Meaningful Leadership Experiences as a First-Class Private with Will Nicholson '21

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Peer-to-peer leadership is the most challenging leadership position, particularly when rank (or job title) doesn't require your peers to follow you or respond to your requests. 

For this installment of the VMI Leader Journey podcast, we chose to highlight a First-Class cadet whose leadership example has been nonetheless meaningful.

We welcomed Officer of the Guard Association president, the cadet-in-charge (CIC) for the Cadets' Superintendents Advisory Board (CSAB), and a computer science and engineering major Will Nicholson VMI class of 2021 to sit down with us for this interview mid-September 2020.  He shared with us how he came to be in a variety of leadership positions, how he's learned leadership lessons from both his coursework and relationships with staff and faculty, and his thoughts about the current state of the corps during this pandemic semester.

Some leadership competencies covered in the conversation were self-development, mentoring, helping others, empathy, and receiving feedback.

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 leadership development. The VMI Leader Journey podcast is an outreach program where our guests share insights from their personal leadership development journey, and where VMI may have contributed to their personal growth. In this episode, we touched on leadership competencies taught in the mandatory course on leadership in organizations and addressed in the publications VMI Leader Journey publication.


Meaningful Leadership Experiences as a First-Class Private with OGA President and CIC for CSAB Will Nicholson ’21

PINKHAM:Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics Leadership Journey podcast.

COLEMAN: This podcast aims to share leadership stories from our VMI Corps of Cadets and high-profile leaders who visit the Center for Leadership and Ethics and VMI post. We're on this journey with you.

PINKHAM: Hi, I'm Derek Pinkham.

COLEMAN: And hey, I'm EmilyColeman, and we're your hosts of the podcast.

PINKHAM: Will Nicholson VMI class of 2021 [is the] Officer of the Guard Association president, the cadet-in-charge (CIC) for the Cadets' Superintendents Advisory Board (CSAB), and a computer science and engineering major.

COLEMAN: We talked to Will about his experiences and leadership at VMI and his thoughts about the current state of the corps during this pandemic semester. Some leadership competencies covered in the conversation were self-development, mentoring, helping others, empathy, and receiving feedback.

PINKHAM: And without further delay, we give you Cadet First-Class Will Nicholson. Excellent. So well welcome. Will Nicholson to the VMI Leader Journey podcast.

NICHOLSON: It's nice to be here.

COLEMAN: Hey Will, yeah, thank you so much for sitting down with us. So, we're just gonna start by asking you what your origin story is, like, where you're from and how you ended up in VMI?

NICHOLSON: Sure, sure. So,I was born in Texas. My dad was in the Air Force for 27 years so I was born down in San Antonio. Then from there, I moved all around the country. [I] spent a coupleofyears in Germany and came back to Virginia. Through watching him do his Air Force thing, I'd see him come home in a flight suit every day, kind of got my mind that I want to go in the Air Force, go serve the nation in some capacity. So, I was looking at ways to get involved into the military, I wanted to goin as an officer, so I couldfly.Applied to the Air Force Academy,Naval Academy, they said no thank you. So,I decided I'd go somewhere a little bit harder and get better grades. That's what I've been trying my best to do ever since. My brother, who's two years older than me, ended up VMI and he had an awesome time here. It was cool to see him come home and he stood up a little bit taller, talked a little bit different, acteda little bit different, all positive changes. So, I figured that this would be a good place to be and it's where I've been ever since. So,I'm happy to be here.

COLEMAN: Awesome! That’s cool. So, you came from a military family. Did you always know that that's what you wanted to do?

NICHOLSON: Oh no, no. Way back in the in the early days, I actually wanted to be a zookeeper. That was kind of my goal: zookeeper, construction worker, and then from there I was like, "You know, I want to go fly jets."

COLEMAN: So,in in terms of leadership, what were you involved in as a cadet atVMI?

NICHOLSON: So, I've gota couple, a couple of feathers in my cap. What's been taking up most of my time recently is I'm the Officer the Guard Association (OGA) president. I've also got the... I'm the CIC for CSAB. The vice wing commanderfor the Air Force detachment here. I'm one of the presidents for the cadet Investment Group. I'm the team lead for the electronics team for our ECE Capstone, and then before that, I also did Rat Challenge as a sergeant ofRat Challenge, and corporal. So, I guess when you ballit all up that's kind of what my leadership experience has been like so far.

PINKHAM: Sounds extensive.

COLEMAN: Yeah, you're involved in a lot. I bet that keeps you really busy and it probably gives you a different perspective or different skills now that you have that youwouldn't have if you did not get involved in so many things.

NICHOLSON: Yeah, it's kind of cool. I was thinking about that earlier today, too. In Air Force, they teach, when we're talking about leadership, they talk about like, well there's three kind oflevels that you'll be as an officer when you're just low,low officer, you’re just a lieutenant kind of deal,you're at the tactical level, then you move up to the operational, and strategic. So, at VMI it's kind of cool. This year I get to see all three.Where OGA I'm very tactical in with the reps figuring out problems that need to be taken care of, like right now. Then over on the Air Force side of things with the vice wing command, I'm more operational. Justkind of overseeing operations at VMI. Then with CSAB, I get to be more strategic and help direct policyInstitute-wide policy moving forwardand having long-lasting changes there. So, this is kind of cool getting to see all three at one time.

COLEMAN: Yeah, nice, whatis your motivation for being in all these leadership positions?

NICHOLSON: I knew I wanted to be involved somehow when whether as a fourth classmen and deciding whether or not to apply for rank or not. You know, the normal path is you go down the cadre side or rank side and then you just kind of follow the regimental system and maybe we'll break out here or there, but I've been a private all four years at VMI. My brother, he was a corporal. He said to me when I asked him [that] he liked being a corporal for about three days. His thing to me was [that] you can get better leadership experience over here doing clubs and different Institute programs than you necessarily could as a corporal. So, I decided I’d just rather go down, kind of, the private route andget involved in a whole bunch of different things and through that it just kind of blossomed into where I'm at now where [I] joined a couple clubs and ended up in leadership positions there and thought CSAB would be a cool opportunity, hopefully do some good for the Institute. And now I have the honor of running that. When things for OGA came out, I put my name in the hat and ended up being picked by my class officers and very honored to serve as the OGA president for the class of '21. So, it just kind of fell into it I guess I kept my, my ears and eyes open for opportunitiesthat popped up and selectively went after ones I thought would be...

PINKHAM: Yeah, you were open to it that's, that's really good way to go, you had some flexibility there.

COLEMAN: So, youwould definitely recommend that, you know, incoming rats do the same thing get involved with as much as you can.

NICHOLSON: Yeah, it's, you've got an awesome, awesome opportunity here to practice. Because at the end of the day if you mess something up here at VMI, you're not going to destroy a few million-dollar airplanes or tank a company's stock portfolio into the ground you're... you make mistakes, and then it's like a safe environment to make mistakes. The worst thing that happens is you getchewed out for a little bit, maybe and then you move on with your day and take a lesson from it and learn from it and go on and try not to do it again or maybe do it again and learn it a second time, just as valuable the second time around. So, absolutelyI think you kind of.... I don't want to say waste your time here if you don't, but you've got some really awesome opportunities just to kind of take advantage and learn from some people who've actually been there and done that before you go out into the real world, where it really counts.

PINKHAM: Do you have any thoughts on how your leadership style or your thoughts or ideas on leadership has changed since you were a rat until now?

NICHOLSON: Yeah, I think so a little bit. I guess my philosophy for leadership actually really started back in Boy Scouts, when we're at that kind of platoon level, so to speak, and then it's kind of grown and evolved through VMI.The Rat Line I don't think is the best opportunity to actually learn leadership, it's a great opportunity to learn followership which is incredibly important to become a leader. If you're gonna be a good leader, you need to be a good follower, at least I think so, but then the leadership really kicks in, after the Rat Line once you stop being told exactly what to do every minute of the day, and you have to think for yourself and make decisions. Maybe what has been most influential on me was actually the leadership class we had. We had this one unit, specifically, on this thing called identity leadership. It was the whole idea of being the ideal person for the groups that you run. So, like, if, let's say I'm running the OGA and I got to be the representative body for the privates of the corps is kind of what the OGA does in some capacity, then I try to be the best private I can be. And beyond that, kind of, folding in some ways of esprit de corps. Small things to do that we as the OGA do just ourselves whether it be like making fun logos for the people putting out stickers to hand out. Small things like that. The rhetoric we use to kind of shape how we want the OGA, CSAB, CIG to act as a, as a body, that's kind of the whole, I think, big takeaway from that class specifically that I think it was stuff that I've been doing before in some capacity but had never really thought about. And then after I had a class with Major Jarmon told me all about it and kind of started clicking in my head like yeah, I can see other ways I can kind of weasel this into my leadership styles moving forward.

PINKHAM: Yeah, no, itsounds like you had the experience of it first, perhaps, and then you were able to use some of your classes and some of the other learning to sort of formalize it in some way in your head. Give it, give it some language, give it some, some more thought.


NICHOLSON:Yeah, I think that's, that's a good recap of that. Absolutely.

COLEMAN: Awesome. Yeah, I love your perspective right now. So,in your different roles of leadership, how does that affect your peer-to-peer leadership? And is there an understanding of that relationship and different situations where you have to maybe be a leader or a follower of one of your BRs?

NICHOLSON: Right, peer-to-peer is a tricky one at VMI because we're all around the same age group, and it's weird. You kind of do like the Stanford Prison Experiment type deal with when you put someone in a position of power here and seeing how that kind of operates but me,being a private, I've got no Chevron's up in my, my color here so the authority that I derive isn't backed up by any regimental system-type stuff it's purely I'm in a position of respect. And if I were to lose that, then my word in barracks would go to nothing. So, peer-to-peer leadership, as far as the OGA, specifically, is concerned, because that's probably where we see it the most, they're actually in there with the troops getting things done; comes from the whole idea of I do my best to be a good person in barracks.Someone that I'd like to think people like and respect and hopefully that's true. And they do things if I asked them to not because I asked them to do it but because they want to do it. That's... my grandpa, he was an Army Ranger and he had,he used to hand out these business cards. And I remember seeing it the first time and it just always stuck with me since. It was, like, I can't quote it directly, but it was along the lines of 'the art of leadership is not getting people to do things for you because you told them to do it, but because they want to do for you.' So, exactly what I just kind of said and that's a bit of the mentality I try to carry with me through it. So, when it comes to peer-to-peer leadership, I'll backtrack and repeat myself here, but the big thing is, specifically for me, Private Nicholson, that I can't force people to do anything. So, I've got to be tactful in the way I ask people to do something so I don't come off like a jerk. And I wouldn't ask anybody to do something that I wouldn't do, and I've got to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to that.So, if I ask one of my BRs or a member of the OGA, CSAB, or CIG to go ahead and take care of something for me, I've got to make sure that they understand and actuallybelieve that I'm doing that because I need them to do it, and I wouldn't be asking if I could just take care of that on my own some... or my lonesome. And hopefully, I've got enough rapport with them to back it up so that they'll do it because they want to do it, not because I said do it.

PINKHAM: That kind of authority is... takes time to build up, right, but it's much easier to lose it. And so, you know that self-discipline that it takes to manage that, I think, is difficult to do. It sounds like you do it well.

NICHOLSON:Especially for college students. The whole thinking aspect of long-term planning isn't our forte.

COLEMAN:I did not mean to agree with that. So, what core values has VMI helped foster? And your... were there any specific core values that VMI has maybe brought out of you and helped you grow into?

NICHOLSON: Honor tends to be number one. But it's not all-inclusive thing. VMI's honor is different where you say that VMI cadets have honor and we do like we won't lie, cheat or steal. Chaplain Phillips had a great quote, and you'll see it on the class president's email if you ever get those. It's 'There's a difference between having honor and living honorably.' VMI has kind of brought out a lot of that in me where it's the small things like using your phone outside. You're not supposed to do it, it's not an honor offense, but you're not supposed to do it if you do, or just following the little tiny rules that we have all over barracks that if you didn't do, nobody would even know. The Sentinel could probably take a nap in the sentinel box and nobody would know. Right. But it's those tiny, little things throughout your day a little voice in your head saying, 'Oh, do it the right way, do it the right way, do it the right way,' that I think is really brought out... been brought a little bit more to me. That one and work ethic is the other one. Everybody's busy around VMI, you don't have a lot of free time. A lot of your stuff is accounted for you before you even woke up that morning. You've got formations to be at which take up a good chunk of your time, practice parades, regular parades, PTT [physical training time], all sorts of things thrown at you throughout your day. So, your schedule really isn't your schedule. It's the Institute scheduleand you've got to learn to deal with it. So, being able to knuckle down and get things done when they need to get done is a huge asset and that's really a trait, I think I got more than anything else from my mom, but I think it's been amplified at VMI. That's another thing people like to say is VMI is like a magnifying glass and your good traits get amplified and if you've got good traits but the vice versa flipside of that is if you came in here not being the best person, and hopefully, you'll improve, but it might also just amplify those bad traits if you can find ways to get away with these tiny little things that we... I mentioned earlier. If you start letting those slip over and over and over again and you know that you're not going to get caught doing it, they can kind of mess with your head a little bit and you think it's okay.

PINKHAM:So that, that actually kind of leads me into sort of a follow-onquestion to that. How isthe current atmosphere, you know, the COVID, and the civil discourse that thatis going on outside and maybe even inside of VMI? How is the current atmosphere of all of that sort of amplified or changed how you might work with your peers and in the Institute as a whole?

NICHOLSON: Right, so, there's the good, bad, the ugly of it all. For this... on the good side, there's been a lot more discussion about cadet well-being, mental health in the corps, helping out your BRs, remembering if you need help yourself to go get it. That's all been very beneficial. Then, the bad has been complaining has a longtime traditional at VMI, right, and then there's kind of the ugly of it all, which is more on the outside of the world that we're kind of protected from right now because the main conversation in barracks isn't necessarily Confederate statues or police brutality, race relations in the United States, the campaign going on, it's actually more focused on are we going to get GP [general permit -a document which officially allows cadets to go off-post] this weekend or not? That's, that's what the corps is really concerned about right now.

PINKHAM:Short-term versus long-term planning.

NICHOLSON:Exactly. Like we just said, we've got our eyes set on Saturday. Not, not two years from now. So, I'm sure these conversations are happening in barracks, and once things start to shift away from COVID within the corps. I bet it's going to return to those more overarching questions but for now, we're really just focused on COVID and GP. That's, that's where our mindsets that, from what I've seen.I'm just one guy.I might be missing a whole slew.

COLEMAN:What...I'm not sure I can't remember if you touched on this or not,but what has VMI taught you so far in regards to your experience with leadership, anything in specific that you didn't mention before?

NICHOLSON: Yeah, there's a whole lot more going on than I ever thought about. It's the focus on the very small minute details that I just had no idea to think about before... for instance, Sergeant Beane, he runs cadet government, and Major Dixon is also an awesome example this... it’s just tiny little things that never crossed my mind to think about as a leader, or, in some position of authority that to them, being old wise men, so to speak, they've got so much more experience than me in my times so it's just these small little deals. Sergeant Beane has thought about issues that I never considered and same with Major Dixon. He's got buckets and buckets of just tiny tools to use to help efficiently run a meeting that my game plan is more, I'm just gonna go outthere, throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks and see what kind of letters it makes but he had all sorts of tips and tricks. So, the big thing takeaway from VMI was use the people above you who actually know what they're doing so that you look like you know what you're doing and you can learn something about it, and then you can teach that to someone later down the line. I think might be might be the biggest takeaway.

PINKHAM:Nice, paying it forward.

COLEMAN:Awesome! Shout out -Major Dixon! He's great, but I like that response.He,yeah,he really is. Yeah, I like that you think about learning it yourself and then, and then in your future teaching others.All right, well,so,what does leadership mean to you?

NICHOLSON: I guess, at the core of it all, leadership is all about taking care of your people. And that's a pretty simplistic, all-encompassing thing to say. Taking care of people is what leadership should be. Hopefully, if you do a good job of that, they'll back you up, and actually like to follow you. At least at the end of the day, good leader, bad leader if you're taking care of people, hopefully, you have an impact on somebody in some positive capacity, and then you can go live yourself a happy life and die with a nice thing written on your tombstone.

COLEMAN:There you go.

PINKHAM: So,do you plan to commission? Is that what's going on?

NICHOLSON: Yeah, I do.

PINKHAM: When you graduate?

NICHOLSON:So,I'm planning commissioning Air Force. I got a pilot slot right now so,hopefully,that all goes well.


COLEMAN:I just want to know if there's anything that you have the desire to put out there to this community?

NICHOLSON:Take care of each other. That's about it. Keeptakingcare of each other.

COLEMAN:Okay, well, good. Well, thank you so much well for sitting down,and also thank you for wanting to and pursuing the commitment of serving our country.

PINKHAM:Yeah,really,thank you so much.

COLEMAN: The CLE would like to thank the following: Alumnus Caleb Minus, Class of ’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. Col. David Gray, U.S. Army, Retired, Director of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics and of course, as always, our podcast guests.

PINKHAM: Find this and other CLE programming information on the VMI Leadership and Ethics’ website or our YouTube Channel or Podbean. 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.

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