The Institute Relies on the Strength of the Corps with LeAndrew Jefferson '21

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  • Our Mission: 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 (CLE) and VMI.
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LeAndrew Jefferson is a First-Class Cadet from Southwest Detroit, MI. He is an international studies major, a member of the Promaji Club, a member of the Cadets' Superintendent's Advisory Board, and a Cadet Chaplain. LeAndrew discussed his introduction to VMI, the VMI network, VMI as a leadership laboratory, growing into his studies, and the difficulty of the new reality during COVID restrictions. Some leadership competencies covered in the conversation were self-development, VMI class and regimental systems, leadership, and 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 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.


The Institute Relies on the Strength of the Corps with LeAndrew Jefferson

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. 

COLEMAN: Hi, I’m Emily Coleman.

PINKHAM: And I’m Derek Pinkham and we are your hosts of the podcast.

COLEMAN: LeAndrew Jefferson is a First-Class Cadet from Southwest Detroit, MI. He is an international studies major, a member of the Promaji Club, and a Cadet Chaplain. LeAndrew discussed his introduction to VMI, the VMI network, VMI as a leadership laboratory, growing into his studies, and the difficulty of the new reality during COVID restrictions.  

PINKHAM: And without further delay we give you Cadet First-Class LeAndrew Jefferson. Welcome LeAndrew Jefferson to the VMI Leadership Journey podcast.

LEANDREW JEFFERSON: Thanks for having me. 

COLEMAN: Yeah, so we're we're just gonna start out by having you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up here at VMI. 

JEFFERSON: All right, from Southwest Detroit, Michigan. I knew a little bit about Virginia Military Institute because of Marine Corps history. I knew Chesty Puller went here. I know General LeJeune was part of VMI, I did not know the ins and outs of VMI. I didn't even refer to it as VMI referred to as the Virginia Military Institute as history documents do, but it wasn't until I was introduced to a VMI alum, actually, at a college fair in Detroit by the name of Mr. E. Sean Lanier and I was invited to go to a Founder's Day dinner with some of the alum in Michigan. And they introduced me to some of the benefits of going to VMI. The most beneficial things of VMI were the intangibles and the things that you really can't sometimes put into words, such as the relationships, such as the connections that you have the last a lifetime, and being able to go back and bring someone else up through the system. And it's a lot more interpersonal, because it's such a small community in comparison to some of the other institutions. I came into open house in February. It was after they had already broken out so, they had TVs and all kinds of stuff. So, I was thinking like, ‘Oh, it's not that bad if they got, they got video games, you know, it can't be that bad.’ And, essentially, it was never really actually bad. It was just getting out of the comfort zone and get into the adversarial system. Before I even came to open house, I was initially sold. All I had to do was get accepted at that point. I will say that you got to have some buy-in to the system in order to get all of it as much as you can. And it's not about you. So, and that's the thing about, like, college. A lot of students come out of high school. And they're looking for the best pipeline the best pathway to get to where they want to be for them. Everybody at VMI, hopefully, ideally, have shed that once they graduated high school and so everything, they do from this moment forward since we matriculated it is about doing something for somebody else and for the community.

PINKHAM: It's for your BRs. I mean you're there to help lift them up, too, right? 

JEFFERSON: Yeah, so, it's about the BRs. So, it's about the BRs. But it's, it's interesting that VMI was able to still produce people who could still have connections with people in their class above, the class below the class and some of these people after they left VMI you might never have a relationship with the rats or the dykes. Now, it's a lot more interpersonal where the dykes, the grand dykes, I mean, they still may have communication for decades and I think... I think that's just a shift forward for VMI and how we keep the community tight, keep the network strong to keep communication open between each other.

COLEMAN: Yeah, that's one of the things actually we hear a lot. That's very beneficial for people once they graduate. So, in terms of leadership, what are you involved in as a cadet at VMI?

JEFFERSON: I promised myself when I left high school, I would never do what I did in high school again, I would never, like, I would never double dip and

PINKHAM: Overextend? 


PINKHAM: Well… but maybe that's a personality trait and a good one? 

JEFFERSON: Yeah. When I was a rat, my dyke was the company CO [commanding officer]. And that really was a turnoff, but just to see my dyke going and, like, every which way, and the CO, a lot of members of my dyke’s class pulling at their hairs. I mean, I was like, I'm never doing that. So, I was never a corporal. I was never into like the ranker thing [refers to cadets who actively seek/obtain rank]. I was never into, like, getting over-involved. I was just like, I'm gonna just do what I do here. So, I really didn't even get involved until the ending of my third-class year when I became the Jeff Shara scholar, and I was in New Market for 10 weeks there. And then after that, I was an Old Corps [upper classmen] ranker as a sergeant. And I started getting a little bit more involved in Promaji [Club]. I started getting a little bit more involved in the Cadets’ Superintendent’s Advisory Board (CSAB). And then it just kind of snowballed from there getting more and more involved in those entities. And then it started starting to mix a little bit where I was not a member of the cadet government but I had to counsel and help out in a lot of the class affairs. And as a First-Classman, I applied for cadet chaplain and became the cadet chaplain here. And so, sometimes it all mixes together into just being a student here. If I didn't do anything, I don’t think I would make it. I don’t know. Some students just think that you could just come here and just go to school. It's unlikely because a different school, you don't have to take care of the institution when you go to a different school. Here, like, the Institute relies on the involvement of the corps and so, all the way down to the rat, to the corporal, to the private… no matter what, but the livelihood of the Institute relies on the strength of the corps. 

PINKHAM: That’s really interesting. So, is that inevitable that you that you would you would get more involved? I suppose it also it’s personality, right?

JEFFERSON: When I was a third, like, I seen, like some of the top names and I was like, it's always the same people. And they always are the ones to get to go to the trips and do all these things. And the CLE [Center for Leadership & Ethics] is always asking them first. I am on the CLE’s ethics debate team, so I'm always in and out of the CLE but, you know, I was like, how did they get to do all these things? And now that I'm a First-Classman, I know that when you show up, you are noticed. So, 90% of life is showing up. So, when you show up, people are going to remember you, people are going to want you to do a little bit more. And is it inevitable? Maybe... maybe, I think it depends because what I like to do a lot is step down and just… I trust that somebody else could do the job just as well, if not better, at VMI. I automatically assume that because I know VMI cadets will take care of it but at the same time, it can be done by somebody else as well. I love to step down something from things. It's inevitable that leadership will eventually you will get to a part of your cadetship where you need to make a decision about what you're going to be involved in, and where you want to stand. VMI is a laboratory of leadership where there's all types of mixing and trial-and-error and VMI itself will be your greatest adversary as a cadet. Sometimes, especially as a rat, you know, you got the class system [VMI’s class system competes with its regimental/rank system for leadership opportunities] going, and all that. So, you got all these things going for you but as a cadet, in general, if you don't get a challenge from anything else, from your classes, whatever, the Institute will challenge you in ways that another school won't. This can simply be you got to get up in the morning and roll your hay [cadet mattress], okay, that's something that you can get used to but, ultimately, it's a challenge, because you have to do it every other day. So, the first year, you might be okay with it, because you're forced to do it, then the second year, you're like, ‘alright …’ and so, you got that going for you. And then, you're going to have decisions that you're going to have to make. There's some social issues where you're gonna have to speak up. And there's gonna be some times in your cadetship where you just can't stay silent and you just can't allow things to happen. So, it takes a little bit of courage for even the private, more than anybody else because the privates do lead the corps, and I think that's the difference between this school and the other schools. Everybody's gonna have that.

COLEMAN: Well, this also, you know, this year, we've been talking a lot about leading self.

PINKHAM: Right. And values.

COLEMAN: So, it sounds like you are really taking that you know you're leading yourself to do better for, not only yourself, but for others. So, can you touch on what leading self means to you?

JEFFERSON: Yeah. It's a drag [laughter].

PINKHAM & COLEMAN: (Together) Let’s just be honest! 

PINKHAM: Sometimes it can be a drag.

JEFFERSON: It’s kind of weird because it makes it seem like it's two of you. And it's like, you got to deal with some things upstairs. But sometimes you're like, ‘Do I really have to, like, get up and do this?’ Yes, you do. Or if you see something wrong, you expect well, another person can go take care of that. No, they won't. And so, it's really up to you. It’s up to you when you see something, the first time, to go up and fix that and to make sure that you're also taking care of your agenda, and all the work that you have to do, and make sure it means something. And this year, I’m a IS [international studies] major. And this year, I kind of learned the difference between just doing the readings and actually just being well-read. And it makes all the difference, because you could just do the readings and forget tomorrow about what would you read and so I had to make a conscious decision to be more involved in my readings. So, the reason why I bring that up is because I have to do the same thing of my actions. You have to be very deliberate in what you do. And so, ideally, a lot of the cadets here are all deliberate in what they do. We're all, you know… nobody just stumbles into this place and put on a... put on grey blouse [a cadet’s uniform top]. We deliberately made the decision to come here. So, we also have to make the deliberate decision to grow ourselves and that takes being a little bit more active and what we do and the way we think and how that comprehends to our leadership.

PINKHAM: It's a deliberate action, certainly to stay.

JEFFERSON: Coming back is very deliberate. It's kind of like, when you're a high schooler and you make a decision, like, ‘okay, I want to go to this school.’ You have to make that same [decision], for VMI at least, you have to go through the same thought process every year because you might find that you can grow somewhere else, or that Your time has expired where you think that it's time for you to move on. And that's okay. That's why we graduate with small classes and that's totally fine. But that means that somebody else has to take up a position to make sure that things are well-kept here. And so sometimes, leadership may come off as a burden. Absolutely. Because somebody has to do it. And so, you have to find out how you and your personality and your leadership style can fit into where things are needed because you can't do everything. Do what you can do.

PINKHAM: I love it. Yeah.

COLEMAN: Another one of our themes this year is leading your peers and we try and talk about this with our podcast guests because we know that leading your peers can be really hard and difficult sometimes, and you're put in positions where you're equal to somebody but you have to be the person making a decision. So, do you have any advice for leading your peers?

JEFFERSON: There's something called BLUF (bottom line up front). “Hey man, your, uh, uniform’s all kinds of ways today.” And that's it! Like, that's all it takes. It may be difficult when the hierarchy is unknown. For example, you break out [at the end of the Rat Line period, cadets become accepted as a class into the Corps of Cadets]. There's no rat in charge of all the rat[s] and you guys are just listening to the GC (General Committee) and you're listening to Colonel Wanovich (Commandant in charge of cadets) and you’re listening, you know, to all these entities, but internally with within the rat mass (matriculating cadets before breakout), or Fourth Class, there's still some unknown leadership going on. And I think that's where you're tested most because nobody wears a rank. Nobody has a title, everybody's just a fourth. Everybody's just a student. And so, you have to make a decision about how you're going to police your own. I say first get to know everybody and try to get a relationship with as many people as you can. You can't know everybody, but you can establish yourself and, you know, you can do it in a way that's not overly done. Or overcooked. But just extend yourself to your BRs.

PINKHAM: Yeah, nice.

COLEMAN: So, working with your peers and team settings, how do you think that VMI has improved your skills in working with diverse teams?

JEFFERSON: First, let me say you're not gonna like all your BRs.

PINKHAM: Well, that's… Yeah. 

COLEMAN: Well, that’s just a given fact! 

JEFFERSON: I don't know where that idea comes from, you know, maybe from the outside looking in, everybody's like, ‘Well, they all get along so well.’ And well, you know, we just... we’re cordial people.

COLEMAN: I guess that's one thing VMI teaches you how to be.

JEFFERSON: Yeah. So, we could probably work… Well, you would never know, if we don't like, you know, when we get into professional setting or the business side of things, we are there to take care of business not our personal affairs. And that's what we do. That's the best way to get to some of the root issues amongst your peers and within a team.

COLEMAN: Absolutely. So how has this current atmosphere that you all are living in at VMI affected how you lead yourself and your peers and your teams? Like all classes being moved to virtual. 

JEFFERSON: Exactly! (overlapping). So, that's one of the structural changes, you know, and for some people, that's hard. For example, I have all my classes are online, except one. That's difficult for me. And that's another challenge that I have to find a way to maneuver. We have to look out. Some ways you got a little bit more time on your hands to deal with yourself than usual and so, we have to figure out ways to deal with that ourselves. Cadets in quarantine, everything's online... All, all of it is telecommunicating at that point, once you're in quarantine. So now, you got to find a way to keep a cadet’s status. So, that’s health: your physical health, mental health, your academics. That's difficult. And so, you have to change everything and for the... for the rats, this is their first impression of VMI.

PINKHAM: Oh yeah, that's that's got to be rough. Yeah. For sure. Going through the Rat Line during this time is truly unique. 

JEFFERSON: Yeah, so, not coming back for spring break last semester maybe crippled my class because we weren't able to mobilize and restructure and plan for a lot of things in person, at least, and then some of us had training. I was at Marine Corps OCS (Officer’s Candidate School) so I kind of missed out on the training and conversation that was going on over the summertime. So, we just came in, guns blazing and everybody’s just making it work. Our leadership, it has to be fluid and dynamic and ready to change at a moment’s instance. 

PINKHAM: Right? That's awesome.

COLEMAN: You have to know how to be adaptable…

PINKHAM: Right. (overlapping)

COLEMAN: …in your environment. So, LeAndrew, what does leadership mean to you?

JEFFERSON: Knowing how to follow for one and take notes, and learning from what's been done before you. What worked, what didn't work… For us, that might be easy because we have great access to the alumni and VMI alumni are all different. So, you got a diverse archive there. And I say, yeah, it’s being able to follow and take note because if you're a great follower, somebody is going to look up to you. When you overdo it, this leadership thing, it's not really leadership at that point. You're just trying to over assert yourself but when you just sit there and try to grow, it’ll come. 

PINKHAM: I like that. It sounds like if you follow well, eventually, people will take notice and it'll flip then you'll become the leader. 

JEFFERSON: Yeah. And you know, it works the same for participation. And, you know, well, you were very attentive in the group when the leader was talking. And you took notes and you paid attention and you ask some constructive questions. How about you lead the group this year? That's usually how it goes. And it's not a... it's not a competition to who could take the best notes that that point is a competition as to how your growth impacts the group or the team. 

PINKHAM: Right? It sounds like a very natural process.

JEFFERSON: Yes, and for me it’s… I don't want to get into the nature versus nurture, but I really do think it takes it takes both a little bit, you got to do some internal... internal digging and restructuring. And then you have to also be willing to listen to some of the externals that’s going on.

PINKHAM: Yeah, I mean, for me, he, I mean, we've done I don't know 19 or 20 of these. And, and your answers, I think, to some of these questions have been unique and different and I really, really appreciate that but… enlightening also.

JEFFERSON: If I could talk a little bit about comfort zones. For so many people, leadership is out of the comfort zone. And they just want things to fly by but unfortunately, that don't work. Especially in a small community in society, it just doesn't work. Everybody has to be, at some point a leader and just being a leader does not mean that you are physically on at the tip of the spear, it means that you're participating and you're active. And it means that you're willing to have the courage or you have the courage to step out and participate because stepping out and participating is not always easy.

PINKHAM: Like that a lot.

COLEMAN: Yeah, no, I'm that… That was awesome. Thank you so much, LeAndrew, for your time for sitting down with us.

JEFFERSON: Yeah, I want to thank you guys for having me. 

PINKHAM: The CLE would like to thank the following: 

COLEMAN: 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!

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