Army gets it right with Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson

Army gets it right with Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson
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Over the past 12 months, more than 600 women have been recruited for, or assigned to, combat positions, and 14 women have graduated from the Army’s elite Ranger School. A couple of these combat leaders are in command of infantry companies once traditionally reserved for men. These combat-focused women are the pipeline for the future of our Army.   

This past week, the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Mark Milley, took another step by selecting Lt. Gen. (LTG) Laura Richardson as acting commanding general of the Army’s Forces Command (FORSCOM), which holds the responsibility of providing combat-ready forces around the world. It is a tremendous responsibility that oversees the blood and treasure of America’s warriors. Although a temporary assignment until a formal replacement is named, this selection demonstrates the leadership talent and potential of American women today.

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The selection of LTG Richardson signals that the Army recognizes great leadership in its ranks, regardless of gender. The American public, however, remains skeptical that organizations can achieve unbiased gender parity in senior leadership across government or corporate business.  The Army is proving that gender does not matter in leadership.

Some people, however, believe you can hire for diversity or you can hire for merit, but you cannot have both. The Army recognizes strength not only in diversity, but in the talent of people in its ranks. LTG Richardson is an example of how the Army and her leadership remain at the core of Army values, standards and discipline. She possesses the merit to lead others at the highest level. And, she just happens to be a woman.

Data show the potential and positive impact of women in leadership. Women, like men, are focused on achieving task excellence and results. Studies show that women also approach leadership with a broader focus that includes task excellence and relationship excellence. This harmony produces higher employee engagement, direct communication, better retention and grit, and improved output. This is why top-performing organizations, such as the Army, build a sense of connection as a team; positive communication; and leaders who care about people. In combat, soldiers deserve this from their leaders.

Leading soldiers in combat has one essential element: trust. Trust has no gender. Leaders in combat give orders and soldiers follow them, knowing that death or serious injury are possible.  In 2003, LTG Richardson deployed with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) for the invasion of Iraq, where she flew combat missions in support of combat units on the ground. I was an infantry company commander during this invasion and spent many of hours in the back of UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters that she and her fellow units flew.

I also overlapped with her in 1999-2000 when she was the military assistant to Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreIncoming Michigan Dem will not back Pelosi Florida has chance to redeem itself Meet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time MORE, and I was the executive assistant to Gen. Barry McCaffrey, then a presidential cabinet officer as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Her reputation was extraordinary then, as it is today.  

The selection of LTG Richardson should not be about women in combat roles and senior positions as much as it is about effective leadership for combat-ready organizations. The Army should not be judged solely on the number of women in such leadership roles. Such approaches fuel the perception of identity politics and that its advocates are motivated by something other than a desire to effectively defend the nation. The best way for leaders to identify talent among women, and other minorities, in their organizations is to address incentives, institutional structures, professional development and common standards that lead to a desired outcome.      

The American public trusts the military over any other public institution. Without trust, the military becomes an illegitimate one. Society and politics see diversity as an issue of equal rights, and understandably so. However, the warfighter does not. The military must trust the public to not create arbitrary conditions that threaten readiness and lethality; at the same time, the military must be transparent in its policies to achieve gender opportunity in leadership.

Every decision in the Army is judged on the basis of combat readiness and its impact on the Army’s ability to deter, deny and defeat the enemy in battle. With the appointment of LTG Richardson, the Army promoted the right leader. She is the real deal.

Daniel S. Morgan, an active duty Army infantry colonel, is retiring in December. His career spanned 25 years of public service serving in the Clinton White House from 1998-2001 supporting the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy, and commanding infantry and airborne units in multiple combat and peacekeeping operations across the world. He most recently served as the 2017-2018 Army’s senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.]