She’s Got Grit: Command Master Chief Patty Shinnick Believed She Could
So she did.
It’s not often that the leadership team of commander and senior non-commissioned officer are both women, or that you get a chance to talk to them both. Early in The Grit Project, early Navy woman pilot and commander Karen Baetzel shared her stories and lessons, and one of her pieces of wisdom was finding, working with and trusting your senior non-commissioned officer.
“‘Master Woman’ Shinnick served as my Command Master Chief,” says Baetzel, “and she forgot more about leadership than most of us ever knew. The role of senior enlisted women in the successful integration of women in the navy, as well as the total force excellence, is sorely under reported and appreciated. She is one of the finest leaders I ever served with… to all young officers, connect early and often with senior enlisted mentors who will speak truth to power.”
“The Chiefs locker can be depended on to tell you what other people are usually reluctant to share, especially if you cultivate a real relationship of trust. CMC Shinnick would often close the office door and advise me as the CO “to step up” or “step back”, sometimes in the same conversation. Her take was nearly always right, including sensitive issues with troops.”
If there are few women in leadership and command positions, there may be particularly few in the senior enlisted ranks.
But Patty Shinnick was a natural. She grew up loving airplanes. She also grew up as an athlete, excelling in gymnastics in high school and performing as a gymnast for two years in college at a Division I school before the money ran out. “Because Title IX had not yet been passed into law in 1970, there weren’t athletic scholarships available to women,” she says.
The navy offered to pick up her college expenses through the GI Bill, so Shinnick headed to the navy. She continued to take classes wherever she was stationed, eventually earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“The navy gave me training to be on a carrier, but women weren’t allowed to work on ships. I was assigned to a naval air station and worked with planes.” That wasn’t where she wanted to be, though she was willing to wait out the laws. In the meantime, things weren’t easy.
When she showed up at her first unit, her gymnast’s build made her the recipient of an inappropriate call sign. “It went on for a couple of months,” she said. “Then at a morning staff meeting I spoke up. I said I was disappointed with my call sign. I said that before my assignment, I’d undergone a radical mastectomy, so the reference to my anatomy was hurtful. There wasn’t a sound in the room. I let the discomfort linger. Then I said “Gotcha!” But I never heard that name again and I think I moved the respect needle a bit to the right.”
Things were far from easy, though.
When Shinnick and a fellow sailor were loading C-130s while still junior enlisted sailors, they appealed to the warrant officer-in-charge for a rest day after a particularly demanding schedule. He offered a rest day in exchange for sleeping with him. They refused.
“We went to the commanding officer of the base, and he stood up behind his desk and said ‘If there weren’t women in the military, we wouldn’t have any of these god-damned problems. That warrant officer is one of the best officers I’ve got.’ Then he threw us out. You just had to put up with it,” she says.
In another story, Shinnick recalls as a young sailor going in to receive her evaluation. She looked over the form, and saw marks much-inflated for her newness at the position and performance.
“I couldn’t or wouldn’t sign it,” she says. “I asked for some time to think about it. I dropped in at my Division Commander’s office, a gutsy move for a young sailor, and explained my dilemma. The marks were inflated and not deserved. If I signed that evaluation report, my peers and supervisor would make my life a living hell. Fortunately the lieutenant agreed and adjusted my marks.”
When Congress lifted the law banning women on carriers and Shinnick was assigned as an aviation boatswainsmate aircraft handler on the USS John Kennedy, she was already an E-8 and working as a reservist.
“I was senior, but I had no carrier experience,” she says. “I looked for the most squared away guys to learn from.”
On the USS Nimitz, she was asked to inspect the female racks. “Because I was a woman,” she says. “I told them they aren’t females, they’re sailors. But I did it anyway. The guys were afraid to do anything.”
She went through the racks and left a note with instructions on what was lacking, as well as a note that said: ‘These racks were inspected by a Master Chief.’
Being female was impossible to conceal, as all the women in the Grit Project experienced. “Guys would say: ‘I don’t know why you’re here. I don’t know how you’re going to make it on a ship.’ I didn’t pay much attention to it.”
Others did pay attention though. “I was a bit of a freak,” she says. “Everyone wanted to take my picture. But everyone then was the first at something. It was an exciting time to be inthe Navy. I know at least six other women I went through training with who were the first in their fields.”
About grit, Shinnick has plenty of stories. She recalls when she worked with Baetzel in a squadron when Baetzel was a pilot and Shinnick was a loadmaster.
“There were two heads [bathrooms] in the hall,” she says. “One for men, and one for women. Both had urinals because at one point there were only men in the building. Then one day we came in and the women’s door had been painted khaki, representing senior leaders. I asked where the women’s room was, and one of the sailors wouldn’t even look up when he said it was down the hall, and down the stairs.
“Well, I was senior, and I did wear khaki, so when I had to go I went to the khaki door, went into the stall, and when I came out there was a chief petty officer at the urinal.
“I walk over to the sink to wash my hands and say “Hey Chief, how’re you doing?” He zipped up and was out of there so fast he left before I dried my hands. The next week we came in and they’d made it the women’s restroom again.” She laughs. “Grit can be funny sometimes.”
Shinnick sees grit as doing the right thing under tough circumstances, whatever the implications.
As Master Chief for a unit tasked with challenging duties, Shinnick recalls a staff meeting where senior officers got into a heated argument.
“I directed my Senior Chief to leave the room and take the rest of the staff with him,” she remembers.
“When the conference room cleared out, I stood alone with the O-4 and O-6. I said: What the hell are you two doing? I don’t mind if you disagree with one another, but I never want to see you bickering in front of the troops again!”
She pauses. “I may have said: ‘Get your shit together,’ too, I don’t remember. I walked out of that room and wasn’t sure if I needed to throw up or needed a shot. Grit can be stressful.”
I ask her to say more about this interaction. “As senior enlisted we have the privilege of educating, mentoring and developing our junior sailors to become their best selves so we can have the best Navy,” she says. “When I told the staff to leave the room it was the most professional and expedient way to acknowledge that something was amiss.”
“I was protecting my sailors from being discouraged by any continued display of poor leadership by these officers, and my navy was being embarrassed by their playground behavior,” she says. Then she qualifies her comments. “They were both good officers, but in this case they lost their centers. Hey, it happens.”
“Praise in public, reprimand in private. That’s just a leadership given,” she says.
Shinnick attributes a finding later in life to her success as well. “Late in my career, the military diagnosed me with ADHD,” she says. “So part of my grit might be due to the ADHD trait of impulsiveness. But I like to think it was balanced by self-confidence given to me by my upbringing and life experiences. My parents believed I could do anything. They didn’t put limitations on me.”
ADVICE TO NEW LEADERS
What would she tell a new leader coming on board today? “Keep studying, be observant, learn,” she says. “Develop additional specialities through any school you’re offered. Diversity is an asset.”
She cautions new leaders to modesty, though. “The knowledge you gained in school does not always translate directly to the fleet or the squadron,” she warns. “Having a college degree does not qualify you as a leader. Hook your finger into the belt loop of a squared away E8 or E-9, people with decades of leadership experience.”
Shinnick wears a bracelet now that reads “She believed she could, so she did.” It’s hard earned wisdom from a career in the navy. “So many times I was told I couldn’t do something,” she says. “You can’t go to sea…I served on five carriers. You can’t be an aircrewman…I flew for eight years. You can’t go to the Gulf…I flew cargo in and out of the Middle East. Yeah, I really don’t like the word can’t.”
For those entering a new field, she says “Well, figure it out. When people say you can’t, prove them wrong.” She has no doubt in the possibilities.
As for developing grit, she’s not sure. “I think grit is largely nurtured at a young age,” she says. “Finding grit later in life? I don’t know. Building grit on the job would require very small baby-steps and lots of patience and opportunity. Building warriors is challenging. Some may not have the grit gene in their double helix, who knows?”
Shinnick knows something about the genes, and it’s not only grit, but aviation that runs in the family. Both of her sons are airline pilots.
A note: Shinnick clarifies that in today’s Navy a CMC must go through a nomination board and school for a permanent designation, a program she was too late in her career to qualify for, and that she served as CMC under Baetzel’s command only. This author chose to use the title in the headline based on Shinnick’s leadership experience.