president, and historian of each of the three upper classes in barracks. And we, as the General Committee had as our number one mission, maintaining the standards of behavior of the Corps of Cadets, so we are outside of and separate from the regimental rank system, although we do work in close cooperation with them sometimes, but we're responsible for upholding the standards of behavior and the way that we do that is we allow... if any cadet... if any cadet sees another cadet do something that is a breach of the Code of the Cadet then they send them up to us. And we convene and hold a trial, a GC trial, in which we, within the guidance of regulations and based on facts of the particular situation, we apply a penalty to that cadet.
PINKHAM: That sounds like a pretty tough responsibility.
AUSTIN: It is. And frankly that that's something I've been doing consistently now for the past three years; we usually have a GC trial every couple weeks. And it is challenging, because I feel the weight, or we feel the weight of making the right decision, making a fair decision, very heavily. And there have been times when we've really grappled with what the right decision is, in a particular case.
PINKHAM: Sure. You thought you weren't going to be a lawyer, huh?
AUSTIN: Well, yeah. Yeah. Yes, but there are definitely some legal aspects to it. It's a matter of taking the regulation for cadet behavior and then applying it to a particular situation in a way that is fair and human, not just the inflexible bureaucratic application of a one size fits all rule to a particular situation, but really looking at the facts of the case and making a fair decision.
PINKHAM: Right, it's not just the paper and ink that's written on.
COLEMAN: I'm sure if you I was going to say if you had a friend that you had to make a decision for like that, then that'd be hard on your relationship with your peers.
PINKHAM: Time to recuse yourself.
AUSTIN: As a matter of fact, we do that.
PINKHAM: For sure.
AUSTIN: We will recuse ourselves if they are roommates, or a close friend is
AUSTIN: but, you know, at a place like VMI with small class sizes and then also given the close bond that we form with our brother rat, it's very hard to find someone in your class that you don't have somewhat of a relationship with or even outside the class, the challenge of peer leadership and in getting judged making judgments about your peers is not something that we can get away from.
COLEMAN: Kind of rolling off of that and that peer relationship and also you talked about how, you know you're going to graduate and you know, there's bigger challenges coming, how has VMI prepared you to make decisions like that with your peers and also face those challenges that you have coming in your future?
AUSTIN: Well, my short answer is that I think VMI has prepared me extremely well. I think first and foremost VMI creates an atmosphere in which you have to exercise peer leadership at some point, whether it's in a classroom project, whether it's correcting someone else, just as you know, through the General Committee, whether it's having some kind of rank, participating in an NCAA athletic activity or a club sport, regardless, you know, VMI takes people from all these different backgrounds and puts them all together in one place and says, essentially, you have to rely on each other now. You have to have each other's back. You are brothers, regardless of if we're men and women where spirit and brotherhood unites us. That requires you to learn how to work with people, how to treat people fairly and how to lead your peers because if you don't learn how to do that, then not only are you going to let other people down, but you know, they're not going to be able to rely on them when you need to, and you're not going to earn their respect and respect at VMI most definitely has to be earned. There's just a general environment and the activities that you participate in. And then the specific things that I've done, I think, have prepared me for the future in specific ways. Being on the General Committee, being in an elected position where I'm responsible to an entire class of people who I love and care about and I will do my best for. It can be tough sometimes because as an elected official, not you know, we're responsible to them, and we have learned to put them first but at the same time, you will make decisions and I have made decisions that can be a little controversial sometimes, and so, you have to learn how to and VMI is very good at this in general you have to learn how to maintain your own moral compass and follow your own moral compass. Not only in the sense of the Honor Code but... you had and you had to learn how to recognize the right decisions and make the right decision even when it's not popular. Also, to admit when you haven't made the right decision and be honest about that.
PINKHAM: Right and authentic, right?
PINKHAM: ‘cause, if you're not that, they're not going to follow.
AUSTIN: That is exactly right. VMI cadets can see through insincere persons in a heartbeat.
PINKHAM: Yeah, no doubt.
COLEMAN: Yeah. And that's also that could be a, not that you all don't want to uphold that Honor Code or anything, but for somebody who's put in that leadership position that's a little bit of pressure to even be you know, on your better behavior because you know that you're going to have cadets that you have to give a ruling to and you better not have done the same thing type attitude.
AUSTIN: This is a very insightful point. There have been times where I have decided to err on the side of safety precisely for that reason so there have been times, you know...VMI has so many different, you know, rules about what you can and can’t do, where you can and can't go, what to wear at particular times, about what you have to be wearing at the time. There have been times where if somebody had done this, it would not have been a breach of any rule that I was responsible for upholding. I would not, you know, have ever gone after somebody tried to get in trouble for doing something. However, I opted not do that myself precisely because I knew that if I did that, first of all, I would have felt as though I were being hypocritical.
AUSTIN: And secondly, I knew that if somebody saw me doing that... well, let's use an example because I think that would help. So, someone’s coming back for a weekend, and they need to run to Walmart, in civilian clothes. So technically, you're not supposed to be in county in civilian clothes. However, you know, is it something that, you know, it's just going to be for a second and you're already coming back from a weekend getaway, it’s not really a big deal. I would not try to get someone in trouble for that or go out of my way as a peer leader to try to catch somebody doing that or something like that. However, there have been times when I've said, hey, you know, I'm going to change to the proper uniform before we go to this professor's house for dinner or before we go do this, just because I know that I'm not saying that I think you're a bad you're doing the wrong thing by doing this, but I do need to be on my best behavior.
PINKHAM: Right. Yeah, it's, there's a whole lot of self-discipline. There's a whole lot of lead by example there, right? So, I mean, it's, it seems to me like it's a system set up to lead by example, specifically.
COLEMAN: Also, being in that position that really, I think, well, I don't know, you tell me does that help you build what your core values are coming out of VMI? Like, what matters most to you and what you are going to use as a leader when you face other challenges?
AUSTIN: Yes. Absolutely it does. So, I already knew from having followed different leaders, that servant leadership is very important to me. However, once I found myself a leader, leadership position, I really realized that as a leader in the military, we talk about leaders having two purposes: mission accomplishment and troop welfare. I think that applies to any leadership position. You have two jobs: to get the job done and take care of your people and put their best interests before your own. Once I found myself in leadership positions, I really realized that sometimes you're presented with a choice between putting yourself first and trying to aggrandize yourself and show your own ego or being humble and serving the people that you were put in that position to serve. I definitely didn't make the right decision every single time. There's nothing that I'm an imperfect, flawed human being and this is something that we have to work at, but that definitely something that I try to keep foremost in my mind and try to put into action.
COLEMAN: Absolutely. Yeah, that's kind of like being a lifelong learner. I guess that's part of what VMI does is help you all become those lifelong learners.
PINKHAM: Some of us are late bloomers.
AUSTIN: Absolutely, I would classify myself as a late bloomer, frankly. I actually I didn't go into this earlier, but I actually enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves before coming into VMI. So, I finished up with high school and I was sort of going through that time of self-inquiry and trying to figure out how to best live my life. I wanted to go to VMI but I didn't really feel like I was ready yet for a few different reasons. I wanted to get some more experience, you know, in the outside world, and I had not really played any sports in high school, so I felt like I needed to develop myself more physically before going to VMI. So, I actually enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves and within the reserves for about a year before matriculating at VMI. And then I stayed in the Reserves for a year while at VMI until I picked up an ROTC scholarship and got discharged. People go through different experiences and they develop at different speeds and different ways and feel like that is not the right path for everybody, but I think it's the right path for me to get me to the place that I needed to be to come to VMI and really get the most out of it.
PINKHAM: Right. You could consider that a gap year, right? Or no?
AUSTIN: Well, in once sense yes. I would wonder where the gap went!
PINKHAM: That’s right!
COLEMAN: What is motivating you or helping you get through having to move virtually, you know, move all your classes online and being away from your I know you talked about being away from your BRS a little bit. But tell me a little bit more how you've been transitioning with that and maybe some things that you've been doing to keep up the motivation and get through the semester.
AUSTIN: Well, that's a good question. I think the number one thing is that I have the last three and a half years to look back on. All of the things that I've learned, all of the work habits, the exercise habits that I've learned and bonds that I've forged, honestly. I felt like I owe it to the VMI and my brother rats and myself to not just let all that be forgotten, you know, and frankly I think that this is this is the fact in fact a test of what the VMI has done for all of us. Because VMI is great and it’s great to talk about being at VMI being from VMI that really at the end of the day, the value of the VMI education is found in how it affects how you live, after you leave, because, you know, I’m gonna be honest, it can be easy. Some people start with VMI and go on how well you deal with or how well you live in a very organized, highly structured environment. And I'm just one of those people who love that I thrive in structured environments. It can be easy for people like me to do great in that environment. But then once you take us out of it, and we're sort of sort of left to our own devices, it can be hard. And frankly, I found that several months to be a little difficult for that reason. I have been able to put into practice the things that I learned how to do in my work, and to keep exercising here, and keep trying to develop myself here on my own. So, I've been taking the opportunity to read some books for professional development. I actually just got done with a book called, “What it is like to go to War” by Karl Mylantes from the commandant’s reading list. Really good book. Of course I'm done with finals now, hard to believe, but while academics were still a part of my life, I was following the same kinds of scheduling procedures and work procedures that I've used a lot at VMI and then I have made exercise a part of my routine as well. The moral long and the short of it is that I've been taking or trying to take what I've learned over the past three and a half years and apply it to my life here at home.
PINKHAM: So, you, you've been waking up at seven o'clock every day?
AUSTIN: Well, usually between 7 and 8 but I think, I'll be honest, it’s not when you get up and a lot more what you do after you get up.
COLEMAN: That is great. So, Josh, what does leadership mean to you?
AUSTIN: Well, to me, leaderships all about mission accomplishment and troop welfare. It's about getting the job well and I'll add something, it’s about mission accomplishment, true welfare and integrity. I think that without one of those three pieces, you're missing something integral to leadership. It's about getting the job done, because that's why you got a job, it's about taking care of your people because being a leader doesn't mean that you're more important than everybody else. Being a leader means you have the experience and the responsibility necessary for that position. And in that position comes with responsibilities to the people in your organization. And then thirdly, and finally, without integrity, you know, not only are you going to crash and burn, but you also lose sight of the whole reason why we're trying to get the job done in the first place. Because the means ultimately don't always justify the ends, you know. if we're not doing the right thing ,then I question whether or not we should be doing it at all. I think those are the key three factors of leadership.
PINKHAM: Great. That's a very nice way to end.
PINKHAM: Thank you very much for coming on and talking to us. I think we've just gotten lucky. I think we've gotten lucky to talk to a bunch of really interesting, super smart, very uplifting people. So
PINKHAM: Really appreciate you coming on and talk to us.
COLEMAN: Yeah, thank you so much, and congratulations on your finals and also on graduating. That's very exciting
PINKHAM: Yeah, it's great. It's so good.
AUSTIN: Thank you. It's a huge honor to have been interviewed. And I hope that hope that I've been some help to the work that you're doing.
PINKHAM: The VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics would like to thank the following:
COLEMAN: Cadet Caleb Mynus ’20 for the intro and backing music. Find more of his musical stylings on his Instagram page (@mynusofficial). That’s at m-y-n-u-s official.
PINKHAM: Col. David Gray, USA (ret.), Director of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics
COLEMAN: And of course, as always, our podcast Guests. Find this podcast and other CLE programming information on the VMI Center for Leadership & Ethics’ website, or our try YouTube channel.