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.
> Like many women, I felt like I had to work harder in order to be as successful as the men around me.
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.
> 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.
When we change ourselves to accommodate other people’s false assumptions, we miss out on opportunities to challenge stereotypes and lead by example. In Congress, I’ve seen women’s leadership in action. As a veteran, as a woman, and as a parent, I’ve been able to advocate for women and families whose voices aren’t always heard in the halls of power.
> When we change ourselves to accommodate other people’s false assumptions, we miss out on opportunities to challenge stereotypes and lead by example.
The Army taught me that “rank has its privileges, but also its responsibilities.” Loyalty goes both ways, and as a member of Congress, I know how important it is to take care of the people who work for me. I make sure that staffers are able to take time off for illness or for military service. I also instituted paid volunteer days in my congressional office. Women so often volunteer in addition to all their other responsibilities, and I wanted to encourage a spirit of volunteerism among all staff.
After my daughter was born, I found that airports presented one of my biggest challenges as a working mother. It was often difficult or even impossible to find a clean, private space to breastfeed while traveling. So I introduced the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act to ensure that all airports provide a place for traveling mothers to breastfeed or pump breast milk.
This year, I’m running for US Senate because our country needs these perspectives in policy debates more than ever. Taking good care of people and making sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs well is a hallmark of strong leadership. Caretaking shouldn’t just be associated with women, and it certainly shouldn’t be associated with weakness — it should be associated with strength.
*Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth is running to represent Illinois in the US Senate.*