The first link in a powerful chain

Hilary Thomas broke ground as the first woman to serve in more than one US Army unit.

Tremendous pressure goes along with being the first person to do anything, and a high degree of stress goes along with being the first woman to serve in an all-male unit.  It doesn’t take a unique set of skills to be assigned as the first woman to an all-male unit. A simple keystroke on a computer can do that.  However, serving with excellence in this capacity sets the tone for all women who follow this assignment.

Hilary Thomas distinguished herself as an officer in the United States Army. She was one of the few women to complete the grueling Sapper Course as an engineer officer, and completing this course put her ahead of many of her male peers.  

She had every right to ride the success of this arduous achievement.  Not willing to back down from a challenge, though, Hilary volunteered to go through the Ranger Course.

This was a high-stakes gamble at this point in military history. The Ranger course was recently opened to women for the first time in history. This course is brutal and has a very high attrition rate. By the time Hilary volunteered to go through the course, few women had been able to complete it.  

Of the eight women who started the Ranger Course at that time, only Hilary would complete the training months later.

Overcoming these challenges gave her the experience and the commitment she needed to lead men as the first woman in two different all-male units.  Through her talent and tenacity, she became the first link in a powerful chain of more women who would go on to serve in these traditionally all-male roles of the US Army. 

It’s unlikely that you will be the first person of your gender to serve in a difficult position like Hilary. You might not be the first person of color or your nationality to open the door for others like Hilary.  However, there are a few lessons that we can all learn from the person who has blazed a trail before us. Here are a few unique challenges that accompany being the first link in a powerful chain.

They carry a heavier load

Technically speaking, every link in a chain equally distributes a load. However, when building a chain, that first link sets the tone for all the other links in the chain. If the chain is forged from a mold, the strength of the first link will determine how the rest of the links in the chain perform.

Hilary had the extra pressure of being the mold by which the other women who followed would be judged.  If she performed well, other women would be given the benefit of the doubt. If she did not perform well, other women would be forced to work much harder to overcome Hilary’s reputation. This is what makes Hillary an exceptional leader. She served with distinction at the Sapper and Ranger course and was the first woman officer in two traditionally all-male units.

Keep the people who will follow after you in mind if it feels like you’re carrying a heavier load than everyone around you because you are the first person to serve in your capacity. Hilary opened doors for other women by leading with excellence.  You can do the same if you’ve been selected as the first link in a powerful chain. 

They must be both flexible and rigid

The physics of a chain is fascinating. It must be strong enough to handle immense pressure and be flexible enough to adapt to the load it carries.  This is a very rare combination of rigidity and flexibility. 

Hilary also needed this extremely rare combination of rigidity and flexibility as a leader. She needed to be talented and strong enough to be the first woman to lead men in traditionally all-male assignments. However, she had to be flexible enough to lead with a sensitivity to other warriors who didn’t support women serving as engineer officers in the US Army at the time.  

It’s easy to default to one of the two extremes as a leader.

Perhaps you have a personality that wants to resolve conflict and make peace wherever there are challenges. When leaders default toward flexibility, they find it difficult to handle any leadership assignment’s complex personnel challenges.

The type of leader who is highly rigid, though, is not able to react to challenges and changes in an organization. These leaders are exceptionally good at getting stuff done in particular circumstances. However, when circumstances change, their rigidity becomes a liability, not an asset.

It doesn’t matter if you are a political leader or a parent trying to lead your children well. A rare and powerful combination of rigidity and flexibility makes a person successful, no matter the leadership environment.

They pull the other links along

The first link in a chain is the tension point that attaches the rest of the chain to a load, which means that the first link must handle the pressure point for the entire chain.  One link in the chain will be the point of attachment for the chain to secure a heavy load or pull a heavy object.  

It doesn’t matter how intense the rest of the links in the chain are. If this point of attachment link fails, the whole chain is rendered worthless.

When you are the first person to open the door for others, there will be greater stress on you than on the people who follow. Keep the long game in mind. Don’t forget that the pressure you’re going through makes it easier for others that will follow after you.

Hilary opened the door for many women to serve in these traditionally all-male assignments after her departure. Thanks to Hillary, the women who followed her had a slightly easier load.  Years, or decades from now, other links in the chain will still benefit from Hilary’s hard work and success as the first woman in these assignments.

For all of us who have ever had the privilege of serving in a dream job, you should thank God tonight for the people who went before you and opened the doors for you to fill your position.  

Listen to my recent interview with Hilary HERE.

Read about Jeff’s military career.
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