The Importance of Culture and the Academy Advantage with Alejandro Villanueva

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This is a mobile edition of the VMI Leader Journey podcast recorded live on the stage of Gillis Theater in Marshall Hall.

Our podcast hosts Emily Coleman and Derek Pinkham, staff members at the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics, sat down with our first Courageous Leaders speaker from February of 2019 Alejandro Villanueva to discuss his insights on leadership based upon his experiences as an academy graduate, veteran, and professional athlete.

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. 

In this episode, we touch on the following leadership competencies of the VMI Leader Journey: teamwork, initiative, goals & planning, responsibility for personal behavior.

TRANSCRIPT for The Importance of Culture and the Academy Advantage with Alejandro Villanueva

ALEJANDRO VILLANUEVA: But there's an underlying process that you start appreciating once you leave the academy. You start realizing them as you leave the academy. It's not until you can compare yourself with someone who's not been at the academy that you can see what you've been through. 


EMILY COLEMAN: Welcome to the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics Leadership Journey Podcast!

DEREK PINKHAM: 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. Hi, I’m Derek Pinkham,

COLEMAN: and I’m Emily Coleman, we are your hosts of the podcast. Alejandro Villanueva is a professional football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He sat down with us for a short interview about his leadership journey. Alejandro graduated from West Point, was an Army Ranger and Captain in the US Army.

PINKHAM: He served 3 tours of duty in Afghanistan where he was decorated with a Bronze Star for Valor. He graduated from business school and is currently a professional athlete. He discussed with us how his view of leadership has changed throughout his career journey.

COLEMAN: Alejandro was the Center for Leadership and Ethics’ 2019 Spring Courageous Leader speaker. Our 2020 Spring Courageous Leader speaker will be former NFL offensive lineman turned Ph.D. mathematician John Urschel.

PINKHAM: He will speak at Marshall Hall’s Gillis Theater on Wednesday, March 4 at 8 pm and without further delay, we give you Alejandro Villanueva.


PINKHAM: We wanted to start by asking you what leadership means to you given that you have gone to a military school, transitioned into being in the military, and then even into a professional sports team and maybe what that journey was like and how leadership, maybe, even changed or your feelings about it.

VILLANUEVA: Yeah, of course, so obviously the Army has its definition of leadership and it's an acronym of leadership... they have loyalty respect discipline... um. Well, I think obviously everything has to evolve as you go into different positions and you see different things. So, Army leadership, you know, sometimes is about the same as outside the military leadership - what I've learned is that culture is very important. I think that creating a culture, establishing a culture, is more important than leadership itself. If you're able to get people around you to do what you want, one way or another, whether it's through team bonding activities, whether it's through critical thinking, whether it's through leading by example and inspiring others, there are many ways to do it, but, ultimately, the culture that you create in an organization is how you're going to measure your leadership.

PINKHAM: Great! So, when you were at West Point and first getting into it, what was the model there and was it apparent to you right away?

VILLANUEVA: The problem with West Point and I'm sure at VMI you have some of the similar challenges, is that you're full of energy, full of expectations because you're living your best years, but you're constricted to the walls of the academy. So, your priority is not so much bettering yourself outside of that week. And how is it that you're going to have some sort of release from all the stress at the academy? Sometimes looking outside of the walls or speculating about the future, wishing that you were a lieutenant, nothing that is about the day itself. But there's an underlying process that you start appreciating once you leave the academy. So, maybe you're not realizing that you're truly working on some very difficult concepts about leadership such as keeping yourself presentable - uniform at all times, waking up at a certain time and keeping a routine, shaving, understanding the rules, playing by the rule. So even though you are trying to find everything around it, to sort of find comfort, the institution is settling in and instilling some values in you that is going to be very helpful. You start realizing them as you leave the academy. It's not until you can compare yourself with someone who's not been at the academy that you can see what you've been through.

PINKHAM: Yeah. So, transitioning, actually, into deploying to Afghanistan, is that correct? How did that change and you become a lieutenant? How does your vision of leadership change as you go on?

VILLANUEVA: So, when I graduated from the academy and I went into the infantry basic officer leadership course, what I found out is that West Point had almost 20% of all the officers and so everybody was looking at how West Point officers conducted themselves to find the base layer. And usually, there's a difference between those who spend time at the academy and those that don't from the standpoint of time. Somebody who doesn't spend four years in a building like this doesn't have the concept of patience and of long-term, delayed gratification. They are looking for the immediate and what are we doing this weekend, what are we doing tomorrow, it's very difficult to be disconnected from my friends and family. But if you've been through the academies, you've done that for four years. 


VILLANUEVA: And so that's a very helpful tool. It allows you to stay disciplined to have that long-term vision of the things that you need to accomplish whether it's going to Ranger school, airborne school, and then show up to your duty station. And it's how do I achieve those goals? So, it's looking around the room seeing what the requirements are, coming up with a plan yourself, and staying true to yourself. Not really jumping ship and abandoning your plan of action every two to three weeks when something goes wrong, you know how to fail, you know how to adapt to failure, and so, I feel like that's when the dividends were... came due, left the academy and I was on my own and I felt like I was a lot stronger from that personal leadership standpoint. It was not until I got to my first duty station and I was in front of real men that I put those values to test.

PINKHAM: Interesting. So, can you talk a little bit about your interaction with your NCOs at the time? 

VILLANUEVA: Oh, absolutely. So, NCOs are the backbone of the Army. They always continue to emphasize what it is to listen, to use your ears and mouth in the same ratio that you have them, 2:1. To make sure that you're evaluating everything, you listen to people before you make any decisions because, obviously, there's a lot of experience and the fact that lieutenants sometimes come in and start reinventing the wheel and neglecting everybody else around them. Being a team player was something I learned playing football, to make sure that you take everyone's input into making any decision. And then to almost a degree, you are valuing more other stuff to say than your own opinions in certain circumstances because you've never been there and never done that. I have to deploy and lead men that have been there 3-4 times that are twice as old as I am. You have to understand always the repercussions of not listening to somebody when they are very adamant about what they are saying and how that's going to impact the cohesion of the group. So, it's always about integrating everyone's opinions and creating value. It's never about dividing value and creating winners and losers. It's always about creating winners. 

PINKHAM: Do you take that same philosophy into the locker room in professional sports? 

VILLANUEVA: Well, what I think is interesting about locker rooms is that it's a much more competitive landscape in the sense that it's a small simulation that just gets repeated every single year. So, there's very few variables you can change. But you certainly see that culture is an important aspect and it's not so much the leadership of one person, but the influence of that person over the entire organization. How are people viewing leadership and leadership roles? Are people respecting the rules? How are people viewing themselves as key members of the team? Creating that environment is crucial. So, for me to walk in and observe and see how the atmosphere is created is pretty interesting and pretty cool because I'm not in a leadership position. I think one of the interesting concepts that you realize in the NFL is that, to a certain degree, people... to be a good leader, you have to be someone people want to be. Whether it's in high school as the young fellow who's got all the girls crazy for him and he plays football and everything seems to be going very well for him, he's sort of becoming the pseudo-leader just because everybody wants to be like him. When you show up in the Army, the lieutenant who is in great shape, that is intelligent, well-spoken, and is able to keep his things together and able to respond to difficult situations, he becomes the person that everybody wants to emulate. And then when you get to the NFL, it becomes somewhat distorted. You don't know who you want to become. Whether you want to become the person with the most amount of followers on social media or the richest player or the most respected player by a certain segment of the population - so, I think in my case, not a lot of players want to be married with three kids and live in the suburbs and drive a used truck. It's very interesting to see how the other players that become leaders enact that responsibility and how it has an effect on me. 

PINKHAM: Wow, great.

VILLANUEVA: I think we just don't realize sometimes, unfortunately, leaders in position, because they were elected by whatever circumstances, they create bad examples that people don't want to emulate. That within itself has a pretty uniting effect where people want to unite against a leader. You observe all those things in the NFL locker room. Not so much, maybe, in the military because everybody has different layers of leadership and you have a more continuing, sort of, environment where things will be the same way forever all the time. In my case, I feel like I'm in so much debt to the military for the fact that they clothed me, they fed me, and they gave me a life that, in return, I want to present myself in the best possible way so that I can honor the military and I can showcase the values that the military instilled in me as a form of paying back. There's a lot of sayings that good guy doesn’t last in the NFL and that's somewhat to a degree very true. When the money variable comes in, it completely disrupts all the preconceived notions that we have of leadership. Sometimes we have to go back and remove that and look at the military which is an environment where everybody makes the same amount of money based on a pay scale and that simplifies things quite a bit. It's tough. I try to do my best for the military, not so much for the effectiveness of my brand or me as a player because certainly those aspects, we've seen how other players' attitudes lead to a lot more success.

PINKHAM: How about a future for you after the NFL? Where do you want to take yourself with where you’re going from there?

VILLANUEVA: I'm not sure, to be honest. I've got four years of business school. It took me a long time to graduate, but it gave me the ability to be in an environment where students are constantly trying to better their lives and they're going through the same cycle of excitement and harsh reality of the civilian landscape looks like and then, finally, into graduating and going and taking a job. I always try to explain to people, it's almost like if we knew an asteroid was going to hit the earth and we only had three days to live, we'd have different stages on each... on one of those days, as crazy as it sounds, you know, business school is very much the same. You come and try and do the right thing and get straight As and you start going to your interviews and you realize that maybe your life is going to look a lot different than what you expected it. Then towards the end when you're about to graduate, you're partying like crazy because you know that life as you know it is going to change. So, for me, it's given me a pretty interesting look into the… what people consider being at a corporate job, and I'm not sure that's my lifestyle. I'd love to go back into the military, if that's still an option somehow, based on my family and based on how I feel physically. And then, outside of that, I would never consider doing politics or anything like that, so I'll probably just open up a marina in South Florida and ride on 'til the sunset.

PINKHAM: Sounds like a good idea! Right, really appreciate it! Thanks for sitting down with us!

VILLANUEVA: Absolutely, thank you!


PINKHAM: The Center for Leadership and Ethics would like to thank the following: Cadet 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. Find this podcast and other Center for Leadership and Ethics’ 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!


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