Full Command

Since 1995, the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., home of the nation’s only all-female corps of cadets, has groomed young women for military command.

First directed by the late Brenda Bryant, the corps seeks to develop a style of leadership that emphasizes respect and inspiration over harshness and intimidation.
“Good leadership is a person who can relate to other people, who can talk to them, get them to open up,” says retired Army Brig. Gen. Michael Bissell, who served as VWIL’s commandant for more than 10 years. “But they’ve got to be able to hold that line so when it becomes serious, people know it.”

Some first-year cadets think they must be tough all the time to succeed as leaders, Bissell says. They do “a lot of screaming and yelling, and I’m not for that. I was never that way as a commander. I don’t think that’s what leadership is in this day and age. You can be mad when you need to be and raise hell, but don’t be that way all the time. Be respectful of the people under you. Help them.”

Melissa Patrick, VWIL’s deputy commandant, shares that philosophy. A retired Army colonel with 28 years in the Military Intelligence Corps, she says that one of the most important lessons from her career is that effective leadership needs “to factor in what people are going through – you have to build rapport with them. You can’t just be focused on the rules. You have to appreciate what people are dealing with and try to lead them through difficult situations. I put emphasis on leadership by inspiring people, as opposed to leadership by driving them.”

Mary Baldwin offers cadets a professional leadership model based on inspiring subordinates and earning their trust and respect.

Circumstances sometimes demand a more stern approach to those under your command, says VWIL graduate Mei-Ling Fye Guarino, who serves as a captain in the Army Logistics Corps. But leadership is “really figuring out how to be flexible and adaptive, and recognizing different situations, and the right type of tone to take. I’ve rarely yelled at soldiers, because I never think that yelling at other people is appropriate. What kind of results do you think you’re going to get?”

Today’s military requires different handling, Guarino says. “We give an order, but we have to give them the purpose, the direction, the ‘why.’ VWIL, as a leadership program, is very adaptive to the current generation; it isn’t just a military prep school. As a leader, you are serving those you lead, not the other way around.”

Army Maj. Rachel O’Connell, a military intelligence officer and VWIL graduate, says the military has changed quite a bit since she joined in 2002. “Where things used to be extremely ‘in your face’ and there was a ‘beat you down and build you back up’ mentality, it’s changed to more of ‘building you from where you are.’ And I think VWIL has done that very well, how to do that with people as they prepare for their military career or for civilian life – helping build you to what you need to be successful in the future.”

VWIL stands apart from other military schools, too, because it is truly a cadet-run operation, with only four staff members providing oversight. The corps is responsible for maintaining the program’s standards; it has no hired staff to serve as tactical officers. The disciplinary system is largely maintained by cadets. They do their own room and uniform inspections, lead physical training and make their own training schedules.

Elizabeth Limerick, who graduates in May and plans to serve as an officer in the Virginia National Guard, has learned that “it doesn’t matter how much you plan, how many questions you ask beforehand – there’s always going to be something that happens and you’re just going to have to react to it.” VWIL has taught her how to approach such situations. “What’s the actual goal? What are we trying to accomplish? What can I do to get us there because of this curveball? I’ve learned how to think on my feet, how to react quickly and accomplish whatever we’re aiming for.”

O’Connell says she believes the corps program does an outstanding job preparing cadets for just about any challenge they’ll face in the future, civilian or military. “VWIL instills resource management, time management, how to deal with difficult situations, different ways of interacting with individuals.”

Guarino says those lessons are essential in knowing how to find the best solutions. “My level of critical thinking and problem solving was different than my peers because I had four years of practical exercises, making decisions and seeing the outcome, and having to fix problems – or fix my mistakes – and realize the impact of my decisions.”

Guarino has worked with many excellent officers from different military programs, but says she “felt much better prepared for difficult situations.”

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Terry Djuric, who replaced Bissell as commandant last October, appreciates VWIL’s singular focus on individual leadership training in a team-building environment. “This program has a laser focus on developing future leaders and citizens of character, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of,” she says.

The cadets stay very busy, and each one handles the program’s accumulated stress differently, Djuric says. They are told that it’s fine to not volunteer for everything and that academics always come first. “I don’t have need for you in the corps if you can’t keep your grades up. So there’s a little bit of balance in there that I’m watching, but it’s all good. It is immense dedication to what they believe in.”

While VWIL is America’s only single-gender program for military cadets, the women take coed classes through the ROTC program at Virginia Military Institute and participate in field exercises with VMI.

One of their instructors, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Teninty, teaches leadership and management. “I’m genuinely impressed with their resolve. They sit in front of the class, they pay attention, they get good grades and they do very well.” But the bottom line is whether cadets – male or female – can do their jobs. “What I see from the VWIL cadets is that they will be able to. They’re competent, they’re capable in my program and I’m proud of them.”

Djuric says she intends to build on Bryant’s and Bissell’s foundation by cultivating a leadership style anchored in mutual respect, inspiring action and “modeling the behavior that you want to see as a professional way to operate. Standing over someone and barking orders at them because you believe you’ve been given that responsibility doesn’t always inspire action.”

The stereotyped, adversarial examples of military leadership seen in war movies is not what Djuric wants for her cadets. That kind of browbeating behavior “doesn’t develop a team-building environment where people can excel. You have to empower people, not just do it yourself.”

VWIL’s program may not be a good fit for everybody because it is structured for “accepting greater responsibility,” Guarino says. “You’re always ‘on parade,’ you always watch your words and deeds because people are always watching what you do. You’re really given the opportunity to lead and learn about yourself and what kind of person you can be for others as a leader.”

With the challenge comes a promise, however. Besides getting a high-quality education at Mary Baldwin, Djuric says the VWIL program offers women timeless lessons in citizenship and good character. “We’re going to give you the core values that you will live by the rest of your life, because you believe in them so strongly,” she says. “You’ll understand about honor and integrity, about making the right choices, having confidence in yourself and having confidence in your team.”

Philip M. Callaghan is media marketing specialist for The American Legion.