The late cultural pioneer Maya Angelou once said, "A leader sees greatness in other people. He, nor she, can be much of a leader if all she sees is herself."
The series’ first article, Memphis District Trailblazers, introduced a group of pioneers*. They are the first women to occupy a leadership role historically held by men, and it's sufficed to say they can relate to what Maya Angelou had to say about leadership.
Author’s Note: This is the second article in a series titled: Memphis District Trailblazers. The first article, which introduced readers to a group of pioneer women in leadership, is published on the Memphis District website here. One more article will be written to complete this series and will be published within the next few weeks – we hope you enjoy reading about our fantastic women in leadership just as much as we loved writing about them!
All Memphis District leaders are exceptional, but these women set the standard. Perhaps it's because their leadership styles are relationship-based, or maybe it's their strength and resiliency. It could also be that when they're wrong, they willingly admit it and do so gracefully.
All these traits are fantastic, but their vested interest in employees sets them over the top because leadership is about taking care of people, and that’s what these leaders do every single day.
In this second article of the series, Operations Division Chief Andrea Williams and District Counsel Suzy Weil discuss their leadership styles, benefits of women in leadership, and resiliency in difficult times.
"I strive to give clear guidance, make timely decisions, provide feedback to the people or groups being led, and promote a strong feeling of comradery between the people and the organization," Weil said.
Weil firmly believes in training employees to understand the mission and their role in facilitating the organization's purpose.
"If an employee understands the value of his or her work – they will be a better employee," she added.
"My leadership style is inclusive and communicative," Williams said. "I do my best to lead by example and explain why we/I are doing what we are doing so that my team understands."
Women and men do have similar leadership characteristics. Still, women possess traits and skills their male colleagues don't necessarily have as well.
"Women think differently, and we need that type of diversity in our ranks," Williams said. "We generally don't have egos, and as I see it, we have far more multitasking abilities than most of our male counterparts. We are not afraid to say if we don't know something, nor are we afraid to seek help for the resolution."
Studies (2021) have shown that having women on any team, as leaders or not, can be advantageous for reasons obvious to many. However, what some people tend to forget is the amount of blood, sweat, and tears it took for women to even make it this far.
"History documents the barriers women have had to face to be ‘equal’ in this country and across the world," Weil explained. "Women leaders serve as role models to other women."
Weil was, and still is, in awe of other women military officers succeeding in their careers while still maintaining a balanced, dual role of mother and spouse.
"Women leaders have facilitated much-needed changes in the workplace benefitting both genders," she continued. "In my opinion, the appetite and readiness to change workplace cultures contributing to gender inequities stem from the growth of women in leadership roles. Moreover, the growth of women in leadership also drives the broader goal of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace.”
Women leaders aren't just good for the legally protected categories, but all who bring unique characteristics to the workplace, Weil added.
These women are strong and capable – yes. But they are also humble and self-assured enough to admit when they are wrong. On top of that, they possess the courage to rise above and conquer during the times they're at their most vulnerable.
Williams, as confident as she is, admits that she’s felt uneasy at times, specifically about being promoted, "But I'd always sit myself down and say a prayer, and remind myself of those who selected me for the position, who clearly thought I had what it took to operate at the next level," Williams said. "I also reminded myself that mistakes were and are a part of the learning process, and as long as I didn't do anything significant enough to get fired, it was fine. Most things are correctable."
Fortunately, many situations are correctable, but some, like what Weil once experienced, are just downright terrifying.
"This is very personal," the district counsel started. "In 2006, my youngest son was born. Although I had 42 days of maternity leave, my unit was gearing up for an Iraq deployment. As third in command, I was asked to come back to work and manage the office at the 5-week mark while my seniors were in training for the deployment."
Weil said she was happy to oblige and maybe even persuaded her supervisor to make the "ask" of her.
"I had in-home care for the first week, then placed my infant son in daycare at 6-weeks-old, the soonest it was allowed," Weil continued. "Approximately two weeks later, my newborn, with limited immunities, contracted meningitis, which if not treated immediately, would likely have killed him."
The doctor told her that children three months and younger shouldn't be in childcare centers because of the increased risk of illness.
"I had no idea of the risk," she said. "In my occupation, this was commonplace, as the Army's postpartum leave policy was 42 days."
Fast forward 60 days, and Weil fortunately PCS’d from her position along with her heathy son in tow. Her next assignment was as a law professor, writing director, and Chair of an Academic Department at the Army Judge Advocate General's School.
"In this position, I had the opportunity to influence scholarly writing for two military publications," Weil said. "I was an advisor for a student, Maj. (now ret. Col.) Sara Root, a mother of four children, including a newborn."
The scholar came to Weil in search of ideas for a scholarly paper. This brilliant student's article, in 2009, acted as a catalyst for the Army to review its postpartum policies.
"While the example is dramatic, as a lawyer and leader, I seek solutions to problems," Weil explained. "I find it rewarding to use my skills or access to effect positive change for an organization."
As frightening as it was, Weil still rose above and found a way to turn the situation into a positive. She isn’t alone either. So often, women deal with less than stellar circumstances, yet still find a way to rise to the occasion and come out on top.
Every woman leader exudes these qualities – traits that make them the exceptional individuals they are.
It's the ability to look fear directly in the eye and put up a fight until coming out on top. It's the ability to keep going, even when quitting is the easier option, and everyone around you has long since given up.
It's the mindset Maya Angelou so passionately spoke of and stood for until taking her last breath. And it's the drive to make positive change for people you’ll never even know.
They are one of a kind. They are spectacular and inspirational. They are fearless and innovative. These women have already made history and will only continue to do so for years to come. For those reasons and more, they are and always will be, Memphis District Trailblazers, now and for forever more.
“Women in the Workplace 2021.” LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, 2021, Blockedhttps://womenintheworkplace.com/
Root, Sara. “Military Law Review.” Google Books, Google, 2009, Blockedhttps://books.google.com/books?id=lksyCrXGzlkC&pg=PA132&lpg=PA132&dq=army%2Brevised%2Bpost%2Bpartum%2Bleave%2Bpolicies%2Barticle%2Bsara%2Broot&source=bl&ots=y2WbE9ONKQ&sig=ACfU3U0Th24elWWhPPWW1i1Yot6NAwRHMA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi426C4z7D6AhWclWoFHUyUBJAQ6AF6BAgeEAM#v=onepage&q=army%20revised%20post%20partum%20leave%20policies%20article%20sara%20root&f=false.
Author's Note: The next and final article of this series, Memphis District Trailblazers, will feature Engineering and Construction Division Chief Elizabeth Burks and EM Chief Kandi Waller, as they graciously offer some advice to the next generation of women leaders and young women entering this profession. Waller will also discuss how past leaders have influenced her leadership style today. Additionally, we'll hear from Operations Division Chief Andrea Williams and District Counsel Suzy Weil once more, who will discuss ways women can develop their leadership skills, support other women, staying grounded, and much more.
*Corrections to the Series: Women Trailblazers (first article)*: Following publication, we were notified of two unfortunate errors in identifying the first women in leadership roles. The following positions were incorrectly attributed:
- District Chief of Contracting
- Readiness and Contingency Operations (RCO) / Emergency Management (EM) Chief
- First Readiness and Contingency Operations (RCO) / Emergency Management (EM) Chief: Patsy Fletcher
- First District Chief of Contracting: Glenda Tackett (late 1990s to early 2000s). Jean Todd followed; hired Priscilla Sweeney as a Contract Specialist in 2004.
We sincerely apologize for these errors as we strive to deliver factual information 100 percent of the time. However, we rely on many sources for info, so sometimes things are unfortunately overlooked, and that's why having a significant readership is so important to us.
Thank you: We would like to thank the readers who did reach out with the above corrections. This ensures that we continue to deliver factual information, always. We appreciate your readership and commitment to keeping us honest! Don't hesitate to reach out with any other corrections (although we hope this is the last time this happens!)