Leadership advice from a Career Military Intelligence Officer
Dianna Flett was was the Deputy Office chief across the water in DIA for the office that watched Afghanistan on September 11, 2001. Her husband worked in the Pentagon.
That morning she did not sit and watch the news from New York. Her morning, she recalls, went something like this:
11 Sep 2001, 0941 hours
Red phone ringing at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Washington DC.
Me: “Regional Assessments Asia; Lieutenant Colonel Flett.”
Caller: “There’s an inbound to D.C.”
Me: “Roger. ETA?”
Caller: “Approx 2 Mikes.”
Me: “Any targets ID’d?”
Me: “Roger. Out.” ::Dials Phone::
Me: “Sir, this is LTC Flett; there’s an inbound to D.C.”
DIA Senior: “What’s your source?”
Me: “My husband in the Pentagon.”
Flett joined the Army only eighteen months after the Women’s Army Corps dissolved after an upbringing in New Jersey, transplanted there from the coal mining towns of West Virginia. “I had a very typical southern upbringing,” she says.
One of her chores as a young girl was to chop wood, but one Saturday she wanted to go to the mall with girlfriends, and so she rose early. She headed out into the cold dark morning, and started swinging the axe before 4:30am.
Her dad heard her working, and opened the window to ask her what she was doing. She yelled back that she wanted to go to the mall that morning with girlfriends, so she’d started her work early. “He didn’t tell me not to worry about the wood, or that I could do it when I got back,” she said. “If he’d have been easier on me I would have learned to be easier on me and that’s not the sort of approach that would have helped me with my Army career, raising four boys or becoming the CEO of my own company. We didn’t have a lot of money but we had the benefit of his leadership showing us that we could accomplish our goals if we worked hard enough.”
Flett was a free and reduced lunch student. Her father had not stayed in school past sixth grade, but she was a strong student, graduating in the top ten of her class. She took out loans for her first year of college at Rutgers, and was awarded a three year ROTC scholarship to get through the remaining years. When she graduated in 1981, she was commissioned as a 2LT in military intelligence. The year was not easy, though. Her father passed away that year at only 56 years old. “My father worked tirelessly to get us out of the coal mines, “ she says. “In the end, he worked himself to death.”
Her first assignment as a lieutenant after training as a counterintelligence officer was in Munich, Germany at a place called McGraw Kaserne, a building that had served as headquarters for Hitler’s Army during World War II. It was a captain’s billet, and she took command as a lieutenant.
“I knew I was lucky to be heading over to the heart of the cold war standoff,” she says, but “I was also anxious about being so far away from my home in New Jersey. The thought of not being able to call my mom [especially after her father died] made me sullen and anxious.
“It was all so big, and I felt pretty alone,” she says. “I think your first assignment can either prove you or break you when you’re a young lieutenant but I thought I was ready for the challenge. I wasn’t ready for Sergeant Dick.”
Sergeant Dick was a tall, thin man with a mustache and a sly grin. When she arrived, Lieutenant Flett made it a point to meet with the soldiers in her section, one on one, to introduce herself and establish relationships that would support future cooperation as a team.
“Things were going great until I talked with Sergeant Dick. He was attentive during my introduction of myself and my goals for the section. He sat up in his chair and seemed to listen intently.
“Then I asked him about himself. He spoke softly, in a way that almost caused me to lean forward to hear him. But his words screamed at me.
“‘I just want you to know ma’am, that I can lead any 10 men better than you can,’ Sergeant Dick said. ‘My goal while you’re here is to make you cry.’
“He sat back with a smirk on his face. The mix of shock and vulnerability I was feeling turned quickly to anger, but I knew I had to stifle it in order to be effective,” Flett says.
Throughout her tour with Sergeant Dick, he called Flett out on just about everything she did and she worked hard to stay on solid ground with her decisions and her leadership.
“At least I knew where he stood,” she says. “In retrospect, I appreciate my chance to deal with his prejudice honestly, but I never forgot the sting of that gauntlet thrown down so early in my Army experience.”
That gauntlet toughened Flett for the years that would follow. “Those doubters were present throughout my career,” she says, though she didn’t let it slow her down.
Eighteen months into her tour in Germany, still a lieutenant, she took command of a major’s billet in Belgium.
In August 1990, Flett was the battalion operations officer of a Military Intelligence Task Force on alert to deploy to Saudi Arabia just over a week after Hussein invaded Kuwait, the first major deployment of the Army since VietNam. Her unit prepared to send the initial team of 10 soldiers into theater with a 50 million dollar piece of intelligence collection equipment.
“I was selected to be the senior officer of the deployment,” Flett says. “There were only a handful of U.S. military in theater at that point. My battalion commander gave me my orders and when he went to the Brigade Commander to brief him the BC asked “Why is she leading the team?”
My commander replied, “Because she’s the right one to take us in.”
Dianna’s Favorite Books
“I know it sounds odd but I thought of Sergeant Dick,” Flett says. “I was leading my team into a war zone and soldiers like him were the ones who’d worked me over the coals and gave me the confidence and competence to step up and take charge. I’m grateful Sergeant Dick gave me that challenge. I’m thankful I learned to look naysayers like him in the eye and prove myself and my mettle and I’m grateful that I knew I could stand strong in the face of doubters like the ones he represented. I’ve come to understand that my experience with Sergeant Dick and those like him helped build and reinforce my grit. By the way — Sergeant Dick never made me cry.
“Grit is the combination and manifestation of perseverance and resilience. It’s that thing in a person that keeps them from quitting even when quitting is the easiest course of action. Being able to take on a challenge and knowing you are going to follow it through regardless of setbacks is huge.”
Now a mother of four boys, Flett has specific ideas about developing grit, too.
Grit “has to be instilled during that very early time in a child’s development when their brains are hungry for imprinting. Believe it or not 0–5 is when our personalities are formed. I think it’s imperative to challenge our kids so they can experience success and MORE importantly they can experience failure.”
Her advice to new leaders echoes that of other women with grit.
“Step up and take on every single challenge you can take. Do the hard stuff early while your body can handle the punishment and you have few personal obligations. Spread out your experiences so you have a broad understanding of the mission of your particular service. Don’t think for a minute that anything is more important than your soldiers, and if you treat them right, they will take care of the mission. Your gold bar should be scratched and tarnished when you take it off and replace it with the silver version. As a 2LT people expect you to make mistakes, so don’t hide behind the safety of your comfort zone!”
As BG Becky Halstead and our Dear LT columns suggest, Flett also reminds new leaders that “It’s so important as a new officer to listen more than you talk. It’s tough to realize how little you know but really you are brand new to your job and no one starts a job knowing how to do it perfectly. Lieutenants are armed with the latest updates from their branches via their officer basic training. Your ability to translate book learning to knowledge and leading soldiers will develop into precise skills that will continue to grow over the next 5–10 years. Focus on developing YOUR leadership style. Find a mentor you admire and listen to their lessons. Self-examination is so important and your ability to maximize your strengths and work to overwhelm your shortcomings is important for any officer at any rank.”
When Flett began her first duty assignment after her father’s passing, she remembers her mother went through difficult times and she wasn’t able to be there. That was her hardest lesson from her years in service.
“I carry some guilt about not being there during the times my mother needed me. Selfless service is just that. You cannot expect to put your own needs, wants and desires first if you’ve pledged to selflessly serve. My mom went into a nursing home before I retired so I never really had the chance to be a routine part of her life after I left on active duty. I don’t feel like she ever really knew me as an adult. Sacrifice for service is very real on many levels.”
Flett continued her training with the FBIs Instructor Development Course and worked in several intelligence capacities before retiring as a lieutenant colonel after the birth of her fourth son. When she heard from her sons about the challenges girls faced in junior high school, she continued her selfless service, founding Girl Smarts, helping girls in fourth and fifth grades develop courage before facing the challenges of junior high school.