For the past few years, Facebook Chief Executive Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” has been a topic of conversation among my female officer peers. Many of them identify with the topics she addresses: leading as a woman in a male-dominated career field, managing the work-life balance, and taking risks in order to pursue career opportunities.
At the same time, the topic of women in the Army has been in the public eye of the storm throughout 2015, as the small cohort of women soldiers made their way successfully through the first opportunity to attend Ranger School, one of the Army’s elite leadership challenges. Every day, they faced the sort of risk that many military — and most civilian — women can’t imagine pursuing.
Reflecting on these topics got me thinking. While civilian-authored professional reading material contributes to the conversation about women in management or supervisory positions, what leadership insights can military women bring to the table?
I interviewed a series of Army officers, all of whom had served in command positions. Some of the women are still in company command, while others, such as Col. Laura R. Trinkle, have served at all levels of command, from company to battalion to brigade. Without exception, they generously shared lessons learned, insights gained, and challenges met, all of which became even more relevant as I began my own journey into company command in March.
Leadership is an expectation.
One of the first things that became clear as I began this series of interviews is that military women don’t lean in, they step up. Whether an individual interviewed for command, pursued command, or — as happened in one of these cases — became commander by default, leadership was an expectation, not just a pursuit.
Whereas Sandberg speaks of her personal observations that more men than women were willing to “lean in” — to take a risk on moving to a new business venture or assume a new leadership position — military officers face the same leadership expectations regardless of gender.
After six years as a platoon leader with the 146th Quartermaster Company at Fort Totten, New York, then-1st Lt. Cherryann M. Joseph was chosen to act as the interim company commander when the previous commander left. She expected the position to be temporary; however, when the battalion changed command, the new commander decided to make it official and keep her on as the company commander, a position she held from February 1999 to July 2002.
“It was an interesting experience,” said Joseph, who retired from the Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. Her first year, in particular, brought several challenges including removing her motor sergeant after he made threats against her, and another full-time support soldier who was arrested due to an alcohol problem. Additionally, her civilian unit administrator had a good relationship with the previous commander and they got off to a rocky start. “He knew I wouldn’t tolerate certain things.”
Many of these issues were on Joseph’s radar from having previously served in the unit, and after her first year in command, Joseph and her soldiers overcame many of the initial challenges.
“After that initial year, I enjoyed being in command,” Joseph said. “After that, it was a matter of making sure we had the proper resources to train.”
Joseph was in command for two and a half years when she faced one of the most challenging situations that the New York Army Reserve units have ever had to face: the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was able to help guide my unit through that,” said Joseph, whose unit coordinated needed logistics during the crisis.
While Joseph found herself in command almost by default, she was still expected to lead from the front once put in a command position. This is a much different focus than that found in a civilian organization such as those profiled by Sandberg. The women who serve as officers in the Army all face the same organizational expectation: When they are called to lead, they will step up to the challenge.
Leadership is about empowering subordinates.
When asked what made them successful as commanders, every single woman I interviewed referenced her relationship with her subordinates. They showed a deep understanding that soldiers and subordinates must be duly engaged in the leadership process in order to succeed as an organization.
“You get paid to make the hard decisions,” according to Trinkle, who currently serves as commander of the Army’s Medical Department Activity, Fort George G. Meade in Maryland. Those decisions, however, are supported by a staff to advise the commander; the better the staff, the better the advice. In order to rely fully on one’s staff — which becomes a necessity when one operates at higher levels of command — the leadership challenge becomes to develop the subordinates who you will be relying on for guidance when the hard decisions come around.
“Leadership is largely contingent upon an ability to build relationships,” Trinkle said. For Trinkle, this process involved explaining her decisions as much as possible in order to develop a sense of trust between her and her subordinates. She advised that this method enabled them to develop a sense of confidence in her and the organization that sustained them in a time of crisis.
Even though some of her personnel contributed to her challenges, Joseph pointed out that she relied on a cadre of full-time soldiers who were very strong, supportive, and knowledgeable. These soldiers supported her efforts to put the unit back on track, no matter their rank.
“I have a [supply] specialist who was motivated and smart,” Joseph said. “He came in and cleaned everything up.” His efforts even included sleeping in the office when necessary to get the mission done.
“When soldiers know you care for them … they’re willing to go above and beyond,” Joseph said.
When Army National Guard Capt. Mary J. Hubbard assumed command of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1/224th Aviation Battalion, the unit had been without a company commander for 10 months. In her first year in command, she had three different first sergeants as she sought to put the unit back on track.
“People’s heads were spinning the first few months,” said Hubbard, who added that she had intended to observe at first, but found herself forced to begin implementing change almost immediately. “I didn’t intend on going in there to make a lot of friends; I went in to get them ready to deploy.
A former Marine noncommissioned officer herself, Hubbard sat down with her senior NCOs and staff-section leaders to start getting them involved in taking care of soldiers and establishing ground rules. She established a rapport with her supply sergeant and readiness NCO to start working through some of the maintenance issues that the unit faced.
“[The soldiers] started caring about each other … a lot of the soldiers started to become more invested,” said Hubbard, who eventually led her troops on a deployment to Kosovo in 2013.
The work-life balance requires a strategy, and tradeoffs.
There is no shortage of advice out in the world on successfully maintaining the balance between work and family life. A quick search of corporate literature reveals a long list of articles geared toward working moms, working dads, millennials, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, hipsters, and pretty much anyone who has ever worked and thought about having a family.
In the military, with its frequent deployments, 24-hour duties, and week- to month-long field training exercises, maintaining a healthy relationship with work and life requires an aggressive strategy to actively manage one’s career progression through the many changes that come. Just as there are different levels of leadership and different units in which to lead, there is not one solution to the work-life question, but many that may change over time. But they do require a good deal of planning and integration to succeed.
“I had to make that commitment, that while this was a part-time unit, I had to be a full-time commander,” said Hubbard. With her job as a civilian at Aberdeen Proving Ground, she found herself working “insane hours.” Thus, any improvements in the unit were a “huge team effort.”
“The ‘big win’ days — which are few and far between — are when I’m a great mom and a great commander,” said Capt. Brenda Beegle, commander of 118th Military Police Company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Her daughter, Andi, was 2 years old when Beegle approached her brigade commander for the opportunity to take command.
“I told [the command team] I wanted to lead soldiers, and I think I’m good at it,” said Beegle. When asked how she would handle being a mother and a father, Beegle informed her chain of command of the measures she had already taken to ensure that when the opportunity arose, she would be ready.
“My husband is a stay-at-home father,” said Beegle. “I want to be where I am, and I chose this career path.”
As the commander of an airborne military police line company, Beegle now spends her time leading her soldiers as they perform garrison law enforcement duties on Fort Bragg, conduct field training exercises, and jump from high-performance aircraft.
Leadership is a responsibility, not just an opportunity to get ahead.
Civilian women seeking insight into the art of guiding teams toward a common goal can also learn from servicewomen.
“Go with your passion,” Trinkle advised. She cautioned against choosing assignments that merely “checked a block” along a pre-ordained career progression. “There’s no ‘one’ path.”
“It’s important that leaders recognize that they’re not in positions for themselves,” Joseph said. Leaders must demonstrate that they care for their subordinates and show them that they view leadership as a duty and responsibility, not just an opportunity to benefit. “That’s a critical part of leadership.”
As much as Beegle had prepared herself for command, she admitted that there was much she wasn’t as prepared for as she thought. She recommends reading the book, “Muddy Boots Leadership,” a copy of which she keeps on her desk. Above all, the most important thing is to take care of one’s subordinates and to not give up.
“When there’s a problem I can’t solve,” Beegle said, “I think, what can I do.”
During her 18 months in command at Evans Army Community Hospital, Capt. Bethany Wagner served as the company commander for 460 officers, warrant officers, and enlisted soldiers across the spectrum of medical professions. In addition to the large number of troops under her command, approximately one-third outranked her.
“The biggest challenge was how to get them to do what we needed them to do to stay compliant,” said Wagner. As a company commander in a medical setting, the focus was on maintaining high standards of patient care around the clock, while still accomplishing the Army’s required training.
“I figured out early I had to attack problems up front,” said Wagner, who added that she also learned not to rely on email as a communication method. Rather, she needed to tailor her communication method depending on the situation and the person with whom she was communicating. “Different people respond to different things.”
Leadership is a journey.
The challenges of commanding soldiers may be unique to the military, but the insights gained by the women who lead from the front are translatable to civilian leaders of any gender.
Sandberg’s book stands out in part due to the scarcity of high-level female leaders in the corporate arena. Fortune Magazine reported in 2014 that women represented 4.8% of all Fortune 500 CEOs, and in 2015 continued to explore many of the barriers facing women who aspire to leadership positions. A 2009 study published by Rutgers University Institute for Women’s Leadership put the statistic for women in general and flag officer leadership positions at approximately 14% — slightly higher, but still small enough to be comparable to the civilian proportions.
Where I believe the military diverges from the civilian world in terms of developing leaders is that as men and women rise through the ranks, they are not given the opportunity to “lean in” or out, as the case may be. Rather, they are required to immerse themselves in a profession of arms that levels the constant expectation that at any given moment, an officer will be called on to lead others.
The insights of leaders such as those profiled above contribute to the greater conversation regarding what it means to motivate teams across military or civilian boundaries. It is my hope that we will be able to add these women’s voices to the conversation about what it means to lead, and what it means to serve as a woman in a position of leadership.