Inspiring Leadership from Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth

I had the pleasure of seeing Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth speak at our company today.  For those who do not know this remarkable woman,  Ms. Duckworth is the US Representative for Illinois’ 8th congressional district and is the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress in Illinois, the first disabled woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first member of Congress born in Thailand.

She has a distinguished military career and served as a US Army helicopter pilot, suffering severe combat wounds in Iraq, losing both of her legs and damaging her right arm. She continues to serve as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard.

Ms. Duckworth was invited by our Asian-American business resource council and came with members of her staff and family, including her mother.  As a learning leader, I have long been immersed in the concepts and practices of extraordinary leadership, but I have found fewer examples of truly inspirational leadership than Ms. Duckworth.

As someone once said, “I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one.”

What made her comments so powerful was knowing how earned they were – that they came from a life lived big.

Here are a few thoughts she shared with us today:

About mentors:

While there is nothing wrong with looking for mentors in positions that you aspire to in the future, don’t overlook people who are more junior to you, in age, rank or position.

She told a great story of how, as a young leader in the Army, she had a grizzled sergeant under her command.  Though he was often, in her words “a pain”, he was a wonderful source of advice.  Often after giving an order, he would pull her aside and explain why the order wasn’t as remarkable as she may have thought.  After discussing it, she would come back out and refine the order.

She recognized that every leader must be open to the realities on the ground and that receiving and taking advice is not weakness, it’s a strength.

For those who may be afraid of taking advice from a more junior person, note the reaction of the sergeant when she gave the new order.  He responded with “Yes, ma’am”.  He respected her not only for her rank and for being open to listening to her team.

For women

Ms. Duckworth advised the women in the audience to “get out of our own way”.  She shared stories about how she, as the only women in all-male squads, felt the need to be tougher and more “badass” than her male peers.  She would volunteer for the ugly missions, go on marches carrying the heaviest artillery and take on the hardest tasks.

That need to compete with men on their turf made her strong, but it also led her to distrust her own instincts.

As a leader of a helicopter squad, she would awaken early on cold mornings to prepare hot cocoa for the pilots before they left ground.  She was called “Mama Duckworth” and in her own words, recognized that for the insult it was.

Naturally, she stopped making cocoa!  And the result was that the pilots’ performance went down.  They were cold and the cocoa had helped warm them before flight.  The lesson she derived was that whether she made cocoa because she was a woman or not, the tactic worked to make her squad a safer unit.  She figured, if it helped the team’s performance, she would add marshmallows and blow on the steam.  The point was that as a leader, she could stand a few insults when the results were positive.  The bigger lesson was that women should trust their instincts, even if or perhaps especially if they are ideas that the men on their team wouldn’t have.


Two words.

Work hard.

Two more.

Don’t whine (I told you she was tough!).

She softened that to say that it is ok to whine to yourself, but then suck it up and get back to work.

As someone else said: “No one cares the storms you encounter, they only care did you bring in the ship.”

So there you have it.  A few words from a funny, accessible and smart woman who’s leading an extraordinary life.

Who is the most inspiring leader you’ve met?

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