She's Got Grit: The Army's first female four-star General

It’s hard to imagine the Army’s first woman four-star general as anything other than the supremely talented leader and mentor that she is today, but Ann Dunwoody never thought she would stay in the Army past her two-year obligation. She was an Army brat from a family with four generations of West Pointers, an avid gymnast and tennis player, and one of six children born to a three-time war hero of a father and a mother who was a devout Catholic. When the Army was trying to recruit more women after the Vietnam war, she signed up during her junior year of college for the $500 a month, and the commitment to serve two years following college.

“I really wanted to be a PE coach,” she says, “But in the interim, I figured I could do anything for two years.”

She graduated college and entered the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) which was disbanded a year later as the process of integrating women into the army began.

“Some units were more accepting than others,” she says. “Many thought that women had no place in ‘this man’s army.’ @@I watched doors open, though there were still many I had to kick down.@@ I found the best way to succeed was to exceed the standards and always take the moral high ground.”

"Exceed the standards and try to make a difference-- every day."

Dunwoody reasoned that she would stay as long as, “I was enjoying it and felt I was making a difference,” she says. “There are times you might enjoy something and not make a difference, or make a difference but not enjoy it. I needed to have both. And usually I did. So I stayed.”

Even a general starts out as a 2nd lieutenant, and Dunwoody credits her first platoon sergeant for teaching her what she needed to know. 

“He took this new lieutenant, and taught me what right looked like, how to enforce not just a standard but a higher standard (the title of her new book), and not to walk past a mistake. @@If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.@@”

He obviously taught her well.

Dunwoody took her second company command at a rigger detachment in Germany. “It was my dream job,” she says. It should have been the top unit in theater, but instead she found it lacking.

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“I was so disappointed when I got there. It was one of the most prestigious units, but both the warrant officer and the lieutenant were overweight and out of shape. Back then we had problems with drugs in the organization and racial problems. The lieutenants and the NCOs wouldn’t even go in the barracks.”

Dunwoody started cleaning house.

“We did drug testing and also health and welfare inspections,” she said. “When people know that you will reward the high end of achievement and discipline the low end, the unit improves,” she says. “If you don’t, the herd moves to the left.”

She also had to get jumpmaster qualified, a school run by Special Forces. 

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“I showed up on a Sunday afternoon ready for training,” she says. “The duty officer pointed me down the hallway. Off I went to find my room. I opened the door, and there’s a young male paratrooper in the room. Back then it was two to a room.”

She went back to the duty officer who was deep in conversation with a commander.

“He thought there was a typo,” he said. 

No one was amused. Dunwoody was assigned a separate room, and she graduated her first time through in a school with a 40% success rate.

In the meantime, her unit turnaround came with hard lessons, too.

Partway through refocusing the unit, Dunwoody thought things were in order. She took leave to go skiing. While she was gone the battalion commander organized a surprise inspection of the motor pool. She returned from leave with the report on her desk and a long list of “gigs” (deficiencies). 

I thought, “really? You’re going to inspect while I’m gone and write up all this little nit-picky stuff?” She pauses. “But he was right. You can’t rest on your laurels. He was teaching me a lesson: never be satisfied and pay attention to the details.”

Those details extended from motor pools to foxholes (and one assumes to parachutes as well). Recalling serving as a field grade under an exceptional battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne, she talks about foxholes.

“He taught me what the standard should be. When you’re out in the field and you see foxholes not to standard, you work on then until they are to standard. Whatever you do or don’t do, that new standard will become the norm.”

Did Dunwoody ever doubt herself?

Not that she admits. 

“Karma, personality, and style starts before you get to college,” she says. “I was lucky to be born into a values-based family. The military is a values-based organization.”

If she won’t admit fear or doubt, she does remember questioning the decision to stay in. 

“Gender matters, yes,” she says. “Like everything, it’s an evolution.”

When assigned to the 82nd Airborne as the only female field grade officer, “I got a very menial job. My male counterparts who had far less experience had the tougher, command qualifying jobs. It was the only time in my career I thought: this is BS.”

She had a choice. She could have left. She decided to stay.

“@@I decided to make believers out of the unbelievers@@,” she says.

“@@You can’t let other people dissuade you from what you want to do. If you do, they win.@@ @@I knew I would have to exceed the standards to succeed. All good leaders do, men and women.@@”

On diversity, she says, “I tell people that @@if you’re sitting around a table with all people who look like you and sound like you, you’re going to have a narrow view of things.@@”

I ask her about how she ultimately moved from frustration to the decision to stay. 

She laughs. 

“I wasn’t in that menial job very long. @@Seemingly insurmountable obstacles turned into opportunities.@@” 

Dunwoody is most proud of commanding a battalion in the 82nd Airborne. She was the first woman to do so. “I loved jumping out of airplanes, being a parachute rigger, and leaders paratroopers,” she says. “The spirit and enthusiasm of the young paratroopers was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.” 

Dunwoody later became Ft. Bragg’s first female general officer.

General Dunwoody on deployment 

General Dunwoody on deployment 

Ann's Book

A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America's First Female Four-Star General

Ann's Favorite Books

Once an Eagle

a classic Army story of the rise of two very different officers—one a polished, ambitious staff superstar and the other a mud-on-his boots true warrior.

Leading Change

Another classic book that has been part of my reading portfolio, that speaks to challenges of recognizing when change is necessary and provides a sustainable model for implementing change that is both practical and enduring. Not only did it provide a great frame work for change .. it provided a great read for my subordinates to help understand the process and their role in helping to lead change.

The Speed of Trust

Being a logistician, most of the organizations I ran had a business element. Key was how to make them more efficient and effective. While many of the books, as noted above were about how to lead change this book reinforced something I always believed but never really conceptualized it as Stephen Covey does... and that’s the importance of “Trust” We talk about “partnerships” with industry. I always thought that sounded like it was a partnership based on money or financials. I’ve always believed that instead of partnerships we should be establishing relationships based on trust. This book reinforced that in spades and actually lays out the cost associated when trust is lacking. It was so impactful on me ... that Trust became and underlying principle in my Vision for the Organization.

Good to Great

A leadership classic. From my first read back in 1987, Jim’s discussion on the description of, identification of and development of Level 5 leaders in and organization and the importance of their role in implementing change has guided and influenced me in my journey in dealing with and implementing change.

Hope is not a Method

Former CSA of the Army and a coach and mentor of mine since 1990 and still today. General Sullivan’s book is a strategic look, about transforming the Army, based on his experiences. He addresses the all too familiar hierarchal Command and Control system in the Army used since WWII — it was no longer agile enough for the challenges that faced the Army in the 21st century. He talks about incremental change versus meaningful change. One of the key lessons and takeaways and examples he provided that I used through my career to teach young leaders was his example of incremental versus monumental change. He used the high jump as an example ..showing the various styles of high jumping like the scissors kick produce relatively little improvement where as the Fosberry flop... produced significant results. Lesson... look for the kind of changes, the kinds of opportunities that can produce notable or significant results.

In 2005, Dunwoody became the army’s highest ranking female officer when she was promoted to lieutenant-general and became the army’s deputy chief-of-staff, G-4 (logistics). This is the job she remembers as the hardest.  

“The government bureaucracy was brutal and frightening in their ability to make it extremely hard to get anything done,” she says.

She doesn’t admit to anything scaring her, and I’m not about to argue. 

What does grit mean to General Dunwoody? “@@Grit is personal courage,” she says. “Always trying to do the right thing, not the popular thing, for the right reason.@@”

"GRIT = personal courage. Always trying to do the right thing, not the popular thing, for the right reason."

Her recent history of grit was fighting for warfighter support. “I fought for the needed automation to help the Army manage its billions of dollars of inventory,” she says. “Without the automation company commanders could not keep track of their equipment, but we were holding them accountable. This required fighting the bureaucracy in the Pentagon to get the funds. I couldn’t take no for an answer. I had to challenge it all the way up to Chief of Staff of the Army to get it funded.”

How did Dunwoody stay committed when things were tough? Like others in The Grit Project, she connected to the ultimate purpose and sense of mission. 

"I never considered myself anything but a soldier."

“Knowing that soldiers on the battlefield could not do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as they could with this equipment, and knowing the army was wasting taxpayer dollars buying more stuff because they didn’t have the tools to see what they had was a huge motivator,” she says.

It worked.

In 2008, Dunwoody received her fourth star and was assigned to one of the army’s largest commands, the Army Material Command.

General Ann Dunwoody

General Ann Dunwoody

It’s a journey that requires a lot of grit, and Dunwoody believes that grit is something that can be developed. She would know.

“Find role models you admire and respect and learn from them,” she says. Her own role models? Her mother, her school athletic coaches, and Brigadier General Wilma Vaughn. And her father, himself a Brigadier General.

After talking grit, General Dunwoody wants to talk about national security, which seems only fair.

“I think the drastic cuts being made in the military - in terms of resources for equipment modernization, readiness training, and the reductions in the size of our military forces - seriously threatens our national security by limiting our ability to deter and destroy threats. ISIS, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and China all seem to have agendas and have acted on plans that threaten the US and our strategic partners. The US also has a long and distinguished record responding to humanitarian and contingency operations that will be limited if we are not properly resourced. I think the common theme we’ve heard is that the US does not have a coherent strategy to identify and ultimately preempt or respond to these threats." 

    She also speaks out about military readiness, echoing the recent statement by Army Chief of Staff General Milley.

"Integration will not be easy and it won’t happen overnight. "

    “Fewer than 0.5 percent of Americans serve in the military. There is no doubt about it. We’ve been in a constant wartime footing in the military war since 9/11. That is rapidly approaching 15 consecutive years and is by far the longest period of time an all volunteer force has been at war. Multiple deployments are hard on soldiers and devastating for their families. Missed holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and even the birth of their children is stressful to say the least. Compounding that are the dramatic actions and consequences of brutal and unpredictable warfare. We are seeing the physical disabilities and the more invisible signs of stress and emotional impact on our men and women in uniform and their families.” 

    As the army’s first woman four-star general, she is the first of her rank to be able to understand other changes in the military as well.

General (Ret) Ann Dunwoody

General (Ret) Ann Dunwoody

    “In almost four decades of service I have witnessed a lot of change. From my view and experience the doors continue to open for women and people in general. From the integration of blacks into the military, the integration of women into the military, the integration of gays into the military. For women, the number of job opportunities has continued to expand. I was allowed to attend Airborne School and later Jumpmaster School; my older sister was the 3rd female to graduate helicopter pilot training; my niece is an Air Force Academy graduate and served as A-10 pilot in combat; and now we recently had three females graduate from Ranger School, one of the toughest and most demanding leadership courses in the Army. This year the Secretary of Defense lifted the ban on women in combat roles. Integration will not be easy and it won’t happen overnight. I don’t even know what the propensity is for women who will want to serve in combat specialties and special operations forces, but I believe @@if they are fully qualified, trained, and ready to serve, then being a woman can’t be the only reason to exclude them.@@“

"If they are fully qualified, trained, and ready to serve, then being a woman can’t be the only reason to exclude them."

    “You have to believe in yourself," Dunwoody says. "Someone once told me if you don’t think you’re the best in what you do, then no one else will either. Don’t confuse believing in yourself with blustery overconfidence or conceit. I didn’t make this journey alone. I don’t know anyone who did.”

    How does she feel becoming a role model for others?

    “I was never prepared for the enormity of my promotion to four star.” She remembers writing 50 letters a night back to kids who had written to congratulate her.

    “One thing I learned early is never to close the doors on opportunities. Even though I thought I had a bullet proof plan, I kept my options open. I often found that opportunities lead to other opportunities. If you don’t take advantage of opportunities that come your way, you may be unwittingly limiting your options for the future.”

    Sounds a lot like the advice a coach would give an athlete. It might be that Dunwoody ended up in her dream job after all.

    Dunwoody’s book, A Higher Standard came out in 2015. 

WANT TO READ MORE ON GRIT? DOWNLOAD THE GRIT PROJECT PUBLICATIONS THE PILOTSTHE TRAILBLAZERS AND THE GENERALS

Enjoy this interview with General Dunwoody? What stands out for you? Share in the comments below!

Can't get enough? Order General Dunwoody's book, and the interview with BG Halstead, West Point's first woman general officer.

Supplemental References:

1. http://www.leadersmag.com/issues/2014.3_Jul/Women%20Leaders/LEADERS-General-Ann-Dunwoody-U.S.-Army.html

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq4b-yXyvB8&nohtml5=False

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