By Major Phoebe Sisk, Texas State Guard
The Art and Science of Becoming a Leader
Austin - You'll need to be at the top of your class with straight A's if you're applying to USMA (better known as West Point), but even so, most who aspire to attend will fall into the 90% of applicants who are not accepted.
Not so for Texas State Guard Chief of Staff Colonel Darren Fitz Gerald, who will tell you that he chose to attend West Point because it was the only college that did accept him out of the handful of highly competitive, nationally ranked institutions to which he applied. “I was wait-listed by Duke, Dartmouth, John Hopkins, and other service academies,” he said.
As a world premier leader-development institution and the most prestigious military academy in the world, West Point is consistently ranked among the top colleges in the country, admitting 1000-1400 new “plebes” each year who fall in to join the total ranks of 4400 cadets for the Acceptance Day parade. According to Fitz Gerald, not all plebes who start will finish. “Of the 1310 in my class, only 929 actually graduated,” he said.
As West Point seeks candidates with academic prowess, physical fitness, leadership potential, and a congressional or service-related nomination, Fitz Gerald, is presented as the ideal profile. Raised by hardworking parents, Fitz Gerald assimilated their good example of discipline and ethics to become a well-rounded, high school high achiever.
Earning exemplary grades as an honor student, Fitz Gerald was also an accomplished athlete, playing soccer and serving as the varsity captain of the track team. Additionally, he demonstrated maturity and self-governance by mentoring and caring for his two younger siblings; holding an after-school job; writing for the school paper; and keeping the company of other high achievers.
With just the right variables of nature and nurture in his Massachusetts upbringing, Fitz Gerald was a self-avowed “born conformist” who benefited from the influence of his parents' German and Irish heritage in developing their same sensibilities of grit and extreme order in the household.
Raised in a home built in 1720, the house, and especially the kitchen, was immaculately maintained without exception. And sleeping in sub-freezing temperatures, with only a wood-burning stove for warmth, was never viewed as a hardship but rather as a practicality of daily life.
Fitz Gerald describes the dedication of his parents in sharing the responsibilities of bringing in income for the family, with his father working as an x-ray department administrator during the day and his mother working as a hospital lab tech at night. “My parents just did what needed to be done,” he said. “It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I realized the degree of their sacrifice to provide for us. We weren’t wealthy but I was raised in a home in which all my needs were provided for, and I never once wondered whether I was loved,” said FitzGerald.
Fitz Gerald describes a surprisingly easy integration into life at West Point, based on his ability to respond instinctively to the training environment. The philosophical approach of no excuses and no wasted words or actions had become second nature due to his own parents’ unspoken code of ethics. “I realized in the first few weeks that I was good at being a cadet,” he said, “and at 18 months, I really understood and embraced the commitment I was making to the military.”
Fitz Gerald’s natural fit in the West Point environment led to career experiences beyond his four years of schooling, including obtaining a master’s degree in leadership and counseling in 2002-2003 and joining the staff, originally as a TAC officer. Later, FitzGerald would become a Professor of Military Science and Commandant of Cadets for Wentworth Military Academy & College.
To date, mentoring young persons and assisting in their professional and personal development remains the most significant accomplishment of his career. “I am most fulfilled in helping people reach their potential,” says Fitz Gerald.
Piotr Drwal, currently training to be a pilot in the Army, benefitted from the mentoring of Fitz Gerald as a cadet under his tutelage at Wentworth Military Academy and College in Lexington, Missouri, where Fitz Gerald served as Dean of Students and Commandant of Cadets through 2017.
According to Drwal, Fitz Gerald used every opportunity to ensure his growth as a cadet, treating him as family and taking time to give detailed input to ensure success. “We believed as cadets that he did not make mistakes- he appeared to be everywhere, ready to give feedback on what ‘right’ looks like and to hypothesize scenarios to share lessons learned,” he said.
This input early on, according to Drwal, has enormously impacted the military leader that he is today. “COL Fitz Gerald is someone that I wanted to emulate within my military career- I knew it would be hard, but I like to aim high. He set a notable example and is an inspirational person who has positively affected thousands of people,” said Drwal.
Leading with Intent
As someone who has mastered the art of instruction, Fitz Gerald appreciates West Point as the optimal training environment due to students being a captive audience- with zero distractions- who will have no choice but to embrace the challenges before them.
“Cadets are given progressive increases in responsibility with room to fail,” said Fitz Gerald. “Additionally, participation is mandatory- cadets can’t escape, they can’t hide, they can’t opt out... they must face the task at hand head-on and grow from it. Inevitably, in every situation, they will learn to succeed because there is no other choice...it's the immersive environment at a military school that sets it apart from other environments.”
In his twenty-year career in the active-duty military, Fitz Gerald learned one of his most difficult leadership lessons during deployment to Afghanistan. After two company commanders were killed in action, Fitz Gerald came to understand well the criticality of having trained and ready personnel. “It’s important that you have other leaders who are mentally prepared and equipped to step in as immediately as necessary,” he said.
Also born of extreme circumstances during his tour of Afghanistan was the honing of his instincts to know and trust subordinate officers. “One of the most significant decisions I had to make while deployed was to go against the intent of a senior commander in order to support a junior commander’s decision to put the safety of his team above a recovery mission,” said Fitz Gerald. “I was well familiar with his extensive background in special operations and understood why he was making the call- it was the right choice,” he said.
Whether in war or garrison, Fitz Gerald maintains that integrity is the most important leadership trait in that it informs all other principles of leadership- and because, without it, trust is not possible within an organization.
By all indications, Fitz Gerald has excelled in winning the trust of other senior leaders on the Texas State Guard staff, including those tried and tested combat veterans who do not necessarily give it freely.
Texas State Guard Sergeant Major and retired Army veteran Juli Blenis has worked with COL Fitz Gerald since 2017 and acknowledges his willingness to execute tough decisions. “He is one of those leaders who has the integrity to do the right thing, even if it means he stands alone,” she said. “He’s an intelligent man and has demonstrated, over and over again through his actions, that integrity equals honor.”
Texas State Guard T-1 Master Sgt. Gerald Steward has worked with the Chief of Staff for the past 3 years and speaks plainly when it comes to his opinion of COL FitzGerald. “He’s the best leader I’ve worked for in 21 ½ years of federal service and two combat tours, hands down,” he said. “He’s very smart, fair, impartial, and a good listener- and even when he doesn’t agree with you, which he will readily do, he explains his reasons so that you leave the conversation feeling respected,” said Steward. “I also appreciate that he is a critical thinker, and he challenges us, as his staff, to read and be critical thinkers as well.”
Other staff members agree that Fitz Gerald is the best choice for the position he holds.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Daniel McCarroll, Deputy T-3 for Operations, “COL FitzGerald is level-headed with a calming presence, and is unquestionably the right face for the TXSG because of his military bearing and experience.”
McCarroll considers one of Fitz Gerald’s most valuable traits to be his readiness to engage in dynamic discussions about leadership, which includes sharing relevant experiences from Fitz Gerald’s days as an elite soccer coach. “Coaching and leadership go hand in hand in that the best leaders make coaching a part of their job,” said
McCarroll. “It’s amazing what you can learn about leadership from a good coach.”
Moreover, McCarroll appreciates Fitz Gerald’s forward-thinking posture in terms of growth for the organization. “He’s a steward of the profession of leadership. We’ve had great conversations in acknowledging that leaders grow leaders within an organization... to the extent of asking ourselves ‘How do we do that?’ We’ve recognized that our goal as TXSG HQ is to make ourselves obsolete by empowering and developing true leaders within the ranks,” said McCarroll.
Leadership: Not a Choice
Industry experts affirm that while we may choose to adopt certain styles or strategies as leaders, the dynamic of our continual influence over others is a fixed variable, according to behavioral psychology, and is represented as much by what we choose to do and say as what we choose not to.
It holds, therefore, that leadership is not a choice or an act that begins or ends. It follows us to the dinner table and, if you are COL Darren Fitz Gerald, to the sidelines of the soccer field.
And if you are COL Darren Fitz Gerald’s parents because your leadership followed you to the dinner table, your son’s his very first lessons of leadership were learned there, setting the stage for a later seamless and successful transition into first the United States Military Academy, or West Point, and then into the US Army and TXSG.
“I had no idea what I was getting into initially,” said Fitz Gerald, “but I believe my parents' example of hard work and ethical behavior set the foundation for what has become a rewarding military career."
The Texas State Guard is one of three branches of the Texas Military Department, along with the Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard. Other benefits of service in the Texas State Guard include state tuition assistance, a daily stipend for state active duty, and much more. A full list of benefits can be found online at tmd.texas.gov under the State Guard tab.