I don’t care how good you are. You are not good enough to put a naval officer’s hat on top of a greased, stone monument on your own. You can’t jump that high. You are not that strong. You are not that determined. But, you can do so easily (sort of) with a team.
Several hundred young warriors will storm a 21-foot-high obelisk at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, slipping and sliding as they form a human pyramid around a monument covered in 50 pounds of vegetable shortening. The annual tradition marks the end of their hellacious “plebe” year at the academy, the country’s premier training ground for Navy and Marine Corps officers. But that year is only over once the freshmen, known as plebes, manage to replace a “dixie cup” cap perched at the monument’s tip with an upperclassman’s hat. With hundreds of spectators watching in person and hundreds of thousands watching online, the Herndon Climb is the ultimate test of the teamwork and perseverance taught during the plebes’ first year.
My father graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1967, and he told me about this tradition that started back in 1907 where plebes (freshmen) scaled the Herndon monument to celebrate the end of their first year.
Their year started with an arduous Plebe Summer when most of their friends were sitting by the pool before they entered traditional college settings. After months of academic study, physical and mental challenges, and exceptionally short haircuts, they were transitioning to the next phase of their studies.
Rituals and common challenges are important to teams. They build camaraderie and bonds that are important when times get tough and people tend to retreat into themselves. Climbing a pole covered with vegetable shortening may seem silly, but the Navy deals with real world circumstances with terminal consequences if things go wrong. If they don’t think these events are a waste of time or frivolous, perhaps we have something to learn about how to get people to come together.
Two other items of note: they keep score and keep making it harder.
The event is timed every year, and they take pride in beating the record. They come up with new methods, rehearse, and assign roles based on people’s strengths (big people on the bottom, light people on the top, etc.). Managed competition works.
Also, they are constantly making the challenge more difficult by adding new variables (grease, the dixie cup on top, etc.) and not changing the expectations for the time to complete the task.
Because that is how the world works…