“What prompted you to write your book?” I am often asked this question, whether in an interview or from a new reader. And as a natural storyteller, I typically answer with a tale.
A few years ago, I was selected to address a Women’s Leadership Group for a large financial firm. The company needed a speaker who would articulate a compelling leadership philosophy. And I
was chosen. Later, I was told that I was selected over other orators because I possessed a diverse and challenging background. I was one the first women to graduate from the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point.
Over the years, I have written and spoken on a variety of topics and Veteran-related issues, but until I was selected to speak at that financial firm, I had never spoken about the West Point experience and how it had translated into my leadership philosophy. This will be stimulating new work, I thought, as I busied myself with developing content for the presentation. As I crafted my speech, a rush of stories came back from memory. How was I to describe my leadership philosophy without describing the nerve-wracking events of R-day and Beast Barracks? How could I not mention the trip in uniform through Grand Central station? Or the harrowing experience of the “Bob and Travel” or the “Dear Jane letter?” How could I not describe the overly hostile environment toward women cadets and how could I not tell them about Eddie?
It was then that I realized the personal experiences — whether embarrassing or exhilarating, failure or formidable, of love or loss — were part and parcel of my experience. They could not be separated from the lessons learned. They were the essence of the experience and those truths formed my character — one that was further refined through my own life’s trials and circumstances.
Ultimately, I completed the presentation and delivered it with care. What surprised me most was the overwhelmingly positive response of the women in attendance. One woman sitting closest to me exclaimed, “Wow, I mean, wow!”
As I answered further questions and took in their compliments, I remembered what my Dad had said when he read that the United States service academies had begun to accept women:
“Sara, it will be a unique experience for a woman.”
When I was being berated by an upperclassman for not shining my shoes correctly or not knowing the reams of knowledge required, or when my hair was butchered by a barber and I was pushed
physically, intellectually and emotionally beyond my endurance, I would sarcastically think, “Yeah, Dad this is unique all right.”
At that moment surrounded by those women leaders, I said to myself, “Dad, you were absolutely correct! It truly was a unique experience and it made me what I am today. Thank you for encouraging me to go to West Point and to never, ever give up.”
How Character is Created and Leadership is Learned
At West Point, I lived within a system that was not welcoming to women cadets. This was made evident through many in the Officer ranks of the Academy staff. And harassment was all too prevalent within the cadet-run Corps of Cadets. Women at West Point, like all firsts, had to work harder to be accepted. We were ostracized and often humiliated simply because we were running up against tradition and prejudice.
In what could be an unforgiving and hostile environment for a woman, I learned about perseverance. In a highly competitive and academically challenging institution, I learned failure and humility, while I also developed my intellect. In an environment that demanded physical agility and strength, I learned that my 5’2” frame could do far more than I believed. In an institution that taught integrity and demanded it from its members, I learned that trust was foundational to leading others. I developed resilience and learned to laugh and not take myself or my situation too seriously. And even as a woman being integrated into what had been an all-male bastion, I learned the value of camaraderie and sacrificial service.
At West Point, I cried, I laughed, I
failed, I despaired, I succeeded, I got hurt, I loved, I began to lead, and I
overcame again and again.
The entire experience shaped my thinking, and the impact did not end at graduation. Now, I was part of the “Long Gray Line,” one that extended back two centuries and continues on to this day.
Sharing My Stories
After leaving the leadership conference, and on my flight home, I reflected on the various challenges facing my clients and colleagues. Those working in exceptionally demanding roles, difficult work environments or facing seemingly no-win scenarios. Those principles I had learned as a young cadet would serve them well in their situations, just as they had served me well in both my Army and professional careers. And, I thought, how many young people today would benefit from knowing some of these life lessons?
By telling a series of stories as a “First” at West Point, I could lift the curtain on the mystique of the Academy and its integration of women. I could teach others to not only survive but thrive in similar difficult and overwhelming situations. Then those who might never attend West Point might glean the leadership principles and skills needed to address their own life “battles”.
For those of you who have ever felt marginalized, disrespected and just plain frustrated, this book was written for you! When what you have tried to accomplish seems riddled with difficulty, set-back and disappointment, or every effort to break through the glass ceiling has left you disappointed, this book is designed to give you the tools to move forward.