In 1980, the USS Lexington became the first aircraft carrier in U.S. Naval history to have women stationed aboard as crew members.
I was one of them.
The summer of 1980 was a heady time for women in the military. I was only 18 but I understood my orders were a first for female midshipmen.
I arrived onboard for this one-month training tour excited to experience my first time at sea on a Navy vessel. After checking in, I was told to report to a female Lieutenant who had recently checked aboard.
She would be my mentor and sponsor and I was looking forward to learning everything I could from a woman more experienced and wise.
If only that had been the case.
I found the Lieutenant sitting on her desk, laughing with a group of male crew members, and quite uninterested in dealing with the additional burden of mentoring midshipmen.
Being fairly new herself, with no female role models to follow, it was obvious that training and investing in other female leaders was the least of her priorities.
I was assigned to Fireroom 3 and was the first female to work in that division.
It was hot, dirty, and humbling but I worked hard and did my best to assimilate with the sailors. I learned to talk on the sound powered microphone that was used to communicate with the other fire rooms and engine rooms and, since mine was the first female voice on the network, it caused quite a stir.
I worked hard to get my transmissions correct and overlook the comments about how I sounded.
After three weeks of 18 hour days in over 100-degree heat, cleaning bilges and washing bulkheads, I was exhausted, dehydrated, sick, and demoralized.
I ended up in the ship’s infirmary and that’s the first time I saw the Lieutenant since the day I’d checked aboard.
It had been her responsibility to train, guide, teach, and mentor the female midshipmen in her care. That day, she showed up in the clinic to chastise me for making her look bad.
I learned one of the greatest leadership lessons because of that Lieutenant – the difference between leading like a girl and leading like a woman.
She saw other women as a burden and a threat and used her power to throw me to the wolves.
She saw her male colleagues as people to be manipulated and used her femininity to get what she wanted by flirting instead of growing up, stepping up, and leading like a woman.
Even to this day, I can’t rationally or maturely find one thing about her conduct I would label as leadership.
Because it wasn’t.
In addition to all the hands-on skills I was supposed to learn, imagine the leadership skills I might have learned sooner during that pivotal training tour.
I might have learned how to coach and motivate others, delegate effectively, and navigate diversity and conflict.
I might have learned how to lead with maturity, authority, credibility, and confidence in a male dominated environment.
I might have learned how to collaborate, encourage, and lift other women up so we could all grow together.
I might have learned all of this from that Lieutenant if she’d had the right mentor herself who modeled the grace and guts to lead like a woman.
The real woman aboard that ship was another teenager, just like me.
Her name is Laura and we’ve been friends ever since. We met the day we both arrived onboard and, although we were assigned to different departments, we hit it off and looked out for each other.
Thank God for Laura.
Because of her, I didn’t quit and go home.
I love the Navy and subsequently enjoyed every day of my 20-year career as a Naval Officer. I worked with some of the finest people I’ve ever known.
And Laura was one of them.
She listened intently before offering an opinion, she made well-thought-out decisions instead of well-staked-out ones, she was encouraging instead of tearing others down, she spoke her truth with honesty and kindness, and she was collaborative instead of seeing every other woman as a competitor.
And no matter what, she didn’t let me quit.
Laura went on to be a Colonel in the Marine Corps and continues, to this day, to be a dear friend. Even at 18, Laura was teaching us all how to lead like a woman.
Rock your day,