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Nine Things New Leaders Need to Know

Nine Things New Leaders Need to Know

When a young lieutenant asked for advice as she prepared for her first leadership position, I knew right where to look. The Grit Project profiles representing every branch of service and a combined hundreds of years of experience.

These are nine key points that come from these interviews.

1) First lead yourself.

Brigadier General Becky Halstead‘s book is subtitled The First Person You Must Lead is You, and is a great place to start. A number of profiles, including BG Halstead’s, have discussed the need to be yourself. Your mission is to be yourself, she reminded herself when coming up against opposition.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d realize fitting in didn’t matter.

LCDR Krysten Ellis reminds new leaders:

You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend.

Lieutenant Colonel and fighter pilot Tammy Barlette realized quickly that:

I just had to be myself.

At the same time, the “yourself” you present needs to be professional, too. Remind yourself with this Dear LT.

2) Plan for resistance.

You might not face any, but it’s good to be prepared that going to your first unit isn’t college anymore, or Officer Basic, either. As LTC Nadine Kokolis says:

I learned not everyone wanted me to succeed.

Once you leave the schoolhouse environment, things will be different. Last week’s profile of BG Rhonda Cornum reminded us to stay optimistic and:

In your mind rehearse. Rehearsal (of all possible outcomes) is key… your feelings and your behavior are based on what you think and believe.

Coast Guard Commander Alda Siebrands suggests:

Go in with your eyes open.

[Related: 5 Ways Women Can Maximize Their Leadership Skills]

3) Listen to the people who work for you.

BG Halstead discussed the challenge of taking a platoon with combat experience as a new lieutenant. She’d tell them to sit down and listen to their stories. Ask them where they served, what they learned.

This means spending time with your people, something an earlier Dear LT column discusses. Taking care of your people is your first priority as a leader. You can’t do that if you don’t know them.

4) Find a mentor.

Several women in the Grit Project spoke of mentors, both women and men, being important to them (or recognizing their absence as an inhibitor to success.) Naval commander Karen Baetzel and her Command Master Chief Patty Shinnick spoke of the power of this relationship in The Grit Project.

Early Naval navigator Linda Maloney says:

A mentor would have made a world of difference.

Air Force fighter pilot and Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Barlette reminds young officers to:

Show respect for the senior enlisted corps. They are a huge asset to you.

LCDR Krysten Ellis suggests finding mentors, both male and female.

5) Exceed the standards, and try to make a difference every day.

These are General Ann Dunwoody’s words and advice, which are echoed by several other of the exceptional women in the Grit Project.

Marine LTC Jen Nothelfer says:

You get in the cockpit and know you’d better do better, fly better than anyone around you.

LCDR Krysten Ellis, one of the Navy’s first female submariners, says:

As a woman, I really believe we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

[Related: Lessons to Teach Young Women on this International Day of the Girl]

6) Take advantage of every professional opportunity.

LTC Tammy Barlette jumped at the Air Force Weapons School, even though she’d just had her second child. It is one of her proudest accomplishments. You may have to ask for the training or the opportunity (see the stories of WASPs Alyce Rohrer and Edna Davis), more than once. Don’t expect anyone to offer it to you.

7) Get in your training and education as early as you can.

Several of the Grit Profiles, including an important future interview, mentioned this. Naval navigator Linda Maloney recommends:

Get your Masters as early as you can.

BG Anne Macdonald, the first woman aviator to hold the rank of general officer, suggests getting as much flight time as you can, up front.

It will never be easier than it is now.

[Related: Lead Like A Girl: How To Empower Women At Every Level]

8) Know that you will make mistakes.

You’ll recover. Keep the course. In one of the Dear LT posts, I suggested that the hardest place to get to that thing called grit is in the face of your own failures. Own them, and move on. BG Becky Halstead says:

We should all realize that we don’t get it right 100 percent of the time.

9) Read about the people who came before you.

And keep this as a part of your reading program. Connecting with the stories of others who have been where you are going is a great way to both prepare yourself for the challenges and gain strength.

The Grit Profiles are great examples. All the women of the Grit Project have suggested books. BG Halstead says:

Read about people who have (grit). Read their stories and you find strength in yourself.

Shannon Huffman Polson is one of the first women to fly the Apache helicopter in the United States Army. Today, she is a leadership expert and speaker with Keppler Speakers. Her book North of Hope tells the story of her own journey to the Arctic, and her second book, The Grit Factor, interviews other exceptional women in uniform with stories of grit. Visit her website at

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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