by Shannon Huffman Polson (aborderlife.com)
For Becky Halstead, leadership started out with her being a team player. Growing up in rural New York, she played on the basketball team, but she only started running because the team needed one more girl to be considered a full team. "I had nine varsity letters, but I came from a little town without a stoplight," she says, reflecting both the strength and the humility inherent in the leadership she is about to describe. By the end of an hour conversation, I wish I had been privileged to have served under her command.
She grew up with what she calls a “renaissance mom” and a dad who had served in the Air Force but had worked for IBM since she was born, the third of four children. West Point opened its door to women cadets the year before she was eligible to apply. “There was a college just outside of West Point called Ladycliffe,” Halstead says. “When moms said they wanted their daughters to go to West Point, they meant go to Ladycliffe and marry a West Pointer.”
THE REAL DEAL
Halstead decided she wanted the real deal.
“It was totally against everything going on at the time,” she says. “I grew up Baptist, and some of the people at our church supported my going, but others were completely opposed. I figured if I didn’t get kicked out, I’d graduate and put in my five years.”
Her first five years would only be the beginning.
“The lifestyle is why it clicked," she says. “I love discipline, structure, uniforms. I was a rule follower, even as a kid.” At the end of her five years, she was in company command.
“I had the chance to take a second company, and then after pinning on Major, I never looked back. I was enjoying it too much. I loved the camaraderie and the teamwork.”
Halstead’s career did not always move in ways she expected or hoped.
“When I came out on the one-star list, my boss asked me how COSCOM sounded. I said it sounded great, and I went home and researched everything I could about it. The next day he told me it had been given to someone else, that I wasn’t part of the XVIII Airborne Corps mafia. What did I think about 21st Theater Support in Germany? I’d never even heard of it. I thought it was unfair. Then I took command and had the chance to command during the largest movement of troops and equipment in Europe since WWII."
Halstead was then selected to command all logistics operations in Iraq in 2005-2006, equating to 20,000 soldiers and 5,000 civilians, at the same time the army was undergoing its transformation. “We were going to war in the middle of reorganizing the army,” she says. “Several four-stars told me not to come home if I couldn't make it work.”
“Command in combat is the most rewarding and the most difficult job I would ever have,” she says. “You lose soldiers, soldiers’ lives are changed, and some families don’t make it through. You see courage and innovation at levels you could never expect, both extremes of the human dimension."
“It was a very difficult year in Iraq to learn and educate and make mission,” she says. “In the first 90 days, we had elections, Ramadan, and a change over of units. Because of the reorganization in the army, active duty units served mixed with guard and reserve units, some units had been reformed into brigade combat teams while others had not, and not all leaders were on board with the changes. In a lot of cases we had the wrong ranks and specialties in the wrong seats, but we still had to prove that it would work. Still it turned out to be the best time to make these changes because we had the resources to support it."
"We changed doctrine and flattened the decision making cycle so that we could support the mission far more quickly. Not all change is bad.”
Halstead talks about the challenges on a more internal level. “The hardest thing about being a leader is that you are constantly asking yourself: am I the right person to be making this decision? Am I making the right decision? Am I making it fast enough?
There was no formula. Sometimes the right decision might not follow policy.
“We had a convoy attacked and a soldier killed on a Friday night in a battle space owned by coalition forces that they were supposed to have cleared,” she says. "We talked to the coalition partner, and they agreed they would keep it clear. The next Friday the exact same thing happened. We lost another soldier."
"I had three infantry brigades under my control, all one-star commands. Two of the commanders were respectful, and one was too casual. I had to correct that right away. One of these commanders came to me and said ‘Ma’am, this is a platoon mission. I can put out snipers and clear the route.’ It wasn’t our battle space, but it was our soldiers' lives. I allowed him to do it, and the next convoy made it through unharmed. That didn’t go over so well with my superiors, allowing forces to maneuver in a battle space we didn’t own. I had to ask them if I answered first to them or to the lives of my soldiers? Fortunately my corps commander had a lot of respect for me."
“I constantly asked myself if I was in the right place, if my units were in the right place. I had forces in fifty-five locations across the battle space. I was bound to get some of it wrong.”
Difficult decisions presented themselves at both strategic and tactical levels. In one instance, one of Halstead's soldiers was medevaced to the hospital, seriously injured and in a coma after his vehicle hit an IED with ball bearings in it. Halstead writes about it in her book 24-7. Though she was informed by the chaplain, she made the decision not to visit the hospital that evening, as medical information suggested that he would not be aware of a visit. By the next morning, the soldier had been flown to a hospital in Germany.
"Since he was in a coma, I did not see the need to be present, because he would not know I was there," she writes in 24-7. "I made it about the soldier being aware of me. This decision should also have been about those who were trying to heal and minister to the soldier."
“With 20,000 soldiers, I could not be at every hospital bed and every memorial service,” Halstead says with regret. “As a leader you have to decide where your presence is most valuable and sometimes you get it wrong.”
Halstead reflects with respect on the soldier's company commander who used his own personal leave to visit his soldier back in the states before going back home to his own family.
"I learned from this situation, and I changed how I responded," she writes. "I became a better leader."
At no point in our conversation does Halstead mention the challenges of being a woman, so I ask her to speak to it.
“West Point was hard for everyone,” Halstead says. “With new cadets they are looking for imperfections, and as a woman your imperfection is that you’re a woman. I had to realize that was their problem, not mine. It was a part of the game."
“Some of them didn’t want women in their army. Many years later, I see some of the same arguments, and I’m so disappointed. I tell myself: Becky, this cannot be your problem. Your mission is to be yourself, and through your actions and leadership you’ll change some people’s minds, but you won’t change everyone’s."
Halstead laughs. “Being a woman can be an advantage,” she says. “When someone really thinks you can’t do it, and then you do, you might end up getting more credit than you deserve.”
There is another side to being a woman, too.
When Halstead was promoted below-the-zone to lieutenant colonel, she overheard two peers of hers talking. She liked and respected them both. “They were saying that the only reason I was promoted was because I was a woman. My first reaction was to wonder if they were right, and then I was so disappointed in myself. It was hard to accept that I deserved it or earned it.” Clearly, she had.
ADVICE TO NEW LEADERS
What does Halstead tell new lieutenants? “I remember the fears I had going into my first platoon and looking back, they were so silly,” she says. “When I talked to lieutenants after coming out of Iraq, I thought about how I’d feel walking into a platoon where I look around as the new leader and seventy-five percent of my platoon had a right shoulder (combat) patch. I tell them what I would do is sit with my platoon and ask them to tell me their stories. Ask them these questions: Where did you deploy? What did you do? What did you learn? Listen to their stories so they know you are interested and willing to learn."
"We’re all taught 'When in charge, take charge,' but truly give everybody including yourself at least thirty days to get your feet on the ground. As you get more senior, it has to be longer, sixty, maybe ninety days."
"Try very hard to be comfortable in your own skin, be yourself. Women have taken longer to learn this, trying very hard to fit in. If I had it to do all over again, I’d realize fitting in didn’t matter."
"Play to your strengths. Identify your weaknesses and either work on them or surround yourself with those who have those weaknesses as strengths."
Halstead ends with humility and reflection, recognizing her many mentors. “I’ve been mentored and tor-mentored by some of the army’s best,” she says. “I had more mentors than tormentors. I see things in my leadership I adopted from mentors of all ranks, superior, peer and subordinate.”
“We should all realize that we don’t get it right 100% of the time,” she says. “Too many people think just because they have a certain rank or position all their decisions are right, and they aren’t willing to change.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
Halstead is proudest of leaving a legacy and developing leaders. “When I get messages from kids who were my lieutenants who are mayors or brigade commanders or generals,” she says (the mayor of Spokane, Washington and the head of U.S. Army logistics were both individuals who served under Halstead), “that’s the legacy piece in my mind. If as a leader you don’t get excited about seeing your people perform and develop and grow, you shouldn’t be a leader.”
Halstead gets positive responses from 24-7, too. “I’m glad it helps people,” she says.
About grit, Halstead says “it’s a tremendous amount of self discipline. Reaching deep into the soul of your leadership and knowing you can do something you otherwise doubt that you can.”
Halstead believes that grit can be developed, too. “Read about people who have it, she says. Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln… read their stories and you find strength in yourself.”
Halstead’s final words are simple, and easy to remember, even in combat.
“Rule number one is don’t quit,” she says. “Rule number two: refer back to rule number one.”
New to The Grit Project? Don't miss the profiles of early women aviators, submariners and rescue swimmers here!