Military service taught me important lessons about what it means to be a leader. Sometimes, those lessons came up when I least expected them — like on one winter day, while I was a lieutenant stationed outside Chicago, when I decided to provide hot cocoa for my platoon.
Back then, I was the only woman serving in my unit — and I was in the habit of avoiding doing or saying anything that would make me appear less tough than the men around me. When I was learning to be a helicopter pilot, I flew more simulation hours than any other student in my class, and as a result, I earned the top score on an important check ride. Even though I'd succeeded because I'd done my homework, one of the guys tried to insist I'd had an easy flight examiner. The class leader, who was a tanker in Desert Storm, spoke up for me and pointed out that unlike my critic, I'd been practicing in the flight simulator every night for the past three months.
Like many women, I felt like I had to work harder in order to be as successful as the men around me. It led to my having a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and I tried to show I could work harder, stay longer, and fly more and tougher missions.
When you fly helicopters like I did, you have to pay attention to the details and take good care of your crew, especially when the weather gets bad. I appreciated their hard work, and as their boss, I wanted to make a tough task a little easier, so I requisitioned hot drinks, including hot cocoa, for them. It seemed like the right thing to do, and I didn't think much of it.
That is, until the name-calling started. Another unit's leader tried to make fun of me, calling me "Mommy Platoon Leader." And, caught up in my own insecurities, I took the insult as an offense. Their words made me feel like I wasn't perceived as being tough enough and, even worse, made me feel embarrassed about doing something that reinforced their stereotypes about women. I didn't want to be perceived as a "woman leader," because I knew that to some, being a woman was synonymous with being weak or just different. So I stopped requisitioning the hot drinks.
But, looking back on the experience, I realized I was missing the point. By listening to the people who called me names and changing my behavior in reaction to them, I was actually being less of a leader. My idea to provide my platoon with uncaffeinated, warm drinks was a good one. I empathized with my crew. As their leader, I thought of a simple way to make a day of hard work a little bit easier.
When I was promoted to the rank of captain and felt more secure, I realized that I needed to do a better job taking care of my soldiers. Instead of making sure they got adequate rest and the support they needed, I'd been too hung up on trying to outdo others, and it was affecting the readiness of my crews. I needed to stop listening to my ego and start sticking with my instincts.
With that in mind, when we went out on trips and members of the group wanted to go out at night, I didn't want to be a killjoy. But I also realized that I wasn't doing any favors for the quieter people in my unit who wanted to get some rest. If the one woman present was out hanging with the guys, they felt like they couldn't "wuss out" by staying in the barracks. So I started insisting on driving at least one of our vehicles back early. I didn't care if others called me an "old woman" or made fun of me — there were always guys who wanted to ride back with me.