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Leading with Character: The Power of Being Different

I learned how to use that power of being different in a good way, by building trust and earning respect with my shipmates.

As many of you know, I served in uniform with the U.S. Coast Guard for 40 years, and was a member of the third class to graduate women from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. I chose a career serving at sea onboard Coast Guard cutters, which was uncommon at the time.

When they find out I was the first or only woman to serve on ships with up to 150 men, people ask me, “Wasn’t it hard being the only woman out there with all those men?” At first, the question took me by surprise, because I actually thought it was easier in many ways being the one who was different. The question made me contemplate why I felt that way. In this blog and the next I’ll show how, with the right attitude, being different can actually be a superpower.

Breaking the Ice

I was just 25 years old when ordered to report to the remote lumbering and fishing town of Eureka, Calif., as Operations Officer onboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Clover, a 180-foot medium endurance cutter. I was single, and would be the first and only woman in a crew of 50 men. I would be in charge of the law enforcement boardings, navigation, and patrol planning and execution.

It was awkward being the only woman, and I could sense the men didn’t quite know what to make of the situation. So, I took the initiative to help the men understand that working with and for a woman was no different than working with and for a man. I’d jokingly ask the guys, “Don’t you have wives, sisters, and daughters? Didn’t you go to school with girls?” They’d meekly answer, “Well, yes, ma’am.” That broke the ice.

I was raised with three younger brothers, and grew up accustomed to being one of the only girls in a neighborhood full of boys. I think that experience gave me the confidence to apply to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. When I entered the Academy in 1978 in the third class with women, only five percent of the corps of 1,000 cadets was female. So, when I reported aboard the Clover, being the only woman was normal for me. It was the men who were off-balance!

Build Trust and Earn Respect

I learned how to use that power of being different in a good way, by building trust and earning respect with my shipmates. Here are some hints on how to succeed as one of the few or only in your workplace:

  • First, take the initiative to break the ice; I found ways to do it with humor. Don’t sit back waiting to be welcomed or included, thinking that’s someone else’s job. Shape your own fate!
  • Set forth expectations to help others understand what’s appropriate.
  • Draw upon your inner courage to project the necessary confidence to go with your competence. That will help you build trust and earn respect.
  • Walk around to look, listen, and learn from people in your work group. I call this the “Four L’s of Leadership.” Look, Listen, Learn and only then can you Lead well.
  • Ask questions; it builds trust and you earn respect when you humble yourself to ask questions of subordinates and peers.
  • Take care of the people in your workgroup. If you’re a supervisor, find out what they need be it tools, policy changes, or whatever – and deliver to continue building that trust and earning their respect.
  • And, finally, unite people by focusing on the mission.

A Measure of Success

I knew I’d succeeded a few months into my new job onboard the Clover when standing a late-night underway watch with a small team up on the bridge. The quartermaster of the watch pulled me aside and said, “Ma’am, we’re happy to have you onboard. Most of us guys don’t like it when other guys are rude and crude, but we can’t say anything or we’ll look like sissies. Now we can tell them they can’t say or do that because Ms. Stosz is onboard.”

Wow! That’s when I realized being different could be a superpower. The next morning when I walked down the passageway to the crowded mess deck (dining area), I heard a crewmember cussing. I called him on it, “Hey Kenny, would you say that in front of your mom or your sister?” He stammered, “No, ma’am.” I replied lightly and with humor, “Well, Kenny, you can’t say that in front of me, either!” I said it in a way that made everyone on the mess deck laugh in good fun. I was thereby able to clearly make the point as to what constituted appropriate behavior without causing Kenny to lose face in front of his peers. That successful encounter taught me there’s an art to using the power of being different.

Being Different Can Be a Superpower

It was important for me to get past being different. Being the only woman on that ship was the least of my worries; it was an incredibly challenging assignment. We were operating in the rough, stormy waters of the Pacific Ocean on monthlong patrols.

In my three years as the senior boarding officer, I led armed teams onboard hundreds of vessels in the toughest conditions. The trials of operating in a demanding environment, and discovering the power of being different made me more resilient and effective. That’s why when people ask me if it was hard being at sea with all those men I tell them no, being the only woman was actually a superpower.

Look in the mirror. Do you view being different as a weakness or a power?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: https://sandrastosz.com/book/breaking-ice-and-breaking-glass/

Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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