Written by Lt. Cmdr. Julie Rodriguez
No matter our individual differences and backgrounds, we all have one thing in common: we are all striving for success in life, particularly in our Coast Guard careers. In this endeavor, we pore over the latest self-help books on leadership and intelligence. We compete for assignments and projects to increase specialty knowledge, experience, and skills.
We seek the right mentors and network in the right circles. We identify what is our own personal “grit” to succeed.
But underneath all this effort, while very helpful indeed, lays a very simple but revolutionary concept — success in life and career hinges on the inclusive leadership of others. This is the “secret sauce” of success.
Take for instance Capt. Patricia McFetridge, a veteran of 34 years of total military service, a 1990 recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a trailblazer for women in Coast Guard aviation. McFetridge was recently honored as one of nine living “Heroic Women of the DFC” at the Distinguished Flying Cross Society’s 2017 National Convention in Dallas, Sept. 24-28.
Just how did this “secret sauce” — inclusive leadership — lead to her success? Inclusive leadership is a series of key behaviors or habits summed up in the acronym FOCSE: Fair, Open, Cooperative, Supportive and Empowering.
Equipped with a high caliber of passion and military aviation experience, McFetridge applied for a pilot position with the commercial airline industry after six years in the Army. This was during an era when women were not widely accepted in predominantly male jobs; she was rejected and told that she was “not the right fit.” In contrast, when life eventually redirected her to aviation, inclusive leadership created the right environment in which her aviation career could flourish.
Recalling her first duty station, McFetridge fondly noted all the little ways members of her command supported her and made her feel as a valued member of the team. Instead of being treated as the token woman on the team, they “treated me as a normal person — an equal,” she said.
McFetridge’s most painful lesson in her career was when she was the subject of a civilian complaint while she was the executive officer at Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico.
Bewildered, she turned to a colleague for help, whose openness in providing a wealth of advice helped her to grow in leadership and ultimately prepared her for success as the next commanding officer at the air station.
McFetridge was an ensign when she co-piloted her first major search and rescue case. Flying a helicopter during an Alaskan gale with heavy rain, maintaining steady hover in 30-foot seas for 40 minutes, and, in the middle of it all, finding a work-around for a malfunctioning internal communication system — cooperation under these conditions becomes a matter of life or death.
Within the brain of each person, the training kicks into high gear and individual differences and biases melt away into the background as the mind sharply focuses on the mission. Everyone has a critical job and cooperation binds them into a seamless team. This is the epitome of teamwork in the Coast Guard.
When McFetridge showed up to her first duty station as an ensign, she received welcoming support from her new shipmates. This made her feel right at home and accepted. She received mentoring from seasoned shipmates who helped her quickly get up to speed and succeed. The support she received was all that she needed to know that the Coast Guard was the right career choice.
On that fateful search and rescue case in 1990, the crew “trusted me and my flying experience,” McFetridge said. The waves were so high that McFetridge, the co-pilot on the case, and the aircraft commander had to shift controls back and forth in perfect timing with the waves in order to keep visual on the target.
This empowerment, together with the other key habits of inclusive leadership, was critical to the successful search and rescue mission that earned the crew the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as subsequent career success.
McFetridge’s passion, experience and flying skills without a doubt had a prominent role in her career success. But it was inclusive leadership of others, the secret sauce that bound it all together, that allowed her abilities to shine through and soar.
Editor’s Note: A 2011 Coast Guard Compass post contains more information about the heroic search and rescue case discussed here.