Virginia Military Institute — the BEST Mentoring System in the World

Mentoring is/was a fashionable topic amongst the venture capital and startup Illuminati for years. I have written about it for a long time. A good mentor can make a mediocre founder into a winner.

Full disclosure: I run a CEO coaching/mentoring business called The Wisdom of the Campfire and have for a dozen years. I take clients only by referral and personal introduction. I do zero marketing and do not even have a website.

Everybody in startup world had to have a celebrity CEO coach. This was caused by two specific conditions:

 1. Venture capitalists know next to nothing about actually running a business. More than 75% of their investments fail, so what does that tell you?

 2. Young startup founders/CEOs have had zero training in leadership the lingua franca of building even a lemonade stand.

Comes now the mentor — some seasoned chap who has actually built a few businesses and been a CEO to mentor the startup founders/CEOs. It is a simple equation.

Where does VMI fit into this, Big Red Car?

VMI is in the mentoring racket from day one. Let me tell you something about VMI.

 1. VMI, my alma mater, was founded in 1839 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and shares a property line with Washington & Lee University in lovely Southern Lexington, Virginia.

You cannot believe the dogwoods and azaleas in the spring.

VMI, where Stonewall Jackson taught before the Civil War, was such a thorn in the side of the Union that they raided Lexington and shelled the school to the ground in retaliation while also doing some book burning next door at W & L.

 2. VMI is the classic “good place to be from, hard as Hell place to be” coming of age, transformational experience which has been producing citizen-soldiers for almost two centuries.

 3. Second only to George Washington, George Catlett Marshall — General of the Armies, “The Architect of Victory” in World War II attributed to Winston Churchill, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Envoy to China, originator of the Marshall Plan, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and a man who turned down millions to write his memoir by saying “I did not enter public service to aggrandize my purse” — was a graduate.

 4. VMI is a fine engineering and liberal arts school as attested to by every ranking service. To be a contender in both engineering/STEM and liberal arts is unique.

Understanding the VMI system

VMI is a complex organism that is built on structure — big surprise that a military school that’s survived for almost two centuries is high on structure? Look at the barracks — structure?

 1. The school has a military structure in which the 1600 member Corps of Cadets is organized as a regiment with three battalions with cadet first classmen (seniors) running the show.

This military structure will provide military training to the Rats and leadership training to the corps.

 2. There is a class system within barracks in which the first class runs the show through elected classmates and provides cultural discipline and training to the newly entered Rats (fourth classmen, freshmen).

 3. There is the academic structure in which academic departments oversee the educating of cadets to fulfill degree requirements to be granted degrees overseen by a Dean of the Faculty.

 4. There is an additional professional military structure that runs the Reserve Officer Training Corps with Professors of Military Science from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. A cadet can seek a commission in any of those branches of the military.

This structure provides tactical officers to each of the companies in the cadet regiment and also oversees the ROTC scholars being educated on the Federal nickel at VMI.

 5. There is your individual class — you call your classmates “Brother Rats.” Yes, Ronald Reagan was in a movie called “Brother Rat” set at VMI.

 6. There is a Division I sports program fielding teams in almost every sport including boxing.

 7. All of this is overseen by a formal administration run by the Superintendent (typically a distinguished general officer grad of VMI), a Board of Visitors appointed by the Governor of Virginia, and the Commandant whose office is in barracks.

This is a complex structure that has taken almost two centuries to evolve into its current form and to work out the kinks.

The Culture is everything

Culture is driven by values and after almost two centuries of operation, the culture at VMI is strong and battle tested.

At its core is the Honor Code which is the last remaining single sanction honor system amongst all the military schools in America.

A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who do. It is that simple.

The cadets run the Honor Court whereat they conduct trials of alleged transgressors. If found guilty of an honor violation, the Honor Court conducts a tribal ritual with the Corps being summoned to the edge of their floor in the quadrangle barracks at some ungodly hour to the beat of a snare and a bass drum, the entry of the Honor Court into the quadrangle, and the Honor Court President delivering the sentence of dismissal.

This brutal, unwavering military ritual is unlike any other school.

VMI espouses, as part of its culture, achievement and if a cadet attains a certain academic performance is awarded “academic stars” to wear on his or her uniform.

The culture is driven by academic achievement, leadership training, character development, and something I call “social dexterity” — the ability to live in small, confining quarters (four to a room sometimes) and get along with people of all backgrounds.

The culture is the most complete meritocracy I have ever personally encountered. The first day they shave your head and whatever you may achieve in your four years will start from that equal and humbling starting point.

Ahhh, mentoring, Big Red Car?

Yes, dear reader, mentoring.

 1. When you arrive at VMI as a Rat — a moment that will be seared into your psyche forever — you are assigned a first class dyke. This term derives from the uniform white dykes worn for parade and the fact that a fourth classman assists his first class dyke in “dyking out.”

This first class dyke will be your savior, your academic spur, your font of cadet wisdom, and your friend in a hostile environment. It is his duty to assimilate you into the corps.

 2. The lowly Rat will have an academic adviser in their selected course of study. You will report with your report card to your academic adviser — in my day we got six report cards per semester Rat year — and get an ass chewing or the assignment of a tutor or a pat on the back.

 3. A Rat will eventually be assigned to a company — usually by height — and you will become great pals with a corporal squad leader (this is an inside joke as corporals torment Rats), a platoon sergeant, a platoon leader, a company executive officer, and a company commander.

 4. Your company will have an active duty tac officer.

 5. You will be assigned to an ROTC department and you will have a Professor of Military Science (for whom the tac officer may work as an instructor).

 6. Inside the barracks you will meet the Commandant, typically a recent retiree from the military with a distinguished combat record and a full Colonel.

 7. You will have your roommates and you will have your class leaders.

 8. If you play sports, you will have a cadre of coaches and assistant coaches.

The depth of available mentors is unlike any other school in America. The formal program of mentorship is comprehensive and deep. It is far reaching from academics to barracks to the military to the athletic fields.

Does it work, Big Red Car?

Yes, by any objective standard the VMI system of mentorship produces an excellent specimen of the “citizen-soldier.”

A parent delivers a smart ass high school student and four years later a confident young man or woman emerges from Limits Gate ready to bite the ass off a bear at dawn.

In three more days, the most recent crop of VMI grads will emerge. Bears everywhere are cautioned to lie low at dawn for the next few days.

Is it important, Big Red Car

Yes, dear reader, VMI and its graduates are important to the Commonwealth, the Nation, and the world. We are running out of institutions in America that produce educated leaders with character.

We live in challenging times in which the forming of character is not only waning; it is literally ignored.

There is a war on the horizon and like every war since its founding in 1839, VMI grads will drop their plows and pick up their rifles and serve until victory. This is who VMI is.

If you have a kid who has the grit to take this test, they will mold him into a person who can make their way in the world. There will be capable men and women at VMI to mentor your child to the finish line and they’ve been doing it for almost two centuries. It works.