West Point Society Builds Future Leaders of Character

Photography by Brian Ambs

“Your decisions will define who you are and the legacy you leave,” University of Cincinnati president Santa J. Ono told to a large group of Tristate high school students on February 6 at the third annual Seminar on Leadership and Ethics at Springdale Nazarene Church.

Ono returned for his second year as keynote speaker for students and faculty from 90 area high schools in Greater Cincinnati. To develop up-and-coming leaders, Ono said, “Pay it forward to the next generation.” Area executives and companies have a unique opportunity to sponsor the character development of students in this burgeoning initiative.

Dan Knowles, West Point class of 1979, is chairman of the Leaders of Character Initiative, which is sponsored by the West Point Society of Cincinnati (WPSC). The seminar is part of that initiative and based on curriculum used to train West Point cadets and faculty, but Knowles points out, “It is meant to enhance leadership development, regardless of whether they are interested in West Point or some other path.” The seminar deliberately includes speakers and instructors with no military connection to ensure a broad perspective. Knowles describes the program as one built to help students learn how “to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong ...”

The L&E program began in 2013 to build competent, ethical decision-makers in high schools. WPSC president Nathan Pelletier, class of 2003, says a main goal is to help school administrators and teachers build “sustainable leadership development into their everyday activities.” This envelopment of ethical thinking has reached many students. David Rice, a senior at Covington Catholic High School, participated in 2014 and returned as a small group facilitator this year. Rice says the seminar is crucial to develop strong leadership skills among his peers, and returned “to continue becoming a better leader.”

Tristate high schools select two sophomores or juniors and a faculty member to attend the event. Seminar organizers ensure representation from public, private, urban, rural and suburban high schools. The program has nearly doubled in size since 2013. Faculty can apply for continuing education credit. A values-based training workshop presented by the Medal of Honor Foundation and hosted by GE is added this year for the 90 faculty participants and their principals. Knowles also announced that 12 college scholarships of up to $1,500 are now available to students: eight are provided by the WPSC, and four are offered by the Better Business Bureau of Cincinnati. In addition to the scholarships, the Cincinnati Reds donated 300 tickets to the June 8 game against the Philadelphia Phillies for participants to reconvene at the Great American Ballpark.

After Ono’s opening comments, the 280 participants were divided into classroom discussions groups. Students were given hypothetical vignettes of ethical dilemmas to problem-solve as leaders. The steps in West Point’s Ethical Decision-Making Model are used to analyze and execute the values-based decision. Students learned quickly that there is not always a black or white solution; many layers of gray are painted into the problems. Students, however, discovered that when they rely on their personal core values, the “harder right” decision often emerges from the fog. Faculty participants rotate through three different workshops focused on how to identify emerging student leaders, help them give “voice to their values” and create a climate that encourages ethical leadership behaviors.

Leadership development lessons from the seminar continue to be reinforced throughout the year as students meet monthly with faculty participant mentors. A structured mentoring program developed by the L&E Seminar staff was shared with faculty participants to encourage further learning. Pelletier says, “The L&E team is committed to making practical tools and simple techniques available to teachers and administrators to help them bring the concepts to life.”

Local businesses and executives can help grow ethical leaders by encouraging high schools to participate in this enriching program, which is presented free of charge. Each graduate receives a letter of recognition from their state’s governor and local member of Congress. The L&E program is a lucrative investment in our communities; the returns will be strong, ethical leaders in our near future.


The West Point Society of Cincinnati is a 501(c) (3) organization. Donors are Procter & Gamble, General Electric, PNC Bank, Total Quality Logistics, the Reds, the Heidt Family Foundation, LCA Vision, members of the WPSC, and other companies and individuals. The program needs support from community leaders and businesses. To volunteer your leadership and expertise, time and to invest in our future leaders, please visit www.leadersofcharacters.org, or contact Dan Knowles at dtknowles@gmail.com.