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"Leadership Lessons from the Military"

Article and Interview by Jessica Walton

Maybe it’s her deep Texas roots or the fact that she’s a former pilot, but Heather Cohea is a firm believer in the old adage of work hard, play hard (and why not in tandem?). Leading up to her current position as the chief of staff for Engineering and Technology, Aeronautics, Heather has worn many hats: U.S. Air Force pilot, engineer, mother of two boys and a teacher. From each of these roles, along with old textbooks and well-earned experience in the field, she has gleaned nuggets of truth about human nature and what it takes to be a compelling leader.


Leadership was not initially something Heather sought when she was picking a career path. In high school, she was a good student in math and science and was considering a track in engineering. It wasn’t until a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that Heather’s passion for leadership and aerospace was ignited.


“It was such an eye-opening experience,” recalled Heather, “to think about how many people were involved in this incredible endeavor that was so much bigger than themselves. Leading up to the successes there were definitely failures, too, but it was all just really inspiring and it made me want to get involved, pushing past the challenges to advance the frontiers of aerospace technology.”


Heather applied and was accepted to the U.S. Air Force Academy’s aerospace engineering program. Out of all the schools offering degrees in aerospace engineering, Heather was sold on the military because she saw the opportunity to become part of something much bigger than herself, joining forces with a large team of people as dedicated and driven as herself.


In the Air Force, leadership training was thrust upon new cadets from day one. Heather described a culture that stipulated leadership practice and study from a range of sources, including academia, antiquity, military papers and modern-day leadership theory. Students studied leadership, wrote papers on the topic and practiced it in real-world scenarios.


“In order to inspire people to give their best service, the military taught us that you have to drive people from the inside out, sometimes adjusting multiple leadership techniques to effectively inspire others,” said Heather. “Now as a director at Lockheed Martin, my colleagues have continued to teach me how to invest in leadership learning over time, and how to apply the right skills in different situations.”


Leadership Lesson #1: You’re allowed to smile


Inserting joie de vivre into a meeting, as Heather put it, doesn’t mean you’re detracting from diligence or accountability for performance. Performance is essential, but it suffers when you’re not joyful in your work.


“Being professional doesn’t mean you have to be dour,” insisted Heather. “No matter what you have to accomplish, whether it’s in the military or at Lockheed Martin, if people are having fun doing it, they’re going to produce better, more inspired work.”


It doesn’t mean that we should expect life to always be a bed of roses, she added. But if you’re able to have a good sense of humor and laugh with your unit or colleagues along the way, then you will be better equipped to withstand the long and hard journeys required for ultimate triumph.


Leadership Lesson #2: Listen and adjust, as needed


Heather learned this one the hard way in the early days of her military career. In her freshman year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Heather was put in charge of divvying up responsibilities by creating a type of chore chart. She put a lot of effort into making it equitable and thought she had done a good job taking everyone’s interests into account – until she presented it to her unit.


“No one was happy with it,” Heather chuckled. “It was a good lesson in collaboration and I’m glad it was an early experience for me!”


Sometimes people aren’t going to be happy no matter what and you need to have thick skin to handle it. But in many cases, if you invite people to participate in the problem-solving early on, the sense of ownership will likely motivate people to work with you, instead of against you – and you’ll come to a better solution.


Leadership Lesson #3: Being a good follower is just as important as being a good leader


Good followers, not just good leaders, are essential for a team’s success. As Heather pointed out, almost every leader out there is also a follower of someone else. She credited Carnegie Mellon Professor Robert Kelley and his theories on effective followership with having a strong influence on her thinking on leadership dynamics while still a cadet at the academy through today as a director at Lockheed Martin.


The following words by Kelley especially resonated with her: “What distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant participation – without star billing – in pursuit of an organizational goal.”


At Lockheed Martin, Cohea frequently brings up Kelley’s theories at “lunch and learn” tag-ups, asking questions like what is the spirit of effective followership? How can we develop more effective followers who drive organizational success?


“Since so many of us are both leaders and followers, you have to have good skills in both arenas in order to move forward with the organization,” said Heather. “In addition, effective followers become the most effective leaders. Both skills sets are essential to highly performing teams.”


Leadership Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to be straightforward


Sometimes being a leader means having to resolve uncomfortable situations. Whether in her role as a commander in the military or director in the private sector, Heather has seen the value in approaching conflicts from a place of partnership and curiosity – while being straightforward about expectations.


“Sometimes people are intimidated by the idea of speaking too directly,” explained Heather. “But in the military we were taught that while it’s ok to show empathy, it’s important to be clear about expectations. Someone less experienced might just pull an administrative action, but I’ve found the most respectful and productive way to handle a mistake or conflict is to have a direct conversation and give the team member a chance to take responsibility for adjusting their own actions.”


Leadership Lesson #5: Inspire confidence in others so they can do their best work


It’s not often that a leader gets feedback from her subordinates. It was a rewarding moment, though, for Heather when one of her outgoing team members at Lockheed Martin told her how much he appreciated her faith in his abilities and the opportunities she provided for him to display his capabilities.


“He told me that when I displayed my confidence in him,  he gained the confidence to lead a project and speak with authority, even around people that had more authority than him,” said Cohea. “This ties directly back to military service because in the military we ask very young people to take on very big responsibilities.”


So, what’s next for Heather? In the next few months, she will be completing her two-year military command tour. It’s been a busy time between her responsibilities at Lockheed Martin, her service in the Air Force Reserve and her family, but she has enjoyed working with committed team members the entire time and strives to continue learning leadership lessons from everyone along the way.


“Supporting an awesome mission with awesome people always makes me happy,” said Heather. “Whatever happens next, I’ll stick to my primary leadership philosophy of work hard, have fun!”