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#WorkTrends: Lessons on Leadership and Diversity from One of West Point’s First Female Grads

Sara Potecha was one of West Point’s first female graduates. Now, she works as a speaker, consultant and writer. If that isn’t enough to make you feel lazy, know that Potecha also works as a leadership coach, often advising women on how to navigate toxic situations in the workplace.

What Potecha recognizes is that the world isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean we have to just accept it. She has great strategies for those of us dealing with less-than-ideal work situations, and an inspiring approach to leadership that comes directly from her military background.

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The Importance of Humble Leadership

Some time ago, Potecha was in a job interview, and her time at West Point came up. The person interviewing Potecha told her, “You know, you just can’t give orders around here.”

Rather than yell at him — like I might have — Potecha instead did something different. “I thought back to the long deployments of my 300-person company in all kinds of weather,” she says. This time in the field, as well as her military training, had taught her the importance of humble leadership. “It was the idea that we emphasized over and over — that every member of the team was critical to our success, and we needed them to all do their jobs and help one another.”

The CEO interviewing Potecha was taken aback when she explained the concept to him. Humble leadership is not a quality stereotypically associated with the military, but it is actually a concept that is ingrained in military training. “We’re taught to value teamwork over individual accomplishments,” Potecha explains.

It’s a trait that she believes transfers to the corporate world as well. “I am convinced that great results occur in corporations when the leaders are committed to overall success of the company rather than their own personal agendas or careers,” she says.

Navigating Toxic Situations

In her role as a leadership coach, Potecha often works with women who encounter toxic behaviors at work. She finds that most of her clients do not regularly encounter blatant harassment, but rather more subtle behaviors that eat away at their self-confidence. Sometimes a male colleague will not address them directly or their ideas are more easily dismissed than those from their male counterparts.

In these situations, Potecha advises her clients to consider a previous toxic situation — for example, an idea that was unfairly dismissed. Potecha asks her clients to think about how others in the room react when their ideas are dismissed, and what they can learn from their approach. She also advises them to look for examples of female leaders they admire. Then, Potecha has her clients attempt to translate these traits into a skillset, so they can better navigate future trying situations.

She also advises her clients to keep their composure. It is not much different from the deep breathing techniques many of us practice at yoga. “By remaining calm, they’re better able to think their way through a situation rather than just shut down,” Potecha says. This way, Potecha’s clients can be intentional in their responses, and wrestle control of a bad situation.

How to Thrive in a System That Isn’t Created for You

As we have recently seen with NASA’s cancellation of an all-female moonwalk, not every organization accounts equally for both genders — or for other differences. Potecha has experienced some of this firsthand in the corporate environment, and she has advice for those struggling to adapt to organizations that don’t always make space for you.

First, she says to limit your focus to what you can control. This “includes your attitude and the work that you do to demonstrate your competence,” she says. She also says to make yourself available as a team player. Look to pick up team roles that are going unfulfilled in an organization, so that you can show how you can make an impact. You can even volunteer for positions unrelated to your current one, so that you find space to take a break from dysfunction.

But ultimately, she says that those in poor situations have to play the long game. “I’ve found most situations are transient,” she says. “Adopt the mentality that this too shall pass.” Find relief outside of work: exercise, deep breathing and healthy eating. While the situation may become so untenable you are forced to leave, perhaps those that are making it a poor environment will do so first.

Resources Mentioned in This Episode

This episode of WorkTrends is supported by the CHRO Exchange, an exclusive networking event for HR executives and thought-leaders. Share insights, benchmark strategies and learn from the heads of HR at Walmart, Verizon, the Atlanta Braves and more, all at the 11th CHRO Exchange taking place in Austin, Texas, May 19 through 21. Reserve your spot and learn more here.