When taking off in an Apache helicopter, turn the nose of the aircraft to face the wind. If used the right way, the resistance of the wind will help the helicopter rise and take off.
Shannon Huffman Polson, one of the first women to ever fly the AH-64A Apache attack helicopter in the military, embodies this metaphor after 24 years of facing boundaries and resistance and using them as motivation for success.
Polson told the audience about leadership in the face of adversity “from the view of the cockpit” at the Kent State Stark campus Wednesday.
“To be a leader is to understand your purpose,” Polson said. “Ask yourself why you are there, and connect to your core purpose when things are frustrating.”
In 1993, Congress lifted the combat exclusion policy that had prohibited women from serving on combat aircraft. Soon after the restriction was lifted, Polson entered the Army's Aviation Officer Basic Course at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Polson admits she was definitely treated differently as a woman in the male-dominated military, especially one day when a colonel asked her if she realized she would never fly a cadet aircraft because of it.
“I understood his comment for what it was meant to be,” Polson said. “Combat aircraft weren’t open for women to fly. So I looked back to him and I said, ‘Yes sir.’ That day, I reported for active duty.”
After being second lieutenant in Army aviation and leading platoons in places such as Bosnia and South Korea, she now finds herself a veteran, mother of two, nonprofit founder, storyteller, author and public speaker.
She explained to the audience long-term sustainable leadership is causing people to go along with you on a journey.
“A leader has to own everything she does,” Polson said. “The most important job you have is to take care of your people, and then your people will take care of your mission.”
Community member Brooke Wigfield explained the lessons she learned from Polson’s speech inspired her, and she plans to apply them to her own work as a youth group leader at a local church.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I left motivated and inspired,“ Wigfield said. “Having someone tell you that it’s OK to fail, and to use that failure to get back up — it’s something that I feel like women don’t get enough credit for.”
Polson now uses her leadership experience and passion for writing to tell stories about other military women and their experiences in the GRIT Project. The idea of this platform is to change the cultural conversation around women and leadership by sharing their stories.
“I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Polson said. “It’s important not to quit. I interview lots of other women, and they all also made the decision that they were not going to quit."
Emily Serri, a senior teaching English as a foreign language major, had the opportunity to attend a dinner recognizing Polson before the event.
“As a female finding her voice, she ignored the people that labeled her for becoming a powerful woman,” Serri said. “It’s refreshing to see a dominant strong woman getting her message out there, regardless of social constructs.”
Earlier Wednesday, Polson also participated in a video conference with 19 local schools and received questions from Oakwood Middle School and GlenOak High school in Plain Township, Ohio.
These students wanted to know what it was like to set precedents and lead in the military as a woman.
“I had no interest in being the ‘first’ anything,” Polson answered. “That wasn’t the thing that drove me; I wanted to do this because it looked like a challenge, and I thought it was a great way to serve.”
She explained to the students leadership doesn’t necessarily mean managing people, and that the world needs more leaders in the sense of individuals demanding an extremely high standard for themselves.
Polson is the second of Kent State Stark’s four featured speakers this year. Kelly Piero, the special events coordinator for Kent State Stark, said this series is the university’s gift to the community.
“Shannon’s leadership aspects appeal to the greater community as a whole,” Piero said. “With the way Stark County is growing, her message is so key.”
Senior communication studies major Olivia Marsh appreciated Polson’s association of communication and leadership.
“She is empowering women to speak out and tell their stories,” Marsh said. “She felt like we needed to connect face to face, rather than through a screen. It's nice to have someone that’s brave enough to talk about things like this.”
In the press conference prior to the speech, Polson commended Kent State’s aeronautics program for encouraging female students in pursuit of an aviation career.
“I cannot figure out why there aren’t more women pilots,” Polson said. “You’re going to put up with a bunch of bologna for a while, once you get into that profession. But you know what — who cares? That is their problem. Push through it, and keep flying. Absolutely keep flying. Stay in the air.”
Natalie Meek is the south regional campuses and aeronautics reporter. Contact her at email@example.com.