“Lessons from the General,” by K. Tomlinson

When the clock struck 12:00 AM and we rang in the New Year 304 days ago, one of my resolutions was to aggressively pursue a new job.  The time had come for me to make a change—I had become comfortable with my surroundings and was not feeling challenged or terribly motivated by my work.  I was looking in higher education, government and the private sector.  My goal was to be out of my current job by the end of the academic year—a lofty goal considering the unemployment rate in Ohio.  I was also geographically limited in my search as my husband/partner, who is also in higher education, was advancing along in his career.  And considering the housing market, it made sense to stay put for awhile.

I was thankful that an opportunity came my way in April.  It is work that is rooted in empowering women to lead holistic lives of purpose through education and character, which I love.  While I leaving the comforts of an institution I had come to know well in my seven years there, it was exciting to hit the re-start button and throw myself with abandon.  On my last day at Ohio State, a good friend of mine told me that I needed to seek out a mentor.  Little did I know that she would turn out to be a highly decorated retired US Army General.

General McGuire is a two-tour combat veteran.  She education includes two Masters degrees—one in military arts and sciences and one in national security and strategic studies.  She is the first woman in the history of the US Army to hold the highest law enforcement office, Provost Marshall General of the Army, the first women to command the US Army’s Criminal Investigations Command, the first woman to command the Department of Defense maximum security prison.  Prior to her retirement, her last post was working at the Pentagon as the Director of Man Power and Personnel.

Since her arrival in August, General McGuire’s impact has been immediate and meaningful.  I have had the good fortune to work with her on a few projects as well as consult with her on dealing with issues.  Her work in the military parallels the work that many student affairs practitioners commit to on a daily basis as she has watched the tremendous transformation of young men and women who join the military.  She has a passion for leadership development and cultivation, which is demonstrated in her approach to working with volunteers and staff.

In my time with Colleen, I have summarized a few meaningful pieces of advice that she has imparted.  While not rocket science or earth shattering, I have found that these reminders have made a significant change in how I approach my work, and in turn, my life outside the office.

  • Be strategic.   Challenge conventional thought to foster decision making.
  • Be vulnerable.  Ask questions.  Stop trying to be the smartest person in the room.
  • Everyone—regardless of their rank on the org chart—has added value.  Learn from them.
  • Find meaning and purpose in your work.  Whether it’s finding dignity, a challenge, independence or belief in the mission, you will be much more productive and accomplished professional.
  • Embrace life.  Take care of yourself.  Work to live, not live to work.

But the most impactful lesson I have learned from the General has been the idea of keeping things in perspective—and maintaining it in the midst of an issue or a crisis.  While discussing an issue with a vendor that resulted in an immediate panic, I was brainstorming some ways in which we could get ahead of it and fix it.  Send out a mass apology email?  Ignore it?  Look for a new vendor?  I was so worried, sitting in front of her, that I had to have the right answer in order to maintain my credibility.  Without saying a word, she opened her desk drawer and took out a bullet encased in glass.  She told me that the bullet had gone through her armor in Iraq—and that was how she keeps things in perspective.



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