Reshaping Perceptions of Women Leaders

By Thayer Leadership, Monday, August 17, 2020

It is never too early to prepare to be a great leader, no matter where you are in your leadership journey. During a virtual keynote with Novartis Pharmaceuticals’ Oncology team, Thayer faculty, Brigadier General (Retired) Becky Halstead, used her personal experiences and lessons learned as a female General in the Army to share how women can be more effective leaders, especially in challenging work environments. General Halstead’s advice on being a more present leader, pivoting the original plan as obstacles arise, and the necessity of learning from your mistakes left this group of leaders inspired and ready to make a difference within their organization and beyond.


What aspect of your personality did you have to work on to be a more effective leader?

I had to become a better listener. I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and some people translated my energy as being defensive. I was very fortunate to have a boss who brought this to my attention, which helped me recognize when I was turning people off versus effectively communicating and connecting with them. As I worked through this, it became very obvious to me that there is a big difference between leading with emotions and leading emotionally!

During our session, I love how you said that you can be demanding but not demeaning as a leader. Can you expand on that?

Yes, never apologize for having high standards of excellence. Be the best you can be, but do not do it on the backs of others. Do not push and control people for your own good; it must be for the greater good of the team and mission. Don’t be intimidating or sarcastic. Choose your words and timing wisely to help change people’s poor behavior and bad habits. Don’t bully people.

When you led 20,000 soldiers and 5,000 civilians in Iraq, were there any surprises or pivots from your original leadership plan?

Yes. Probably more surprises than I remember. However, the one that specifically comes to mind was being diagnosed with chronic fibromyalgia just months before deploying into Iraq. I held my diagnosis in privacy because I did not want to be judged by it. I was already dealing with a boss who blatantly said that if he was in charge, he would not allow all women to be at the top of the same command (my two right hand leaders happened to both be women…my Chief of Staff and my Deputy Commander). When I returned from combat, I really thought I would be able to gut through this disease and get well in a peacetime and less stressful environment. However, I did not get better. That surprised me and caused me to withdraw from competing for my second star as a General Officer and ultimately retiring from the military. I made that decision myself. I wasn’t urged to do so. 

On the contrary, some senior General Officers called me and told me to wait on retirement; to go before the 2-star General Officer board and, if selected, let the system medically retire me later in my career instead. I just could not take that route. To do so would potentially knock one of my peers out of being promoted to a 2-star general. I knew my health wasn’t what it needed to be, so I voluntarily retired. This decision was definitely a surprise to many and certainly a change in my original plans.

What mistake have you made as a leader that has taught you the most?

Too many to mention or decide which one taught me the most! As a young leader, I learned a great deal from making the mistake of using sarcasm/humor in the wrong way and at the wrong time. Humor can be a very effective tool when used properly, but it can be equally devastating when used improperly. The lesson I learned is this— it’s ok to use wit/humor because it is at your own expense. It is not ok to use sarcasm because that is always at the expense of others. As a more senior leader, I also learned an awful lot about failing to be present at the right time. We cannot be everywhere and be everything to everyone, but when we can be present, we need to “be present!” 

There is a story in my book, 24/7: The First Person You Must Lead Is You, that speaks more to this point. The setting was Iraq and I had a Soldier who was badly wounded and brought to the hospital on my forward operating base in the middle of the night. I was at my base when it occurred and received a call from my Chaplain giving me an update on his medical status (which was critical and there was potential he would not survive). The Chaplain and doctors informed me the Soldier was in a coma and they did not see a reason for me to head to the hospital as there was nothing I could do for the Soldier. So, I made the decision not to go. Within a few hours, the Soldier was placed on a C17 transport aircraft and medevaced to a larger military hospital in Germany. I realized that I had failed in that moment. I should have gone over to the base hospital to encourage and provide moral support to the doctors, nurses, and comrades of the wounded Soldier. I had the ability to be present as the leader and I chose not to. Lesson— when you can be present, be present!