When I first met Lieutenant General Judith Fedder, I was immediately struck by her poise and presence. Then I noticed the three stars on her shoulder and wanted to know about her experience with power and leadership as one of the most senior ranking women in the military. She was very open and after talking with her at the Pentagon I am so very proud of our gender and our country.
What’s a General’s job?Well, looking at Gen Fedder’s biography, it’s leading a whole lot of people to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the ground to keep the planes in the air and the women and men of the Air Force safe all around the world. According to the official government web site Gen Fedder’s title is Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Installations and Mission Support, Headquarters U.S. Air Force. She reports to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force for “leadership, management and integration of Air Force logistics readiness, aircraft and missile maintenance, civil engineering and security forces, as well as setting policy and preparing budget estimates that reflect enhancements to productivity, combat readiness and quality of life for Air Force people.” Graduating Michigan State University as an ROTC student in 1980, her career has taken her from a BA in dietetics and an MS in Systems Management to managing thousands of people in aircraft maintenance and more. While much of her experience may not be typical of most high-achieving women, I was pleased to find that professional women have more in common with an Air Force General than you might think.
Becoming A Leader
Her entry into leadership was certainly more structured than most women in the commercial sector, but the essence of her experience as a Squadron Commander – her first leadership assignment – might sound familiar to many executives of either gender. She remembers realizing that her job was no longer ‘hands on.’ Leadership is “about getting the right people together and telling them what the end-state is, and then giving them some parameters. And then you tell them, ‘go figure out what the solution is.’”
She learned early on that to help team members succeed she had to give them her insights too, but more importantly she had to believe they could do it and prepare to be surprised by how good their approaches were. There have been many times, she said, when she realized that her people’s solutions were better than what she could have developed on her own. At the moment you let yourself be surprised by their work, she said, you’re a leader. She let go of the need to control the outcome because she realized she didn’t have time to do the work herself and that her job was selecting the right talent and giving them the right support.
Though she learned this lesson early on, she’s still using this leadership approach and inviting others to contribute their best. Watch her leadership style in action speaking last year to the Logistics Officers Association (LOA) and challenging them to be part of the solution to cutting the U.S. defense budget while improving service levels.
The Senior Leadership Journey
As many C-Suite executives know well, stepping into leadership is a slightly different challenge than rising through the upper ranks. While a young officer, Gen Fedder was given a lot of support in many forms – including from her bosses, supporting staff and the system the military uses to develop it’s leaders, including formal education and informal mentoring. The higher she rose, however, the more she realized that she was responsible for more of her own growth and pushing herself to move outside her comfort zone. “You have to professionally stretch yourself. To me that is risk – not to the organization – but risk to what you feel comfortable doing.”
Even with stars on her shoulders Gen Fedder has found herself faced with new situations that challenged her to get outside her past experience and learn new approaches to leadership and success. Some of her most rewarding career experiences have come “when I stretched and tried to learn and tried to adapt to different rule sets and different priorities and kinds of people.” These experiences haven’t necessarily always coincided with her highest achievements, but she treasures them because they changed her, expanded her leadership capability and led her to greater successes later. “Some things have to be hard to be worthwhile,” she said wisely.
She has also learned to let go of unhelpful self-criticism and to accept the experiences where she felt she could have done better as learning opportunities, pick herself up and move on. Discussing both her own learning experiences and those where others were less than mature in how they treated her, she says simply, “you’ve got to figure out what to let roll off your back.”
Her Relationship With “Power”
“There are different kinds of power. Intelligence. Social skill. Position.” Like many professional women, Gen Fedder believes her power derives from the effectiveness of her organization; power comes from your people. “It detracts from the effectiveness of the fighting force if you consolidate the idea of power into a single person. I’m totally comfortable with the power that’s derived from my ability to get people together and accomplish something together.”
When we talked about the internal power that holds a person steady through the kind of leadership journey she’s taken, full of personal stretches and discomfort, Gen Fedder became reflective and a new strength came into her voice. Her inner power “comes from a commitment. At times, I may not believe I have the power to do something in the here and now; I may not understand what you’re telling me; I may not be able to give you a decision right now; but I do have a commitment to serve. I want to respect the uniform. I want to respect all of the Airmen who are part of the Air Force. I know I’ve been given the opportunity to serve at this level and I damn well better give back. If that means stretching, taking risks, going out on a limb doing something that’s uncomfortable to me, then that’s the price I have to pay. I get strength from knowing it’s payback time.”
Women And Diversity In The Military
Gen Fedder’s view of women in the military was fascinating, especially from the viewpoint of someone not in the service. There is no equality in the military – by design. “When we all get in a room, we’re not equals and it’s very obvious,” she said, referring to the rank displayed on her uniform. “We’re more intimidated by rank than by gender.”
Of course the headlines tell us this can be a double-edged sword for lower ranked women and other minorities when they find themselves in situations where both rank and gender may put them at a disadvantage, but this wasn’t Gen Fedder’s experience. In her experience diversity has made the military stronger. For example, in managing discipline problems among the younger Airmen when she commanded units of all sizes, she’s found that having people from different cultures, schools, ethnic and gender perspectives has helped her achieve better outcomes.
She has noticed that the dynamic can change when women are in a room with military men. “The men are more polite,” she said smiling. She believes this contributes to a collegial atmosphere and better decisions because more ideas get out on the table and the resultant discussion is richer.
Like her dedication to her uniform, however, her duty as a military officer comes before her gender. “I’m not going to be looking at things as a female, but from the perspective of my training.”
Work-Life As A Career Officer
Gen Fedder had a perspective on work-life balance that many professional women can relate to, and she believes it’s helped her be a more deliberate and intentional parent to her son, now an officer in the Air Force. “My role as a career officer compelled me – drove me – to be more balanced and to take opportunities to do things with my son or do things together as a family.” She had help, too. Her husband retired from his military career to move around the world with the family and take the majority of the kid-duty as she moved higher and higher. It’s worked for their family, and both mother and father are very proud of their son. She also felt it was important to be a good role model for her son and give him an expansive definition of what women could do. “I wanted him to know he has options when it comes to finding a partner.”
“When you’ve got less time, you know you’ve got to make better use of it,” she said, reflecting also on the fact that there were happy times and times when discipline was called for. Getting to know her and the discipline she has exerted in her own career journey, I can’t imagine that discipline was a problem in her household.
As we closed the interview I asked her for advice for my son who is considering a military career. Besides encouraging him to get good grades and be physically fit, I thought her advice to him was a good reminder for professional women, young people and everyone: “Get involved and do something to stretch yourself. Look for opportunities to boost your confidence and find out what you’re capable of.”
Thank you for your service, Gen Fedder.
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