With all of her successes, McWilliams still thought she would retire after twenty years.
“I had orders to Europe and was two days away from shipping my household goods,” she remembers, “when my assignment officer called me and asked if I had shipped. I said no. He told me not to.”
“To me, this was not good. He told me I’d be happy about it, but he couldn’t tell me more than that I was coming to Washington. I’d have to wait a couple of days.”
McWilliams knew what this meant. She was scheduled for promotion to Brigadier General.
“I just sat down in my backyard and wept. Not out of joy. Becoming a general was not my goal. There were challenges which I knew did not fit my persona. I knew I had to act quickly. I did not want to embarrass women or my corps if my promotion was announced and then retired.”
STEPPING UP: TO GENERAL OFFICER
She stepped up to the promotion and opportunities the Army offered her, and took orders to Washington.
There’s no question that McWilliams is a leader. She explains that it was not only command positions that required leadership, but also staff assignments. She says. “The same traits required of a commander are necessary for being effective on staff.
I knew that if I left a legacy to the Army, it would be the people with whom I had served.
McWilliams describes her style of leadership as giving her subordinates the responsibility and authority to make their own decisions. “If you’re too autocratic, you stifle creativity,” she says. By then she had realized that responsibilities changed with every level to which she was promoted. “You have to realize that your role is different in every position,” she says. “It wasn’t about me anymore, or what I did. It was about the strength of our Army.”
No one ever talked to her about the different responsibilities at different levels. I learned my responsibility went about one and a half levels down. As a general officer, my job was to assess people’s competence, and let them perform. I wanted to empower them, so we could reach our full potential.”
She told her subordinates: “I want to hear bad news first. When you tell me, the problem becomes ours — not just yours. That way, I assume responsibility for your mistakes.”
“I never had to do that,” she said.
To establish how she worked and could support their ideas, “I told my people ‘sometimes when you have a proposal, the first thing I’ll probably say is no. Come back later, justify your position, and you might get a yes.’”
It didn’t bother her to change her mind, if it helped soldiers and their families.
McWilliams believed in taking care of her people. “They didn’t fear me,” she says. “I made a lot of good friends.”
On numerous occasions, she had tough decisions that touched her personally. While a brigade commander, a major was assigned to her command. She had worked with him several years before, knew his competence and character, family, and truly liked him. McWilliams remembers “He was the brightest and most talented young office with whom I had served.” He had been out of mainstream career progression because he attended graduate school and then taught at West Point.
‘Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.’
He phoned her before arriving and requested to be assigned as a battalion executive officer, a preparatory job for battalion command. “It broke my heart to decline his request. I had already selected the battalion XOs through observation and mentoring. He understood, and arrived with his normal positive attitude and willingness to do what was best for our unit. By the way, all the majors I selected for XOs were later selected for command.”
“It was a difficult decision, but I knew that my integrity would have been questioned. I would counsel my subordinates that ‘Integrity is doing the right thing when no one was watching’ — so, I couldn’t disregard my own public philosophy.”
THE PRICE OF CARING
While working at the Pentagon in 2001, “I used to get in at 6 AM,” she says. “When I first took the position, everyone wanted to know when I would get to work. I asked when the previous general had come in. They said seven o’clock.
‘I’ll be in at six,’ I told them, ‘but I don’t want anyone else here until seven. That’s my time.’
Then, on September 11, she left the Pentagon for a morning meeting across the street. Thirty minutes later, a plane hit the building.
“There was a restaurant at the top of the building where I had my meeting,” she remembers. “I ran up to the restaurant and looked across South Parking at the Pentagon. My only thought was “Everyone I know is dead.”
McWilliams knew thirty-six people who died in the attack on the Pentagon. “My boss, my secretary,” she says. “It almost destroyed me.”
SEIZING THE INITIATIVE
As a Brigadier General, McWilliams was in charge of enlisted soldiers, eighty percent of the Army’s personnel. She knew it would be a challenge. “I’d commanded companies, but I hadn’t had the formative positions preparing me for the role,” she says. “But I had a great deputy who knew his stuff and was willing to teach me. It was an interesting journey.”
For her first briefing with the new Chief of Staff of the Army, she attended with her boss, the 3-star general.
“It was ten o’clock at night. We were all tired. My boss started to brief. He was brilliant. He knew all the terminology, and explained situations in detail. The Chief cut him off. ‘Come back and brief me tomorrow night,’ he said.”
McWilliams followed her dejected boss out of the briefing.
“Sir, why don’t you let me brief him,” she offered. “He won’t beat me up. His mother brought him up to be a gentleman, and I’ve worked with him in another assignment.”
“You playing the woman card?” her boss asked.
“Just offering it to you,” she smiled. “You can jump in if I miss something.”
The next night, she briefed and all went well.
“How do you do that?” her boss asked her afterward.
“I just survey the battlefield and keep it simple,” she said.
LESSONS AND LEGACY
What is McWilliams the most proud of? “I’m proudest of the people who worked for me who might have been impacted by my leadership,” she says. “I cared for my people; I was kind. Not only were they team members, they were family. And, I knew that if I left a legacy to the Army, it would be the people with whom I had served.”
Ten officers who worked for her have been promoted to general, and have held positions including Commander of the Army Human Resources Command, Director of Military Personnel Management, The Adjutant General of the Army, and Chief of the General Officer Management Branch.
“They’re all my kids and friends,” she says.
Advice For New Female Officers
“Number 1: Know yourself and be confident in your own abilities,” she says. Other advice is in the tactical leadership realm, recalling her experience in battalion command.
“When you’re working with people, and you don’t think they measure up to your standards, it might just be that you have nor clearly articulated your standards. Your subordinates need mentoring and training. That’s your responsibility,” she says.
“You can learn many things from your contemporaries and superiors. Observe and listen.”
“Be yourself, and put your own twist on it.” Elaborating, she suggests: “Have the courage to be yourself. It’s okay to be irreverent, if that’s your nature; however, you have to know with whom you can be that way with and with whom you can’t.”
Instead of suggesting specific books to read for professional development — and McWilliams is clearly a reader — she suggests reading widely but ensuring lessons are processed through the lens of one’s own leadership. When preparing to teach courses in National Security Strategy she studied and read to put together her curriculum. “Grant’s autobiography has great leadership lessons, but you have to have a creative mind to translate what he did to what an officer should do in our contemporary Army. He was an ethical man, but also a drunken leader.”
McWilliams’ final most difficult decision related to her own career.
“In 2002, my 4-star boss came back from a meeting at the Pentagon to determine new assignments for generals. He told me they wanted me to stay in Germany for another year, and then go back to the Pentagon for a third star. I told him I had a decision to make and would come back with an answer.”
“I knew I’d be going back to Rumsfeld’s Pentagon which was gearing up for a war that I felt would be a quagmire. Colleagues in intelligence confided that there was no connection to WMDs. My conscience couldn’t handle the deceit operating at the highest levels. I determined that it would destroy my moral core to participate in the process. Additionally, I had always promised myself that when the small voice inside whispered that it was time to go that I would listen and comply. I did.”
McWilliams retired, but her legacy remains, and her leadership still is going strong.
She is currently President of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.