By Francis Ahmed,
Stillman News Contributor
On Mar. 31, Brooks Mencke and Francis Ahmed began their journey to West Point Military Academy in order to attend the 2016 McDonald Cadet Leadership Conference with the theme “From Failure to Inspiration and Change” – a privilege that they had not yet fully understood.
They kicked off the conference with a session in which they were asked to define themselves based on a number scale from one to ten. An example questions was, “How much joy do I experience daily?” The activity slowly forced them to be uncomfortable. To eliminate the feeling, they were challenged and had to pull down the usual guards they naturally have up. They had to allow themselves to be vulnerable in a room full of strangers. At some points, they felt to some degree, naked and exposed, but also very connected to the other students for the knowledge. Following that activity, they went straight to a classroom to work with a “peer coach” on their Cardinal Leadership Inventory (CLI) results.
Prior to the start of the conference, all student attendees were asked to complete this CLI survey. Mencke and Ahmed were taught how to understand the results and asked to discuss them with their peers. This allowed them to examine themselves and then acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses aloud. Good leaders take the necessary time to self-reflect and this was quality time spent as it revealed some things they knew to be true about themselves, and some things that they had never realized before.
Over the next four days, they had the pleasure of attending leadership panels led by distinguished world leaders like the United States Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Robert McDonald, and leadership speaker, Ray Jefferson, along with many others.
The panels focused on the topics of adversity, governing, learning and vision. After each panel, they went to break out sessions accompanied by one of the senior fellows who served as a mentor. During this time, they discussed what they learned, asked questions, and also worked on an Op-Ed as a team that will be published in the New York Times. These break-out sessions were amongst their favorite moments at the conference.
Their group’s senior fellow, Elizabeth Birch, spoke to them as equals, took the time to understand them, and slowly took them on this journey to understand themselves and each other. They walked out of that room feeling a little closer and more enlightened each time.
Beyond the panel events, they had the opportunity to network with the other student attendees who came from all over world from schools such as Berkley, Oxford, and MIT. In addition, they attended “socials,” explored some of the West Point campus, the West Point Museum, and had the amazing opportunity to attend the “Core of the Corps Musical Leadership Experience”.
At that event, they sat in on a musical session played by the Military Academy Band, consisting of some of the best musicians in the world. Through music, they explored how a leader’s personal display of enthusiasm and commitment can have a direct effect on the success of the team and mission.
The conference was an incredible experience for Mencke and Ahmed. They learned the value of making mistakes, the importance of empathy in leadership, how to better understand themselves and more. They had the opportunity to learn from influential world leaders while in an audience of future leaders.
Together they formed a community of change agents with a common purpose of leadership and service.
In the end, they walked away from this conference enlightened and inspired with life-long, international relationships.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 12th print edition.
Contact Francis at