Shannon Huffman Polson, retired U.S. Army Captain, shares leadership lessons  from the cockpit and boardroom

After nearly a decade as an Army officer and attack aviation leader, and later, as a leader and manager in the corporate sector at Guidant and Microsoft, Shannon Huffman Polson turned her attention to storytelling, sharing the stories of remarkable female leaders and trailblazers through her “Grit Project”and other writing endeavors. She will be delivering a keynote for the Midsize Enterprise Summit Spring conference. We caught up with her for a conversation about leadership, lessons learned from the military and insight senior IT leaders can apply to their work. Interviewed by Robert DeMarzo, Senior Vice President, Event Content, The Channel Company.

Midsize Enterprise Summit: First of all, thank you for your service to our great country. You speak a lot about leadership based on your experience in the U.S. Army. How have your views on leadership evolved over the past few years?

Shannon Huffman Polson: Leadership is evolving in very healthy ways. Leaders today need to be much more transparent, and ensure that they are listening to the people who work for them, the people they work for, and the people they work with.  At the same time, the most progressive places to work are realizing that it is important to enable risk taking, and not penalize every failure—risks are how we stretch and accomplish things we couldn’t have previously imagined.

MES: That said, what are your views on leading the next-generation of workers that are rising in the business world? What adjustments do existing leaders have to make to inspire these individuals?

Huffman Polson: The data seems pretty clear that this next generation wants to be connected to purpose. They want to feel inspired, and that they are making a difference. This is a great opportunity for today’s leaders to ensure that they have done their own work to connect to their own core purpose and that they help those working for them both connect to their own core purposes, and then make the connection of that personal purpose to that of the organization. This is a key part of training through The Grit Institute, working with leaders at all levels. 

MES: You rose through the ranks to become a U.S. Army Captain and led an Apache helicopter platoon that was made up mostly of men. What was that experience like as a woman rising through the ranks of the Army and leading male-dominated teams?

Huffman Polson: The experience was a combination between exhilaration and devastation. I worked with some of the best people I could hope to know, and some of the worst. The insular nature of the military creates extremes—both good and bad. I loved the mission focus and the flying. There were several unfortunate and difficult situations I would not wish on anybody. I’m also grateful for the incredible opportunity to fly the aircraft and work with truly outstanding people on missions that were serving a good bigger than I was.

MES: In today’s business environment, there is a great focus on diversity and inclusion to strengthen organizations. What is your message to women when you speak to audiences of predominately women?

Huffman Polson: The message to women is really the same as the message to men! Each leader is unique.

At the same time, with a group of mostly women I emphasize the importance of asking for what you want as a leader and being willing to take risks. It’s something women don’t do as often as men—often the environment and our cultural norms don’t support it, and even penalize them when they do—and yet both are so important for leaders to realize their potentials.

MES: You have done some pioneering work around what you branded The Grit Project. What does it take to have grit today and how does it help individuals advance as leaders?

Huffman Polson:  It continues to be an honor to interview and synthesize lessons from so many outstanding leaders in The Grit Project. The resulting book, The Grit Factor, will be out next year so stay tuned. There are a number of factors that figure into grit, but in all cases it’s critical that a leader do or have done the work to connect to their own core purpose. Our core purpose is the place we return when things are hard. It’s the place where we find our strength, and ultimately our grit.

MES: Can you compare and contrast leading and managing teams in the Army vs. your roles in business at Guidant and Microsoft?

Huffman Polson:  In the military, employees are assigned to you—a soldier arrives to your unit without any foreknowledge of the person or his or her experience. In the business world, we have more input into the people we hire. In the army, you cannot help people realize other opportunities, and in the corporate world there is more flexibility that way, even when it’s hard.

Leading teams in the end comes down to people. A good leader finds the best way to take care of people, to help them develop their strengths and work on their weaknesses. Leadership is all about heart—and also making the mission. This is no difference in the military than in the civilian world. Training at The Grit Institute looks at leadership through the lens of people. (thegritinstitute.com)

MES: You have experienced a horrible tragedy in your life recounted in your book North of Hope. What got you through it all?

Huffman Polson:  I talk about facing fear head on, and in the case of the sudden and violent loss of my father and stepmother, it is no different, and I had no choice. I took advice on how to construct support for when I would need it. Taking the same journey they had taken when they died was part of that facing the fear. Writing North of Hope was certainly part of facing fear. My faith was a big part of the journey as well, and it still is.

MES: One last question. What do you tell people about overcoming fear based on your experiences?

Huffman Polson:  There is no escaping fear—and there is no shortcut around it. It’s a natural emotion all of us will feel, especially as we take on greater responsibilities and stretch roles. We will face it when we fail. The best and only way to confront fear is straight on. I like to say that a helicopter takes off and lands into the wind—it uses the resistance.  The same is true with fear. A leader learns to face fear head on.

Shannon Huffman Polson is the author of "The Grit Project," is one of the first U.S. Army Women Apache helicopter captains and pilots. From the cockpit to the boardroom, Huffman Polson shares stories of grit and leadership to help others overcome fear, break through uncertainty, and reach their full potential. Huffman Polson is a woman of many firsts. Among those high points: She is one of the first women to fly Apache combat helicopters in the U.S. Armed Forces, where she served on three continents and led two flight platoons and a line company. 

After nearly a decade as an Army officer and attack aviation leader, and later, as a leader and manager in the corporate sector at Guidant and Microsoft, she turned her attention to storytelling, sharing the stories of remarkable female leaders and trailblazers through her “Grit Project” and other writing endeavors. 

Drawing on a distinguished military and corporate career, she reveals her lessons learned and leadership strategies to help individuals harness their inner strength, move beyond resistance, and attain their goals. With an emphasis on grit – which she describes as a dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstances – she demonstrates how to tap into that passion and resolve so anyone can face their limitations, sense of purpose, and become a leader of greatness.