The Mission Continues Women Veterans Leadership Program launches today, March 4th in Washington, DC. The five-month program will layer in-person convenings with virtual learning that creates opportunities for program members to network with other veterans, and gain practical skills and experience in interpersonal communication, public speaking, increasing resilience and more. 

To get a better sense of what this new program is all about, check out this interview with Susan Thaxton, Vice President of Programs at The Mission Continues

Why is The Mission Continues launching the Women Veterans Leadership Program?

The Mission Continues  has long understood that women veterans have incredible potential to be agents of change and has actively developed opportunities to engage these women in our leadership development programs and service platoons. We have had historically high participation rates from women veterans – they represent nearly 40% of our programs and are active in their communities as role models and mentors. 

But we also know, based on our research, that women veterans are proud of their service yet encounter challenges and obstacles unique from their male peers. In 2016, we set out to offer an opportunity for these women to connect and deepen their leadership skills in a three-day Women Veterans Leadership Summit. I actually came to The Mission Continues as a participant in last year’s summit and had the chance to experience first-hand the amazing opportunity of bringing together women veterans and the resulting connections and networks that flourish in such a short time. Others felt the same and after much feedback from women requesting more opportunities, we worked to develop the event into a true program—to deepen those networks and further develop tangible skills to ultimately grow a movement of empowered women in this country, working towards equality of opportunity for all.

The program includes a specific focus on storytelling. In your experience, what about storytelling is critical to leadership?

So often we allow our own story to be that of what we think others believe about us, rather than what we know to be true about ourselves. These stories we allow ourselves to believe can negatively impact our ability to lead as we attempt to dispel or live up to those stories. When we really understand our own story, and more importantly, share that story with others, we are empowered to lead in a way that is true to who we are in a way that is open to learning and evolving.

The other important aspect of storytelling with regards to leadership is the recognition and understanding of others’ stories. Learning of others’ stories provides tremendous perspective for your own life. It also reminds us as leaders that everyone has a story and we must be aware of that, even if we do not know what it is. More importantly, in taking the time to understand others’ stories, we have the opportunity to realize the unique talents and experiences that we otherwise would miss.

Your experience includes leadership positions in the military, for-profit and nonprofit sectors. What is a leadership lesson that you’ve learned in your career that you would pass on to other women in leadership positions?

One leadership lesson that I have learned in my career is to proudly accept and own the fact that you are a woman and all the assets that brings to leadership. My first professional leadership experience was as a Naval Officer, and I did everything I could do to try to be treated just like everyone else – not to be a ‘female officer’ but to simply be an officer. In doing so, I often attempted to tamp down my natural tendencies and characteristics that I associated with being too ‘girly’ and that I would be perceived as weak. My natural tendencies lean to relationship-building, collaboration, and processing before speaking, all of which were not typical or encouraged on the ships on which I served. What I have learned is that those genuine characteristics that are true to who I am are the ones that have ultimately made me a much better leader.

Additionally, I have learned the importance for women leaders to support other women. When I was in the Navy, I deliberately distanced myself from other women on my ship, especially those who were struggling. I feared that being associated with them would threaten my reputation and credibility. Even worse, I had little empathy for them. This is something that I am not proud of as I realize now how little it would have taken for me to offer support them and how helpful that could have been to them. With additional life experiences and hopefully a little bit of wisdom, I have tried to be much more deliberate in encouraging and supporting women as I better recognize the systemic challenges that we have all faced at one time or another. Over the years, I certainly have benefitted from the support of other women, for which I am extremely grateful, and work to pay that forward as often as I can.

Dr. Madeleine Albright (left) speaks with Susan Thaxton at our Women In National Security Dinner

What about the Women Veterans Leadership Program are you most excited about?

What excites me most about the Women Veterans Leadership Program is the unlimited potential of a cohort of 70 women veterans and all they will do. 

When I attended WVLS last year, it was the first veteran event I had attended in the twenty years since I left the Navy. I never considered myself to be a veteran since I completed my service before 9/11 and I “only served four years.” Attending WVLS helped me take pride in being a veteran and also gain an understanding and appreciation for other women veterans, all they have accomplished, and the unique challenges that women veterans experience.

Because of that experience, I was not only empowered to embrace my own identity as a veteran, but I was inspired to use my voice and abilities to recognize and empower other veteran women as well. And this is what excites me about this program – the opportunity for 70 women to be reminded of all they have accomplished, realize how incredibly capable they are, and become part of a supportive and aligned network to inspire one another as they apply this program going forward. This creates unlimited potential to positively impact their own lives and the lives of the other women in their cohort, as well as the communities in which they live, work and serve.

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