Curiosity, Discipline, Leadership: Lessons from an Education at The Citadel

This month, I am honored to be inducted into The Citadel’s Academy of Engineers. Since learning of this recognition earlier this year, I have been reflecting upon my time at The Citadel, and in particular the School of Engineering’s mission to “educate and develop principled engineering leaders to serve a global community.” The school guides students to live a life that is consistent with values that include integrity, diversity, respect for others, professional and intellectual development, and excellence through continued improvement.

It’s hard for me to believe that I graduated 40 years ago, because in many ways my education there still informs and inspires me today. I chose The Citadel after graduating from the New York Military Academy. Then as now, I enjoyed math and science—I was good with numbers but struggled with reading. The Citadel offered a structured educational environment that would focus on my strengths along with an excellent engineering program.

Nurturing Curious Minds: Learning Through Case Studies and Problem-Solving

All of the school’s professors were consulting engineers who brought real-world experience to the classroom. Classes were small, practical, and focused on problem-solving. I remember well the Dean of the School of Engineering at the time, Colonel Loring Himelright. He was a geotechnical engineer, so we all referred to him as “Dirt Daddy.” Col. Himelright’s lectures were fascinating—almost all of them were based on case studies in engineering failures, including dams and retaining walls. There was nothing abstract about his presentation—in every class, he drove home the reality that the professional engineer has an obligation to a high standard of care.

I recognize now that Col. Himelright and the other engineering professors were trying to stimulate their students’ curiosity. They certainly succeeded with me—my curiosity about engineering challenges has been a force throughout my career. It has allowed me to continue to hone my craft. Our profession has long been shaped by curious minds, and that in turn has shaped our society.

I also learned a lot about discipline in my years at The Citadel, as well as my time in the military. I learned the importance of discipline in particular in the context of decision-making. A disciplined approach to decision-making is vital to the direction that we take in our daily work, whether moving forward on a project or charting a direction for an entire company. This has been an invaluable lesson for me throughout my career.

“If You Want to Learn How to Lead, You Have to Learn How to Follow”

I knew I wanted to go into the military after I graduated from The Citadel. I often talked with my father about this. He had served in the New York Guard during World War II. He would say, “If you want to learn how to lead, you have to learn how to follow,” emphasizing the importance of humility in leadership. After a tough first year at The Citadel, where all freshmen learn something about humility, I joined the Army National Guard. I spent that summer in basic training at Fort Dix and at Fort Benning for AIT—Advanced Individual Training. Then I headed back to The Citadel in the fall to continue my studies. I admit it was a long year. The following summer, I went to the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning.

Empathy, Respect, and Stability

My time at The Citadel, as well as my years in the Army, taught me a lot about leadership. The Citadel’s well-known Fourth-Class System emphasizes self-discipline, teamwork, and a collective accountability by everyone on the team. I learned the importance of leadership qualities such as empathy and respect, and the need for structure and stability to create balance in life. Those lessons have served me well.

I continue my involvement with The Citadel by serving on the School of Engineering Executive Advisory Board and as chair of the Capital Development Committee. I still carry my cadet ID card with me in my wallet. Forty years after graduation, I am extremely grateful for the excellent education and lifelong lessons this institution provided me. I’m honored to join the school’s Academy of Engineers and will carry that distinction proudly.

 

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  • Donald E. Stone, Jr.
    Donald E. Stone, Jr.
 
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