On May 19 at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., eight women are graduating from America’s premier military leadership program for female cadets. Five of them will be commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army.
The Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) is holding its 15th commencement ceremony since it started in 1995. At that time, women were not allowed to attend the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Consequently, VWIL was developed to provide a single-sex leadership program for women interested in pursuing careers in the Armed Forces.
With a current strength of 95 cadets, the program is led by retired Army Brig. Gen. Michael Bissell; he has been the commandant of cadets since 1999. He says VWIL has a different approach from other military programs in the way it develops women for military service. The institute teaches the principles of effective leadership to its cadets – one that recognizes the distinct difference in leadership styles between the two sexes.
"Women do not have to act like men to be good leaders," Bissell said. "They can be compassionate and understanding, yet they can be tough when they want to be. And that’s what we’ve been proving with the women coming out of our program – they’re great leaders."
Bissell noted that a VWIL graduate was the first woman to be accepted into the Army’s training school for the Rangers, an elite combat unit; another graduate had the extremely important duty of guarding President Bill Clinton’s "black box" that is used to order a nuclear strike.
Good leaders don’t have to be harsh and tough all the time, Bissell said, adding, "You can be approachable, use good common sense and listen to people."
Some women enter the VWIL program and try to act very aggressively, Bissell says, because they feel they need to do so to compete with men. "Screaming, yelling and that type of thing, and I’m not for that," he said. "I was never that way as a commander. You can be mad when you need to be and raise hell, but don’t be that way all the time. Do it on rare occasions, so that it means something."
Melissa Patrick is VWIL’s deputy commandant and a retired Army colonel. She served as an intelligence officer in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and earned her master parachutist’s wings with the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. She also taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"I think I learned while I was in the Army that you have to temper your leadership style in accordance with your own personality, and I had to make adjustments from what I thought was the proper way to lead – as a brand-new second lieutenant," she said. "So I can appreciate, in working with the young women who are cadets, that sometimes they are trying to be leaders that may not necessarily reflect what they’re comfortable with, because I’ve been through that. And I appreciate how you mature and evolve over time, so you can apply that to some of your coaching."
Good leaders, Patrick said, have to take into account what people are going through personally, to appreciate their own difficult situations. "You can’t just be focused on the rules," she said. "You have to lead by inspiring people, as opposed to driving them. In this program, we put a good deal of emphasis on a more professional approach, as opposed to using a lot of intimidation. And that approach is well suited to young women. There’s no point in trying to train them to be really aggressive."
Toughness many come naturally to some women, Patrick said, "which is fine. But for many, they need to learn how to inspire people, how to build trust and respect on the part of their subordinates, so we spend a lot of time working on that."
The First Captain of the cadets is Kaitlyn Cerow, VWIL’s commanding officer. She chose to attend Mary Baldwin because of the campus atmosphere and smaller class sizes, then got recruited by Bissell. She was drawn to VWIL, she said, because, "I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, I wanted to better myself. I’m the type of person who loves a challenge and always had an inkling about a military career."
Cerow spent much of her sophomore year testing out different leadership styles. She describes her own style as "transitional" – adapting to the needs of the group being supervised, giving them more direction or more autonomy in helping them achieve a task.
"As a sergeant, I started realizing how important communication was," Cerow said. "I had to communicate with my squad leaders to make sure my people were okay, but then I had to take the platoon leaders’ ideas and channel them down through my (freshmen). I had to explain how things were working, and had to boost their morale, so it was really a refining process."
Communication is important, Cerow said, because "so many things can go wrong if you don’t communicate clearly what your expectations are or sometimes even what the plan is." As First Captain, she hears a lot of things secondhand and has to get at the bottom of whatever problem needs to be fixed. That requires a clear understanding of the circumstances.
Cerow doesn’t solve all the cadets’ problems. The corps has several committees that deal with various issues and brief her on the status. Sometimes, when a committee member reports a personnel problem in the freshmen quarters, Cerow replies, "Tell them they need to knock it off and figure it out. I’m not going to go down there every time there’s a ‘crisis.’"
Victoria Barrett is one of the eight seniors graduating this year and a platoon leader in the corps of cadets. Barrett has just been commissioned as an Army second lieutenant, heading for Airborne duty in Fort Bragg, N.C.
Her experience at Mary Baldwin with the corps, Barrett said, gave her a lot of opportunities, including going to Airborne school and qualifying as a parachutist.
Graduating from the VWIL program has "really transformed me," she said. I’ve learned confidence, my people skills have grown quite a bit, my leadership skills have really blossomed, and I look forward to using all those skills I’ve learned here in the Army, and it’s really prepared me as a leader."
A feature story on the VWIL program at Mary Baldwin College is scheduled to appear in the October issue of The American Legion Magazine.