In September 2019 address at Air Force Academy, new Norwich University president Mark C. Anarumo outlined elements of successful leader-building culture

The “can you lead” question hangs perpetually over future leaders, Norwich University’s new president, Mark C. Anarumo, told a Colorado audience in September 2019, and cultures that promote excellence can ensure the answer is “yes.”

In his talk, “Perspectives on Leadership” at the Air Force Academy’s Center for Character and Leadership Development, Anarumo, who succeeded Richard W. Schneider at Norwich’s helm June 1, said effective leadership emanates from healthy organizational culture. Groups that lift people up and give them chances to thrive will succeed, he said.

Anarumo was addressing college leaders at the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based center, a $47 million monument to character development. The building’s 105-foot-tall jet tailfin-shaped “oculus” skylight nods to the Air Force’s jets and was enabled by generous donors including Sanford McDonnell, who led military aircraft manufacturer McDonnell Douglas and whose $5 million gift funded the forum stage from which Anarumo spoke.   

Once people have convinced themselves that they can lead, they must convince others, President Mark C. Anarumo said. This starts with impressions, which matter because people size one another up constantly. They’re asking, “Are you competent?” “Can I trust you?” and “Can I respect you?”

The entire structure aligns with Polaris, the north star, a marker lost navigators used to find direction. A circular section of the skylight, called the oculus, beamed light into the building’s Honor Boardroom. Cadets under review for breaching the honor code would sit under the oculus’s light, see Polaris’ direction and rediscover their lost center, and a new way forward.

Anarumo could just as well have been addressing the Corps of Cadets and civilian students in Mack Hall, Norwich University’s own $24 million leadership speaker’s space. Early in the talk, a very Norwich question loomed over his shoulder from a projection screen. “Can you build leaders?,” it asked. “How can you build a good organization?”

Anarumo asked the assembly, “What do you think? Are leaders born or are leaders built?” Some hands went up for born, others for built; some hands stayed in laps both times. Anarumo told the audience his view had evolved; he had long thought leaders were born and people “got what they got.” No longer.

“I made decisions in my life organizationally that were tied to that premise,” he said. “Actually I believe now that not only was I wrong, I was dead wrong.”

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Norwich President Mark C. Anarumo said a successful leadership culture rests on a tripod — trust (integrity), communication and modeling. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Before leaders can lead, they must believe they can. Anarumo described how a grade-school teacher had pushed him toward safety patrol leadership, even as his friends ribbed him. Why, he asked her, would she do that?

“‘Because, Mark,’ she said, ‘you’re a natural leader,’” Anarumo said.

“My entire life was built upon her putting that in my head … it made me feel like a leader, so it made me more effective as a leader,” he told the audience. “If there’s a singular event we can give these cadets, we’re on the right track.”

Once people have convinced themselves that they can lead, they must convince others. This starts with impressions, which matter because people size one another up constantly. They’re asking, “Are you competent?” “Can I trust you?” and “Can I respect you?”

To make the answer yes, purported leaders must do three things, Anarumo said — elevate their own performance, lift others, and live honorably. Presented graphically, the ideas formed a chain of intersecting circles. The last matters particularly, he said, because without honor, no one can build trust. No trust, no leadership.

Sometimes, spirit over size

Although evolutionarily people might choose the biggest, loudest people (who would theoretically not get them killed) as leaders, surprises happen, Anarumo said. He told of a strapping 200-pound-plus male cadet (and football linebacker) who, being afraid of heights, froze halfway up a ropes course wall. A 98-pound female peer saved him. She scrambled up the wall, looked over, saw him, then crawled back down and dragged him over the wall, hand over hand.

“When that (woman) came down off the wall, who’s everyone looking at as a leader?” Anarumo said. “‘Hello, small person, please keep us alive.’ ... That person showed a high level of competence, effectiveness and integrity that the other guy did not, even though he was physically imposing.”

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With the right culture, people of all skill types can find their niche, Anarumo said, and propel forward like the Air Force’s best jets — with both vector and thrust. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Anarumo said good leaders understand culture as the overarching ingredient for success. Culture-building supersedes strategy, resources and talent, he said; great tactics will fail if the culture can’t support them. Sports prove that even teams with star-studded rosters can lose more often than they win.

Anarumo has said several times, before and after his hire, that Norwich has a culture that promotes excellence and success.

“The foundation is so profoundly strong,” Anarumo said in a Nov. 19, 2019, Mack Hall address to Norwich faculty, staff and students. “The school is operating at a very, very high level. Personnel that are here are doing remarkable things.”

In his Air Force Academy address, Anarumo said culture rests on a tripod — trust (integrity), communication and modeling. And though diligence is excellent, indolence is also valuable. Smart people who may seem less than industrious may also have the imagination to find head-smackingly powerful solutions. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, for example, knew that programmers who didn’t want to write 350 lines of code would find ways to perform the same task in 30.

With the right culture, people of all skill types can find their niche, Anarumo said, and propel forward like the Air Force’s best jets — with both vector and thrust.

“Integrity is everything, you must get it and preserve it at all costs,” he said. “And culture trumps all else. You can be underresourced with low levels of talent and very weak strategy, but with the right culture, you’re still going to be successful.”

VIEW RECENT TOWN HALLS WITH PRESIDENT MARK C. ANARUMO:

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