They say you become the average of the five people you hang out with the most. While that may be true, I have noticed that a small handful of people have had an outsized influence on my growth and development as a leader – as a person – no matter how much time I have spent with them. I want to tell you about some of the women mentors I’ve had in my life and how they have influenced me, and invite you to reflect and do the same. At the end of this blog, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in a public art project as a way of honoring your women mentors. We’ll share this on our facebook page after you’ve had a chance to add in yours.
CPT Finch was my TAC officer for my company during my “cow” (junior) and “firstie” (senior) years at West Point. As I was coming to understand my own sexual orientation, in the homophobic environment of the United States Military Academy, Mimi Finch would speak openly about how stupid it was to fire gay people. She was the only person at West Point that I ever heard speak about treating gay people right. We have stayed in touch over the years. Recently I saw on my facebook feed that this retired Lieutenant Colonel knelt Colin-Kaepernick-style when her instructor – inexplicably, might I add, – had her Zumba class recite the pledge of allegiance. Mimi never spoke to me about how to be fearless, she just does it. FEARLESS.
I met Judy the first day of my firstie (senior) year at West Point. Her husband was the newly instated Commandant of Cadets. She jokingly referred to herself as the “Comtessa.” For those of you who are civilians, the Commandant is #2 in command of the entire post. A friend and I were walking past the Comm’s house on our way back from taking the cadet physical fitness test when Judy beckoned from her porch with a friendly, “Yoohoo, cadets….” We were in our gym clothes and we knew we should not be in the Comm’s house dressed like that, but we also knew that we should be polite to the Comm’s wife, so we obliged. Over a glass of lemonade, Judy initiated a friendship that would last until the day she died, way too early back in 2008. Everything you need to know about Judy – and what I learned from her – is captured in her invitation to lemonade. Every inch of her refrigerator was covered with photographs of friends near and far. On one visit many years later, she was excited to show me that I had “made the fridge!” And that was the day she pulled me aside and said, “I’ll never accomplish anything like David (her husband who was a four star general at the time). But here’s what I do contribute: presence. I am present with people. And that is more than enough.” Judy didn’t teach me how to be present. She just did it. I miss my friend. PRESENCE.
I had received so many messages at West Point that leadership required “military bearing” and hiding your true self. Enter LTC Jan Hicks. Jan was my Battalion Commander when I was a Lieutenant stationed at Helemano Military Reservation – part of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Jan defied everything I had been (mis)led to believe about what it takes to be a successful leader. Jan was authentic to the core. If Jan was angry, she’d let you know. If she was sad, she’d let you know that, too. And if she thought something was funny, she would howl with laughter. Jan was this larger-than-life figure in my young adulthood who had an extraordinarily successful career by being true to herself. She went on to attain the rank of Major General. Jan never sat me down for a conversation about authenticity. It’s just who she was – and who she is to this day. AUTHENTICITY.
I was minding my own business as a stock broker when my college professor, Jay Parker, called me. “Cease work on whatever it is you’re doing and call Rosanne Haggerty right away,” he said. So I did just that. I ended up working for Rosanne from 2003 – 2014. Rosanne is a relentless entrepreneur, single-minded in her determination to disrupt the systems that create homelessness. She and her team are finalists right now for the MacArthur $100 Million & Change award. If they win, they will get $100M to make their big dent in the Universe. What strikes me the most about Rosanne, though, is that there wasn’t anybody she wouldn’t meet for coffee. I’ll be honest – I thought some of those coffee meetings were a waste of her time. But years later, when faced with a new challenge, she’d say, “Remember so and so – I met him for coffee back in Camden? I think he’d be great for this project.” I was always like, “Who is so and so? And how on earth do you remember him and what he’d be great at doing?” But Rosanne never forgets anybody’s genius. She’s just waiting for the opening to appear and she makes the match. She’s never spoken about this with me – I just observed it over the years and benefited tremendously from her willingness to support me in finding my way into my genius, too. Rosanne is the embodiment of endless possibilities. POSSIBILITIES.
Sue was in the first class of women to graduate from West Point – the famous class of 1980 – so you already know she has ovaries of steel. I was in the 11th year to graduate, so our paths never would have crossed had she not continued to remain involved in the community. Sue was one of the first people that I came out to as I was reckoning with my sexual orientation and we have remained friends for over 30 years. Along with a handful of other amazing people, Sue and I co-founded Knights Out, a nonprofit organization that advocated for the end of the discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the military. In the early days of getting this organization up and running, we learned that West Point was holding a diversity conference. We looked at each other, said, “We’re diverse!” took the day off from work and crashed the conference. We thought FOR SURE that as out LGBT people we would be skunks at the party, but we were greeted with enthusiastic, open arms by many people all the way up to the highest ranking General Officers in attendance. Never in 100 years would I have done this alone. Sue has gone on to work on transdender rights and was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Board of Visitors of West Point. Sue didn’t sit me down and talk to me about showing up for one another, she lives it through her example. SOLIDARITY
This list is woefully incomplete. There are so many more women who deserve to be mentioned here – my mom (PRESENCE), my Aunt Sharon Kanis (COMMUNITY), Kathlyn Hendricks (LOVE- WITH-A-SPINE), Jane Holl Lute (HUMILITY), Marie Connor (JOY), and many more – not to mention the many fabulous men who have influenced my life for the better, too. I’d love to continue – and I want to turn my attention back to you, my reader friend.
I’m hoping these stories get your gears going about the women who have mentored you and how they did it. Did you ask them to mentor you? I never asked these fabulous women to mentor me, I just kind of tagged along and they seemed to tolerate it. I’ve stayed in touch with them over several decades, sometimes going hundreds of miles out of my way to stop in for a visit whenever our paths might cross. Likewise – you might be considered a mentor to someone and not even know it. Our actions speak louder than words. And they’re watching!
So on to that public art project. I’ve started a Klaxoon board that you can contribute to. We will crowd-source the one word that we learned from our women mentors here. All you do is click here and write in your own word where it says “idea.” If you see someone else has already contributed your word, click on the bottom left where it says “## ideas” and then click on the heart next to the one that matches yours, and that will make the word appear bigger in the word cloud. We will take a screenshot of this and share on Facebook with you in a few days.
You can even share it with your mentor and tell them which word they gave you. Let’s all take a minute to appreciate our women mentors. I will, too.