Women In Leadership: Leaning In

  • Published
  • By Maj. Mishaun Smith
  • 39th Comptroller Squadron commander
As the only female commander currently assigned here, I'd like to share my thoughts and personal experiences as a woman in a leadership position, as well as offer advice for the up and coming next generation of female leaders. A lot of people don't realize that the presence of women serving in leadership roles is a fairly new concept for the Air Force, just as it is with corporate America. By 'new' I don't mean like the last 10 to 30 years. It's actually more like the past three to five years and we are still changing. 

Our Air Force is almost 70 years old, and our first female four-star wasn't appointed until 2012. The corporate world is not moving much faster as currently only 24 of Standard and Poor's 500 companies' chief executive officers are women. Women only hold about 14 percent of the top five leadership positions in these same companies, which is not much when women account for more than 60 percent of bachelor's degrees in America. The shift of getting more women in leadership will take time. We are not very far removed from the generation of women who met a husband, got married young, and stayed home to care for their families. Though there are women who still make the choice to stay home to primarily care for their families, it appears that there is a much greater percentage of women who are choosing a full-time career and family than there were just two generations ago.

Today's women in the workforce have to balance being leaders, wives, moms, and essentially trailblazers. As I look at my journey these past couple years as a commander, it has had its challenges. I made a personal choice that I was ready to become a mom. I made some personal and professional sacrifices during the time of my pregnancy and did the very best I could to balance my responsibilities as a commander with the big change that was coming up for my family. I think I did okay. My squadron maintained the mission and morale remained high, while I made it through the pregnancy and now have a beautiful healthy little boy. And the balance will have to be maintained as he grows up and I continue to progress in my career.

Being a trailblazer is very important for the women leaders coming in the future.  You could do this by just being a great, confident, hard-working leader. Female leaders are the only ones that can make society comfortable with women being in leadership roles. If we are uncomfortable with our positions, how can we expect others to be comfortable and accepting? Susan Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and was previously the vice president of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google.  She wrote in her book, "Leaning In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," that, "Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voices to their needs and concerns. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in." 

I made it a point during my time in this seat, to take the time to mentor some of the young female officers and NCOs. My advice to them when it comes to being a confident leader is just to be sure to speak up when you have something to say. Just because you may be the only female or the lowest ranking in the room, doesn't mean you have less responsibility to contribute to the conversation and the decision being made.  Speaking up and having a voice in the discussion doesn't mean you have to change who you are by becoming overly aggressive and combative as though you have something to prove; but you can speak up where it is necessary because your input is as valuable as anyone else's and could be the key to the decision swinging one way or another. 

Another thing you have to keep in mind while you are blazing this trail is that you cannot do it all. You will need some help along the way. Trying to balance your role as a leader in the workplace as well as all the responsibilities at home would be like trying to balance two full-time jobs and eventually one of them would suffer. As a leader, my three priorities for myself and the people I lead are mission, Airmen, and family. In the situation where you try to do it all, all three of those priorities are at risk. So it is important to ensure you and your spouse balance the responsibilities at home with both of your careers. Also, what is great about the Air Force is you have an extended Air Force family that can step in and help when needed. Definitely take advantage of the programs that are offered such as, "Give Parents a Break." I understand that finding this balance can be more difficult when you are dual military or a single parent, but there is help out there, you just have to ask. If you don't know where to go or who to ask, the Airmen and family readiness center is a good place to start.

I will continue to sacrifice sometimes at work and sometimes at home, but as long as the mission continues and my family thrives, I have no regrets. I believe I can be a super Airman and a super mom and wife at the same time. With a little help, we can all achieve the balance. The more of us that come into leadership roles and help other women to achieve their full potential as leaders, the more common and accepting it will be by society, then the easier the trail becomes. So, I encourage all of you leaders and potential leaders, lean in and blaze that trail so our daughters of today will have someone to look up to as they step up to become the leaders of tomorrow.