Our Daily Lives presents excerpts of women’s autobiographies, essays, letters, journals, diaries, oral histories and testimony with the hopes our readers will respond to the authentic emotions and ideas and see a connection to their own lives.
This month, Our Daily Lives presents an excerpt from “Generally Speaking: A Memoir by the First Woman Promoted to Three-Star General in the United States Army,” by Lt. Gen. Claudia J. Kennedy (Ret.). Below, Gen. Kennedy recalls working with a brigade commander whose evaluations could have brought her Army career to an end. Years later, she writes, her “quiet self-discipline” under difficult circumstances was a good long-term strategy in any career that has its ups and downs. Gen. Kennedy refers to herself as an MI officer. She was in Military Intelligence.
I continued to focus on my job. But as Colonel (Sam) Simerly had warned us, he spread out his Officer Efficiency Reports, forming a pyramid with a narrow point. In mine, he skillfully damned me with faint praise, precluding any recourse on my part to have the rating removed based on more objective evidence of my performance. By the end of that year I was fairly sure I no longer had a good chance for promotion, attending the Army War College, or selection for brigade command.
Although Colonel Edwin Tivol, my new brigade commander, and I had a positive professional relationship and he wrote favorably on my performance, I thought the damage of Simerly’s ratings had already been done. One cold gray afternoon in the winter of 1998 when I was nearing the end of my battalion command and thinking longingly of a warm-climate assignment, I called the Military Personnel Center to enquire about openings at the NATO Defense College in Naples, Italy.
“Those assignments are all filled for the next three years,” the officer said.
So I asked MILPERCEN what kind of assignment they had in mind for me next. They offered three staff jobs outside my specialty, including an assignment as an imagery analyst.
I had no interest in any of these, but in the Army, you either went where you were assigned, or you got out. As much as I regretted this option, I had to face reality. “What is the earliest date I can retire?” I asked the MILPERCEN officer.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll find you the right job. What kind of assignment would you like?”
“I’d like to command a recruiting battalion,” I said, realizing the request might seem unusual. But I’d always loved recruiting and recognized its importance to the Army’s future.
“That’s impossible,” the officer said. “We have a shortage of field-grade officers in MI and we have to keep them in the branch.”
It looked as if my Army service would end after twenty years.
But a week later, that officer called back to ask if I was still interested in commanding a recruiting battalion. “We’re underrepresented in women and minorities, so we would like to put your name on the slate to compete for a battalion, if you’re still interested.”
“I’m still interested.”
It looked as if I might be staying in the Army after all.
I was selected for command of that battalion and worked harder than I ever have before or since. And while I commanded the battalion, I was promoted to full colonel, chosen to attend the Army War College, and selected to command the 703rd Military Intelligence Brigade in Hawaii.
Reflecting on those roller-coaster years, one important lesson becomes obvious. When I began to be treated in an unjust manner during my battalion slating, I took a stand. Although this action undoubtedly antagonized my first brigade commander, Colonel Simerly, what I had done did not harm me in the eyes of those Army leaders who understood the true dynamics of the situation. And the fact that I served in Augsburg under difficult circumstances with quiet self-discipline undoubtedly did not go unnoticed.
The reason I go into detail about these matters is to make it clear that no one can spend a thirty-two-year career completely free of conflict. And often that conflict poses crippling threats to one’s career. We cannot control when those conflicts will arise and which military seniors or executive supervisors they will involve. But we can control our reaction to these serious differences.
One habit of self-discipline that I have cultivated is to maintain a sense of humor upon which I could draw during times of tension, even if only internally. Putting the relationship with the troublesome supervisor in perspective is also another successful tactic: Even though he might seem to loom large at the time, remember that you have literally scores of additional professional relationships that give balance to his one negative viewpoint.