MISSION FIRST: A Frontrunner For Leadership




Dec. 6, 2013

by Pamela Flenke

On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill gave his renowned "Iron Curtain" speech at Missouri's Westminster College. Referencing the newly founded United Nations, Churchill stated, "...We must be certain that our temple is built, not upon shifting sands or quagmires, but upon a rock."

Today, Westminster College is led by President Dr. George "Barney" Forsythe, a 1970 graduate of the United States Military Academy. The solid foundation, or "rock," of Forsythe's life and career thus far has been a commitment to leadership.

A self-proclaimed "Army brat," Barney's father was a career Army officer. His father's career kept the family moving, as Barney's formative high school years were split between Fort Benning, Ga., and Schofield Barracks, Hawai'i. Despite the transient nature of his childhood, Barney always knew what he wanted to do with his life.

"I knew I wanted to be an Army officer all my life," says Forsythe. "It was fair to say I was a late-bloomer, so I never thought I'd ever be able to go to West Point. As an `only child,' I grew up with a close relationship with my parents, and from birth, I saw my father in senior leadership positions. He spent a lot of time talking about leadership and sharing his experiences with me."

An average student in high school who didn't do much in the way of extracurricular activities, Barney discovered a talent during a fitness test sophomore year which would eventually pave the way for his admission to West Point. Forced to run the 100-yard dash in gym class, Barney beat out the school's top sprinter, catching the eye of the track and field coach. By junior year, Barney was a Hawai'i state champion sprinter.

Barney's athletic triumphs gave him the confidence to succeed in the classroom, improving his grades by the time his family was once again transferred to Fort Benning for his senior year. With track merits stacking up and academics coming together, combined with his father's aide being a West Point graduate with a personal relationship to track coach Carleton Crowell, the stars started to align for Barney and West Point.

"As I began to develop as an athlete and mature as a student, things came together. I always had this sense that coach Crowell recruited `good kids.' He looked for youngsters with some track talent but really looked for kids who wanted to be Army officers that he could develop into track athletes. That was the biggest break I have ever had, or at least one of the top two or three; which is why I stayed involved with the track team when I was on the faculty and staff at West Point."

Barney ran a variety of events while a member of Army's track team, ranging from the 60-yard dash to the quarter mile as well as any number of relays. With "Plebes" not allowed to compete in varsity athletics at that time, Barney enjoyed a successful three-year career. A number of his highlights were associated with never losing a "Star Meet" to Navy.

"One of my most vivid memories of Army-Navy competition, and I have lots of them, is when I set the Academy record in the 600-yard run," says Barney. "I tied it my junior year at Army and broke it my senior year down at Navy and it was their field house record for several decades.

"They stopped running the 600 yards in the 1980s and went to the 500 meters. I'd like to say I retired the 600-yard record," jokes Forsythe. "I'll never forget the morning of that meet, coach Crowell came in and read letters and telegrams from graduates deployed all over the world, in Vietnam and everything, saying, `Go Army, Beat Navy,' wishing us good luck. It really hit home that this was a big family and there were people all over the world that knew this was the Army-Navy meet and cared about what we were doing. I was blown away. We set the relay record that day."

Barney still holds the indoor 600-yard record while also being a member of the top mile indoor relay team.

After graduating from West Point, Barney served with the Berlin Brigade in Germany, gaining command of a company very early in his career as a lieutenant before being promoted to captain. When given the option to command a Ranger company or return stateside to attend graduate school and become a teacher, Forsythe chose the latter.

"I knew that I wanted to go back to West Point," says Forsythe. "I was one of those strange cadets that loved my cadet days and loved West Point. I've had a `love relationship' with West Point and knew that I wanted to go back for a teaching assignment."

Barney immediately got involved with the track and cross country programs, serving as an officer representative and scoring official at home meets when the demands of raising a family proved to be too strenuous to maintain the role of an officer representative.

After attending the Army War College, Barney looked at the leadership program at West Point and realized there was one facet missing from the development curriculum.

"We recognized we needed to add to the leadership portfolio some research activities; to not only apply knowledge locally at West Point, but to begin to generate knowledge that would inform Army policy and practice as well. We set up the Center for Leadership and Organizations Research...and began studying leadership and leader development both in the Corps of Cadets and beyond in the Army.

"The Army's approach to leadership up to the mid-1990s was a training-dominated paradigm. We began to introduce the notion of leader development as a lifespan kind of experience which is now fully embedded in Army doctrine."

Forsythe's work with leadership soon started to take on a global feel. The college professor was requested by the Defense Attaché to develop a leadership program at the Military Academy in Bangladesh, while also helping to assess the problems with the Los Angeles Police Department following the L.A. riots and Rodney King controversy. His work with the LAPD ended up translating into what is now West Point's leadership program for police forces.

Most recently, Forsythe, who was West Point's Vice Dean at the time, traveled to Afghanistan to develop a concept for a military academy with the support of West Point and the Air Force Academy. The National Military Academy of Afghanistan opened in 2005 and graduated its first class in 2009.

"In many ways, that individual project was the most satisfying of my career. In a very short period of time we developed a model and West Point and the Air Force Academy went `All-In' and made it a reality."

With the goal of becoming a dean at a liberal arts college, Forsythe retired as vice dean of West Point and from the Army with the rank of brigadier general in 2005. The president at Westminster College at the time was Fletcher Lamkin, who served as dean at West Point while Forsythe was vice dean. Forsythe was tabbed Westminster's chief academic officer, and when Lamkin retired in 2007, Forsythe was named interim president before taking the permanent reins in 2008.

"If you look at Westminster's mission, the first two verbs are educate and inspire, and also contains leadership and character. It looks a lot like the West Point mission and I felt like I could learn a lot and make a contribution at the same time."

Now the head of a liberal arts college of over 1,000 students, he reflects on who and what molded him into the leader he is today. In that list, Forsythe includes his "three-star" General father, who wrote to him every Sunday during his cadet years, even during consecutive tours in Vietnam. "I have a collection of letters of a father mentoring a son who wants to grow up to be an Army officer. Even long distance, he was my mentor."

Forsythe's years competing for the Army track team under Army Hall of Fame Coach Carleton Crowell proved to be some of the most influential as well.

"Coach Crowell, my track coach, was a great mentor to me early on. His approach to leadership has been an inspiration to me. He would do his job but be very respectful. He was a gentleman. He knew how to motivate people in a quiet, confident and competent style.

"Intercollegiate athletics, when done right, can be a wonderful laboratory for developing leadership and character," Forsythe continues. "There is a sense of mission and focus. There's a sense of subordinating your self-interest for the common good. There's self-discipline both in terms of the training required and the preparation for and competing, all of which are really important aspects of being a leader."

More than 67 years after Churchill made his famous speech at Westminster, the college's president, Dr. Barney Forsythe, has shown how building upon a strong foundation can help someone reach heights an "Army brat" never dreamt he could.

Check back on Monday for LT. COL. GAYLORD GREENE: Going The Distance.

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