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Key Takeaways

  • For individuals transitioning from one career to another, patience, introspection, and understanding one’s core values are vital in determining the next steps.
  • Grit is more than just enduring hardships; it’s about unwavering commitment and determination, especially for long-term goals. It’s essential to understand and differentiate it from resilience.
  • In the face of personal tragedies or challenges, confronting them directly and seeking necessary support, like counseling, can be therapeutic and vital for healing and growth.
  • Amplifying diverse voices, especially from minority groups in traditionally dominated fields, can provide richer insights and foster a more inclusive environment.
  • While adaptation might be necessary in certain professional settings, it’s vital to balance conformity with maintaining authenticity.
  • Overcoming challenges often requires consistent effort and determination.
  • As challenges arise with age and experience, it’s crucial to discern which battles to pick, ensuring energy and resources are used efficiently.

Executive Summary:

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for joining us on the special Veteran’s Day edition of the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Joining us today is veteran Shannon Huffman Polson, whose diverse and impressive accomplishments set her apart. 

Shannon authored “The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience, and Leadership” and the memoir “North of Hope.” Further solidifying her expertise in leadership, she founded The Grit Institute and began hosting the Grit Factor podcast. Notably, Shannon was one of the pioneering women to fly the Apache helicopter for the U.S. Army, showcasing her bravery and commitment. 

Following a decade of military service, she transitioned to academia, obtaining her MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and later an MFA. Beyond the military and academic realms, Shannon marked her presence in the corporate world, leading teams in the medical device sector and at tech giant Microsoft. 

In her local community, she spearheaded a $6.5 million project for a new library and civic center. Globally, as a speaker, she’s well-regarded, often earning the distinction of the highest-rated speaker at events.

With that said, let’s jump right in.

Shannon’s Unexpected Military Journey

Aram sets the tone for the conversation by delving into Shannon’s journey into the military. Shannon begins by admitting her military ambitions weren’t rooted in a profound exploration. Instead, her introduction to the military started with her enrollment in ROTC during her time at Duke University. 

Shannon’s initial intent with ROTC was largely influenced by the practicality of college expenses; she viewed it as an additional job opportunity alongside her waitressing and office work. Although she had no prior military inclinations, her father’s draft into the Jag Corps for the Vietnam War (and subsequent posting to Alaska) was part of her background.

Surprisingly, Shannon found herself enamored with ROTC, emphasizing that her draw to the program was not just the camaraderie with like-minded cadets but, more so, the idea of serving a cause greater than herself. This idea resonated deeply with her personal values. 

On that note, she stresses the importance of finding a purpose or a cause larger than oneself and passionately contributing to it. For those considering military service, she suggests exploring stories of those who have served and introspecting to find where they can best contribute their skills and passions to the world.

Shannon’s Versatile Transition And Insights For Veterans

Moving on, Nolan delves into Shannon’s transition from the military to her subsequent ventures. In response, the latter emphasizes the lasting impact her military experiences had on her mindset and approach to problem-solving. The military, she notes, instills a make-it-happen attitude, which she found rare but invaluable in the civilian world. This attitude helped her navigate academic, corporate, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit realms.

When asked about advice for veterans transitioning out of the military, Shannon urges patience and introspection. According to her, veterans should explore their values, purpose, and where they feel they can contribute most. This process can be daunting but is essential for determining one’s next steps. She emphasizes the value of patience and believes that every veteran has a unique contribution to make post-service.

GRIT In Leadership: Shannon’s Deep Dive Into Determination And Beyond

Next, the speakers discuss the concept of “Grit” and its relevance to leadership. Aram cites the portrayal of grit in the John Wayne film “True Grit” and asks Shannon for her definition of the term and its importance for leaders.

Shannon acknowledges Angela Duckworth’s definition from her book “Grit,” which views it as a combination of passion and perseverance toward long-term goals. However, Shannon offers her own perspective, defining grit as “a dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstances.” She emphasizes the unwavering commitment and determination inherent in grit, differentiating it from resilience, although she acknowledges the overlap between the two concepts. 

Shannon also notes that while grit is often seen as a resource tapped into during particularly challenging times, like the final miles of a marathon, it is more nuanced and multifaceted than that. The discussion underscores the importance and complexity of grit in the realm of leadership and personal determination.

Shannon’s Testament To Grit Amidst Personal Tragedy

Subsequently, Nolan delves into the personal experiences of Shannon to uncover the role of “Grit” in her life journey and achievements. When asked about the moments emblematic of a gritty mindset, Shannon shares a deeply personal and tragic event.

Shannon recalls a life-altering phone call in 2005 when she learned that a bear had attacked her father and stepmom during their kayaking trip in Kaktovik, Alaska, resulting in their deaths. This tragedy shifted her entire perspective on life, both past and future. With GRIT as a key theme, Shannon explains the importance of confronting challenges head-on. 

She metaphorically mentions “facing the wind” from her aviation background, implying the necessity to confront and tackle adversities directly. To cope with the impending grief, Shannon proactively sought counseling and even retraced her parents’ steps in Alaska, taking the same. 

Amplifying Resilient Voices In Female Leadership

Aram inquires about the inspiration behind Shannon’s book, “The Grit Factor,” and its focus on female leadership. Shannon traces the origin of her work to a request from a young leader for mentorship. Eager to assist but recognizing her military experience’s specificity and the time elapsed since her service, she sought to broaden her mentorship by interviewing a diverse group of women leaders.

The women she interviewed were vanguards in their fields, representing various military branches and roles. From general officers to aviators and even one of the first women army rangers, their experiences and candid stories offered a wealth of insights. 

Shannon notes that the majority of leadership books tend to emphasize male leaders without any discussion about gender. In contrast, “The Grit Factor” prioritizes female experiences without explicitly branding them as a gender-specific narrative. Shannon underscores the added resilience these women showcased by persevering in environments where they were doubly challenged.

Navigating Identity And Inclusivity In Male-Dominated Fields

Moving on, the speakers discuss authenticity, especially for women in male-dominated fields, referring to a conversation with a female military colleague about feeling the need to wear a “mask” throughout her career. Shannon resonates with this, acknowledging that during her time in the military, she felt pressured to conform to certain expectations, which meant suppressing certain parts of her authentic self.

She recalls altering her appearance, like cutting her hair short, to fit in and ensure that her gender did not influence people’s judgment of her capabilities. She stresses that while everyone in any organization or culture might have to adapt to some degree, the burden is especially heavy for women and minorities in the military. They often have to act in ways that might not feel inherently authentic to them in order to assimilate.

Highlighting the importance of diversity in leadership for effective mission accomplishment, Shannon expresses hope that the military’s culture will evolve to become more inclusive. She believes that embracing diverse leadership styles and backgrounds is beneficial not just in the military but in various professional settings. 

The conversation underscores the challenges faced by women and minorities in traditionally male-centric professions and the value of genuine inclusivity.

Scaling Life’s Cinder Block Walls

Towards the end, Aram inquires about a particular story from Shannon’s book, “The Grit Factor,” that stood out as an exemplary depiction of grit. 

In response, Shannon shares the story of Karen Fin Brash, a woman who transitioned from being a Texas sorority girl with a non-athletic background to becoming a Navy pilot. Karen’s journey to becoming a naval officer was marked by a challenging experience in Officer Candidate School (OCS). 

Unable to surmount a specific obstacle during a physical test, she and some of her fellow female trainees practiced scaling a cinder block shower wall every night despite the bruises and pain. Their persistent efforts paid off when they successfully cleared the obstacle during the actual test.

The story serves as a metaphorical illustration of the determination required to overcome personal challenges or barriers in life, with the cinder block wall symbolizing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. This tale resonated with Shannon due to its portrayal of tenacity, perseverance, and the will to succeed against the odds.

Aram emphasizes the universal applicability of this story, noting that everyone encounters their own “cinder block walls” throughout life. The challenge lies in mustering the courage and persistence to confront these barriers repeatedly until they are surmounted. 

However, they also humorously acknowledge that as one grows older, the physical and metaphorical walls become tougher to scale, underscoring the importance of discerning which battles to pick.

Thank you for your time!


Nolan Martin : Hello and welcome to this special Veteran's Day edition of the NEGOTIATEx Podcast. My name's Nolan Martin, co-host and co-founder, and with me as always, great friend, co-host, co-founder, Aram Donigian. Aram, you want to kick it away for us today?

Aram Donigian : I will. And fellow veteran too. And let me be the first to wish you a happy Veteran's Day, Nolan and say thank you to you and the fellow folks at West Point who I got to teach in your generation who chose to serve in our military. So thank you for doing that.

NM : Likewise, same to you.

AD : Many of our listeners know Nolan was one of my cadets when I was teaching negotiation at West Point, and we reconnected in 2019, several years after Nolan had graduated at the West Point Negotiation Project Workshop to help present an award in memory of a dear friend and classmate of Nolan's and one of my former students, captain Drew Ross. Drew was killed in Afghanistan on November 27th, 2018, while serving with a special forces unit.

Drew was an outstanding negotiator, a natural collaborator, creative problem solver and relationship builder, and we honor his memory by giving a portion of anything we earn at NEGOTIATEx through training programs to the award that is given annually in honor to a cadet who exemplifies Drew's excellence, passion, and service as part of the West Point Negotiation project. We'll be sure to include links to the Drew Ross Memorial Foundation as part of our program files. And again, I just want to say thanks to all those who have served.

So with that, let me turn to our featured veteran for 2023. And that is Shannon Huffman Polson, the author of the ‘Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience, and Leadership’ in the most male dominated Organization in the world, as well as the memoir North of Hope. She is the founder of the Grit Institute, a leadership institute committed to whole leader development and hosted the Grit Factor podcast.

Shannon also teaches on the faculty of the Tuck School's Leadership and Strategic Initiative Executive education program. As one of the first women to fly the Apache helicopter in the United States Army leading line units on three continents. Shannon combines her passion and firsthand experience in and study of leadership, grit, purpose, and story to address the needs of her clients in the face of challenge and change with world-class keynotes and executive education.

After serving for a decade in the armed forces, Shannon earned her MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. I hear it's a pretty good school. And later her MFA, she went on to lead outstanding teams in the corporate world, in the medical device industry, and at Microsoft. As a community leader, Polson successfully envisioned, founded, and led the completion of a six and a half million dollars new library and civic center.

Shannon has a decade of experience speaking to companies and organizations around the world and is consistently the highest rated speaker at her events. Shannon lives with her husband and two children in Washington state. Thank you, Shannon for joining us today and thank you for your service to our country.

Shannon Polson : Thank you and thanks for having me on the show. It's really an honor to be here with you.

AD : Well, as you know, you are our special guest for Veterans Day. So let me just start by asking you, as you reflect upon your journey that led you into the military, why was it that you decided to serve and what thoughts would you offer young people today, especially young women who are considering whether military service is right for them?

Discovering Purpose: Shannon’s Journey Of Service Beyond Self (04:15)

SP : Yeah, thank you for that question. I would like to say that my decision to serve was based on a profound set of truly exploring where it was that I wanted to go. I think the reality was I was at college at Duke University. I had grown up in Anchorage, Alaska. I did not have any inclinations towards the military at all, although my father had served in the Jag Corps, drafted out of law school for Vietnam and sent to Alaska instead.

So when I arrived at Duke, I was also aware of the expense of college, and so I thought I would try, in addition to my two other jobs of waitressing and working in the East Campus housing office at Duke, I would also try ROTC and then I could at least say that I tried it and it wasn't a fit, and I ended up loving it and I loved it. I think I'm going to get to the second part of your question here in a minute because it was about service to something that was bigger than myself and that was very much a part of the values that I was raised with and certainly the values that I probably hadn't articulated but were very important for me to continue to live.

And so that service in support of something bigger than myself was the connection in addition to a really awesome group of cadets that were a part of it that had grown up like I had where we'd worked jobs ever since we were 10 years old. And so it was a wonderful opportunity to be part of a program with a great group of people in service to something bigger than myself.

And that is the recommendation I would make to those who are considering it today is what is absolutely critical for all of us is to find something bigger than we are to serve and to really have an opportunity to contribute to. And for those who are considering the military, I'd love you to read the grip factor of course, but also look at other stories of those who have served and see if that's the place that you are called to contribute your best self. And if it is, then go for it. But start the question of where am I meant to contribute in this world? What breaks my heart? Where do I best want to offer my learning, my abilities, my energy to the world?

AD : What a great passion. I know we're going to get into and explore more around passion as we go forward. But this question about where am I meant to contribute? And I appreciate the focus about both values, something bigger than ourselves as well as the connection we make with those we serve. And I think for all of us that have worn the uniform, those two things come up time and time again, don’t they?

SP : Absolutely, it's where it all matters, right?

NM : Shannon, you left the service in 2001. How did your time in uniform impact the amazing work you've done and continue to do since?

Navigating The Transition: Patience And Purpose After Service (06:48)

SP : Yeah, that's a really good question. I think it's very difficult to, or probably impossible to separate those past experiences that we've had, those past opportunities to serve and to learn and to grow, to work with others from anything that we are or that we will become. And in the military, there's an opportunity, as you both know and many of much of your audience knows as well, that there's this incredible opportunity to build these very specific skills that are execution-oriented and that are problem-solving oriented and much bigger than the actual specific task at hand. And so there's no question in my mind at all that the mindset that was honed and developed in the military as well as that willingness to basically make it happen,

I think that is something that honestly is some pretty short supply as it turns out once you get out. And that has been absolutely indispensable for me, both in navigating post-service academic environments as well as post-service corporate environments and ultimately now the entrepreneurial world, the writing world, and the nonprofit world. In the case of the library that you mentioned earlier.

NM : And then as someone who's separated from the Army, what advice would you give me or other veterans on how to successfully navigate this transition?

SP : The most important thing, and this is not something that any of us do well, or at least I don't do well, most of us execution oriented don't do well, is to be patient with the process. That's really, really hard to do. And I would say trust the process. The really incredible opportunity that we have to do out of uniform, which many of us didn't have a chance to do in uniform, is to do that work, to look at your story, to own your story, to shape your story, to really do a deep values examination and say both what matters to me, not what does somebody else say should matter to me. And sometimes those two things sag, and hopefully in the military they do to some degree because that's what makes it all worthwhile. But now what really matters to me? Where am I meant to show up and contribute in the world?

And it's a hard exercise. It's one that really gives people pause, I think after service and can be really disorienting for a while. But it's why I developed the Paths to Purpose, six-week program at the Grit Institute, is for this process is really, ‘what is my purpose? What are these values?’ And then I would say you just try different things, try different things and say, Hey, I'm going to do this for six months, or I'm going to do this for a year, and then I'm going to assess that at the end of the year and say, what have I learned? Where have I contributed? Is this something I want to take forward? Is there a way that I might want to shift my path? But more than anything, be patient. Know that it will come. Know that the world needs your contributions after service as much, at least as it needed in service.

And so be patient with that process and know that if you continue that exploration, you continue that interrogation of your experience and your work that it will come.

AD : Shannon, you attended the Tuck School of Business. Upon leaving service, you continue to stay involved in Tuck. I teach at Tuck. I know it's as dear to you as it is to me. Could you say a few words about what those two years, the connections, the education have meant to you now over the last 20 years of work that you've been doing?

SP : That's right. By the time this airs, I will have attended our 20th reunion, which is sort of exciting. Well, and I hate to lead with this because there's so many stereotypes involved with this, but two of my best friends are from Tuck. I met my husband at Tuck. So that might say a lot about the connections that came from there. It certainly is this very close-knit and supportive environment in a way that very few places, frankly are, I mean very few places post-military and certainly very few academic environments.

So, it was a place for me to, and this was awkward because it's hard to leave this insular, super mission focused place, the super purpose focused and purpose-driven in this external sort of a way. And then you get out into the world where kind of about you and what you decide to do and if you decide that you're going to be selfish or not and all of those things.

And that was a very difficult transition for me to make. I don't know that, I didn't navigate it particularly gracefully initially. And I think that Tuck gave me the space to be able to experiment a little bit, to try to find my place to try some different things in terms of what might be of interest and where I might be able to actually contribute. And I was really grateful for that transition period because it's not an easy transition to make as all veterans who have made that transition now.

AD : Yeah, I love the word Grateful. Boy, as someone who teaches at Tuck, I hope that my students feel like they have the freedom to experiment that space, and then I always encourage them to be grateful for the time that they have there. I know I'm grateful to be back teaching.

SP : Yes.

AD : This is a special community.

SP : It absolutely is. And Hanover is an incredible place, so of course you'd need to being out in the woods a little, but most of us did.

AD : That's right. And we don't want to broadcast it too much. I like the way the Upper Valley just kind of stays the same, and we want to keep that a little bit, so we'll keep it a little bit of a secret. We want to get into discussing both your book and the work you do at the Grit Institute. And I got to tell you, the first time I remember hearing the word Grit as a kid was in watching the old John Wayne movie called True Grit.

It was, and still is, one of my favorite movies. I think one of the best movie scenes of all time is when John Wayne's character, Rooster Cogburn is facing off, it's under the end of the movie, facing off against four Outlaws on horseback, and he's charging them.

He's got the reins, the bridal in his mouth, and he's got a rifle and a gun in either hand. And Maddie Ross, who really demonstrates and we'll get a lot of grit herself. She's a pretty remarkable character, has hired Cogburn to go after the man who killed her father, saying she wanted a man with true grit. Have you ever seen, I don’t know, have you seen the movie?

SP : I'm embarrassed to say that I have not, but I have to tell you that I may go watch it tonight. I promise you, by the time this show airs, I will have seen it.

AD : And he has anything. He has anything from a perfect, flawless character, but I think grit shines through. How do you define grit and why is it critical to a leader's ability to influence others and inspire teams?

Shannon’s Understanding of Grit And It’s Ability To Enhance Navigating Life's Challenges with Determination (12:58)

SP : Yeah, that's a great question. I may begin the answer to that with the definition that many of you may know from Angela Duckworth's book called Grit as well, which is passion and perseverance towards a very long-term goal. And I have modified or I have a modified understanding of it, which really is a bit more of a dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstances. That's how I have defined it from my own experience and from talking now and doing the research for the grit factor, there's a doggedness to it that's a lot less kind of sexy than the previous conversation.

AD : Do you mind repeating that one more time just for our listeners? I love your definition the way you just reframed.

SP : It. Yeah, of course. Yeah. I've defined grit as a dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstances. And there is certainly, and I know we're going to talk about this in just a moment, but in the Venn diagram of grit and resilience, there's certainly overlap, but I don't think they're the same thing. There is in grit, this doggedness and this absolute commitment, this absolute determination. Now, there's lots of nuance to this as well. It's not black and white, it's not this discreet thing that we pop off the shelf when we need it from mile 23 of the marathon. That's not all that it is. That's one of the many things that it is. And so I know we're going to get into some of the nuances here because it is so critically important, but it's a lot more nuanced than we give it credit for.

NM : As a veteran, author, business leader, and a professor, what role has grit played in your own life journey and achievements, and are there specific experiences that stand out as emblematic of a gritty mindset?

Bearing The Unbearable: Experiencing Grit Through Tragedy (14:28)

SP : Yeah, thanks for that question. Absolutely. And I know this is something that as we all go through life, we will have opportunities to define this for ourselves. And as I was thinking which one to share with you, maybe the one that I'll bring up is actually a personal experience. I was going to talk about the library, which certainly required massive amounts of grit over six years of nonprofit work. But I'm going to back up actually and to an experience that happened just after business school. It's the subject of my first book, which is ‘North of Hope, a daughter's Arctic Journey’. And I was working at Microsoft, it was my second job after business school. I was working in finance, which was very much not the right fit for me and lots and lots of spreadsheets and lots of kind of clunky applications that we were trying to make work together.

And I'd only been there for six months. And I was visiting my brother down in Portland, Oregon, and we were walking through a market and my cell phone rang and I silenced it in my purse, and we continued to walk through the market and find a couple of fun things to purchase and bring home. Then we got into our respective cars. I was going to be heading back up to Seattle, and he was heading back to his home in Hillsborough.

And then I looked at my cell phone and the text message on my now somewhat old cell phone, I guess 2005, was a 907-area code, which is for the state of Alaska where I'm from. And it ended with the three digits 911. And I called the number and the other end picked up, and they said they were the police in Kaktovik, Alaska. And Kaktovik, is a tiny little Inuit village off a barrier island off the northeast coast of Alaska. And I knew that my dad and stepmom had been on a kayaking trip on the Hulahula River. It was their 16th anniversary. They had done a lot of Arctic trips before, but something must have happened.

And they asked if I was a daughter of Richard and Catherine Huffman. And I said that I was, and then there were words that I'll never forget, and the words were, “I'm sorry to tell you this, but a bear came into their campsite last night and they were both killed.”

And that was more than anything else in my life to that point or after, really in many ways completely changed the trajectory of everything. It completely changed the entire life that was ahead of me and how I understood life behind me. And when we start to talk about grit, one of the many nuances of grit, I think, is realizing that you have to face it, right? You have to face the wind. And I use that metaphor all the time from my time in aviation. But I knew that this was something that could bring me down that I might not recover from.

And I had to decide to face it directly. And I remember in the aftermath of that week, in that first week, we called the church, we called my dad's best friend who dug his grave in this rural graveyard in Alaska. And we arranged the service and did all those things that you do in that first week. And I remember our priest from growing up came up to me and he said, Shannon, this is, you think that you're feeling this now, but this is nothing compared to what's going to happen in about six weeks, what you're going to feel in about six weeks. And I remember going back and thinking, okay, how do I manage myself? How do I anticipate this? And I signed up for a grief group and I signed up for a counselor and put those things in place because I knew I was going to need them, and I did need them, it turns out. But then I also started to think about and ultimately arrange to go back and retrace their steps that following year.

And that's what the book North of Hope is about is going back to the Arctic of Alaska where I had never been, but where they had died and taking the same trip that they had taken. And I can't pack all of that into this podcast, and we're going to talk about a lot of other things. But I think that willingness to face directly into the challenge that was bigger than any challenge that I had ever anticipated that I'd ever wanted. It was nothing that I wanted, but I had to make the decision to face it directly and to go straight through it. And that was, I think, an important part of moving through that experience, which is an experience of course that stays with you for the rest of your life.

AD : Thank you for sharing that. You mentioned it in your book, you discuss it. It's huge. So I know we can spend more time there talking about it. Your entire book, it hits with a pretty heavy hand, and yet I found it very digestible. I just finished it just a few days ago. As I was sharing as we were coming on, I so appreciated it just for where I think I am personally and professionally. And even as a parent. Maybe we can get into near the end how you teach kids to be gritty. The protagonists in your book are all women.

SP : Yes.

AD : I would love to know what your inspiration was for writing the book and the focus you gave to it and what you hope your readers, regardless of gender will take from its application for their own lives.

Double Crucible: Unveiling Grit In Extraordinary Women Leaders (19:27)

SP : Yeah, absolutely. When I first started to think about this, the grit factor, and I called it the Grit Project for a while. It was as a result of a young leader reaching out to me and asking me to mentor her on an online platform for the same journey that I had taken that number of years before. She was heading down to Fort Rucker, Alabama. She was going to go to flight school, become an aviation leader. And I said, of course. And then I thought, oh my gosh.

Well, I've been out of the army now for 10 years. I went through business school. My time in the army was kind of specific. It was an integration of women into an all-male combat, arms attack, aviation. So it was pretty specific. And so some of the challenges might be specific. So how can I scale what I offer to this young leader?

And if I do that work, how do I scale the people to whom it's offered, right? These findings are offered. And that was the beginning of what ultimately became the Grit Factor that was interviewing women in the vanguards of their fields. They all happened to be women, right? They're all leaders. They all served in various capacities across the services. We have general officers from every branch of service aviators from World War II, the present, one of the first women army rangers and other West Pointer, of course, coast Guard rescue swimmer and many, many more. And 201, they shared their stories so candidly. And so honestly, it was an act of real generosity, truly, I believe.

And there are a couple of reasons for focusing in on this particular cohort of leaders. They happen to be women. I had hoped initially that this book was not going to be identified as anything that had to do with men or women, because at the end of the day, there are any number perhaps the preponderance of leadership books that even still come out, only reference male leaders. But there's never any conversation about that.

So I had just sort of thought that could be a subtle thing, but it turns out it may not be subtle after all. But the other thing is every one of these leaders faced what the Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode, who's recently passed, called a Double Crucible, and you've read about that in the book. And that concept really applies to the idea that these leaders had to face the challenges of the job, which all of us in uniform know, right?

Many of them were in combat. Some of them coordinated logistics across the entire theater in Iraq. Some of them flew combat missions. I mean, any number of things they had to manage, all of us do. On top of that, they had another complete challenge, which was to negotiate those really difficult positions and skills in environments where they were often not wanted. They were frequently not respected, they were sometimes actively opposed.

And so that is this concept that is the double crucible, which is basically double the grit. So I figured if anybody's got double the grit, anybody, male or female can learn from these leaders that have double the grit. And that was really the idea and the inspiration behind providing these stories. The last piece that I would mention is that women often don't tell their stories. And in the military, unless you're a Navy Seal with apologies to the Navy Seals, people don't tend to tell their stories. Seals seem to tell their stories, but otherwise, most people don't. And it was really hard to start to write this book and to write anything I've written about the military using the pronoun ‘I’. It was so hard because I kept writing, we, and I realized the challenge of that in the midst of it, because when you write and you write creative nonfiction, you have to use the pronoun ‘I’, you have to own it, right? It's your experience.

But we're so conditioned in the military that we are a unit, right? In one form or another. And so it's so important to tell these stories and to share these stories because both military as well as women leaders don't tend to do that. And in order to inspire and inform future generations of leaders, male and female, in and out of uniform, it was really important to be able to shepherd these stories into being. And I'm so incredibly grateful for the chance to include them in the Grit Factor.

AD : Well, they're marvelous. I think it hits, again, I think it hits across gender. I think the application, what you wanted, the connection was there through my reading of it with what you just said, one about this culture in the military about not telling the stories, but also especially around women. I wanted to ask a question. I was visiting with a colleague just a couple days ago who's getting ready to retire from the military for 25 years, and a woman, great. And she said, in our conversation, we were just talking, she talked about the mask that she's felt like she's had to wear in the military.

And it was interesting because I don't recall that. I recall to much degree being able to show up as my authentic self. And I just wondered if you could maybe talk to this idea of a mask and because of this double crucible and how hard it is to kind of navigate those waters.

Breaking The Mold: Women Leaders Navigating Authenticity In Male-Dominated Fields (24:14):

SP : Yeah, I think that's a great way to describe it. I know the reason that I ultimately decided to get out at the end of my commitment was in large part because I felt like I had to be somebody that I wasn't. And to some degree, I took on that as part of who I am. And I did it well. I had great reviews, and I was very effective, and I'm grateful for that. But it still felt like I had to be somebody that I wasn't. And there were big pieces of me that didn't get to show up, or I didn't feel like they could show up. And I have to own some of that too. That was my perception at least. There may be others who don't have that same feeling and are able to do that more authentically. But I think that is part of the challenge, and all of us have to do it to some degree. I think everybody understands, you walk into a company today and there's a certain culture, and so you don't go in, I like to say you don't go in with your purple hair and your tank top into JP Morgan, right? I mean, that's just not going to work.

So, there are cultures that we have to adapt to, but the military culture is pretty intense. And for women who are moving into all male fields, it's particularly intense. So I mean, I had my hair cut short and buzzed up the back because I did not want being a woman to factor into people's judgment of me. I remember I made sure I maxed every PT test, and then I got criticized for that. All she cares about is PT. And I was like, oh my God, you can't win. But at the end of the day, I think it is true that while all of us have to adapt.

For a lot of women and for minorities, there is a particularly heavy burden of needing to act in a way that may not feel necessarily authentic to who you are in order to fit into the culture. And it's too bad because we are starting to understand, I think a lot more today that we need all kinds of leaders to be effective. We need all kinds of leaders to be able to come in and to accomplish a mission well. And that applies in an out of uniform. And so I hope that that's starting to shift. I imagine it's going to take a lot longer in certain places in the military than others, but I think that's really well put by your colleague, and that certainly was my experience as well.

AD : Thank You.

NM : Looking at the many examples you share in your book, did one woman's story in particular resonate with you personally as an example of real grittiness?

Examples And Lessons From Women Leaders Rising to Challenges in the Armed Forces (26:22)

SP : Yeah. I love and hate this question. I hate it because they are all such amazing stories. But I decided today that I'm going to talk about Karen Fin Brash, and she ended up doing an entire career in the Navy, but she started out as what she would call a Texas sorority girl. And her father had been a Navy pilot, so she had some understanding of a little about the service and what was involved. But she said she had big hair, and she showed up to fly at a civilian airfield with a Diet Coke and a miniskirt, and the flight instructor's like, put the Diet Coke over there, get in. The story that I remember that Karen tells, which I just love, is that she was going through OCS and going through the officer candidate school, which is a little bit more like bootcamp than those of us who go through ROTC or I assume the academies as well, OCS, kind of like the enlisted sort of a thing, as well as then becoming an officer.

So, she's having to go over this obstacle course, which she cannot do. She's not really an athlete. That's not her thing. And I think this was something I loved about sharing these stories, by the way, is every single one of these leaders was so different. They didn't all come from the soccer team and the weightlifting team. They were like such a different cohort of leaders, and she cannot get over the obstacle. And if you can't pass the obstacle course, you can't pass OCS.

And so she and a couple of the other women, because of course you have your own barracks as women from the men, decide every night after lights out, they realize that the shower wall, which is cinder block shower wall, is the same height as the obstacle. And so they go after lights out, and they run at the cinder block wall again and again and again, just bruise up the entire front of their bodies, and they run at it again and again until they can get over that cinder block wall.

And then they show up and they go over the obstacle. And I think that is such a great thing to just visualize, because that's what it feels like sometimes is you're just running at this wall again and again, beating yourself up, and all you can see is that you're getting bruised and battered, and you know what? And then one day you get over it. And that's part of what it's about. So Karen's story I think is so brilliant. And she ends up, of course, as a pilot, as a naval commander. So, she far surpasses the cinder block wall and the obstacle course, at OCS. But her story is terrific, and she's now working in the corporate world as well. So she's made that transition into the corporate space and is applying, fortunately for everyone who works with her, those lessons that she learned. But that visual is particularly good. There’re more elements of her story that will speak to you as well when people pick up the Grit Factor. But I love that one.

AD : No, and we all have those cinder blocks in our lives. It doesn't matter how old we get. And just how much do we want to spend those late hours continuing to run at it? And we willing to bruise ourselves a little bit too to get over it.

SP : So Aram, you know, have to start to be a little more selective as you get older, you get injured more quickly, and it takes longer to recover.

AD : Yeah, all anybody has to do is look at me and know I'm not running into any literal cinder blocks right now.

SP : Same with me.

NM : Hey everyone. Nolan here. I have to jump in today's podcast for part A of this show. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the podcast if you haven't already. And also join us next week for part B of this awesome interview.

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