How a female US Army colonel tamed the males-only Egyptian Army

Keep the objective in mind.
Keep the objective in mind.
Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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As a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, I commanded an Army reserve unit that was deployed to Egypt for a three-week exercise. I was assigned to work with a two-star Egyptian general. If this all sounds routine, it was to me, at first. I was confident that I could be effective in this arrangement based on my experiences serving with other foreign commanders in the past. I was well into what ended up being a 21-year military career, so I knew I was capable of fulfilling this mission. But I had two things going against me: this was Egypt, where no women serve in the army, and I am a woman.

When I first met the general, he was very upset that I had been assigned to him. He told me bluntly as I stood before him, “Lieutenant Colonel Morgenthaler, I don’t work with women.” Then, he looked past me, right at my deputy and said, “I will deal with Major Healy instead.”

I wasn’t angry. I understood that I could not change thousands of years of tradition in a single meeting, but I also knew that the Army had sent me to do a job. I realized that as the commander, I could not give my power away by acquiescing to his request; I would literally be allowing a foreign commander to dictate terms to the US military. Nor could I throw a tantrum like a child, or, probably what was going through the general’s mind, a woman. I said, as protocol dictated, “yes, sir.” But I thought, “no, sir,” and immediately began figuring out how to preserve my relationship with the general and my ability to get things done without giving away my rightful place in the chain of command.

After our meeting, I told Major Healy that any time the general made requests to him, he had to bring them to me for my approval. Major Healy was surprised because I am not normally a micromanager. Usually I empower my soldiers to do their jobs independently—but not this time. I had to make my point. The general might not have wanted to talk to me, but he would get nothing from my unit without seeing that Major Healy had to check with me for every single request, no matter how large or small.

My unit and I worked on the bottom floor of a five-story building. The general worked on the top floor. There was no elevator. The English spoken by the general’s staff was difficult to understand over the phone. So when the general had a mission for us, he would have a corporal run down five stories to fetch Major Healy. The corporal didn’t speak English, so he couldn’t make the request himself. Instead, Major Healy had to go up five stories with the corporal to find out what the general wanted, and then run down the five stories to get my approval. He then had to climb up the five stories again to tell the general that I had approved the mission. By the end of our stint, Major Healy had the best calves in the US Army.

It doesn’t matter what culture they’re from, one thing all generals have in common is that they do not like to wait. Which might be part of the reason one day, the corporal came down and pointed at me, not my major, to come up to the general. I ran up the five stories knowing that whatever he asked, within reason, I would agree to on the spot just for the sake of positive reinforcement. He made his request. I sharply saluted and said, “Yes, we can do the mission.”

He was pleased. I, too, was pleased because I had overcome the cultural differences, done my job, and kept my power. Powerful women do not back down in times of crisis, but sometimes real power is the ability to avert crisis. Perseverance, collaboration and emotional intelligence are as much traits of an effective leader as assertiveness, decisiveness and control. I probably would’ve gotten nowhere with the general had I challenged his authority in a public meeting place or insisted that he speak to me and not my subordinate. In order to get him to change the military culture of at least his part of the Egyptian Army, I first had to accept his cultural traditions while not sacrificing my own.

I didn’t let the general’s dismissiveness impact my own approach to the job. I followed my own personal rules of conduct. I stood tall in front of him, was optimistic about the eventual outcome, trusted my major to follow my orders, and tried to use wisdom when deciding how to get a male general in a male-only institution to do business with me, his female counterpart.

Indeed, preconceived notions of power and how to use it might’ve ended up getting me into a international incident. Only by thinking through the boundaries of my power, and finding an acceptable compromise, did I manage to fully retain it. Encouraging leaders who are more open and more effective includes embracing both so-called masculine and feminine qualities. But even more, it includes training them to use power and authority intelligently. In this way, business, government and the military can go beyond elevating conventional managers in boring suits to instead promoting leaders who know how to be effective, no matter what situation, culture or country they find themselves operating in.