In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Shannon Huffman Polson, author of The Grit Factor and CEO of the Grit Institute, talks about her experiences as an Apache attack helicopter pilot, and the lessons learned on grit from women leaders in the US military.
The story behind Shannon Huffman Polson being one of the first women to fly an Apache attack helicopter
The inspiration behind the book “The Grit Factor”
How owning your own story is critical to leadership and grit
The key to connecting to your core purpose
Shannon Huffman Polson’s lessons for leading through adversity
Also mentioned in this episode:
Angela Duckworth, author, and professor at the University of Pennsylvania,
Captain Shaye Haver, US Army, Infantry service
Connect with Shannon Polson:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I am so excited to be getting so much positive feedback on the conversations that we’ve been hosting with some incredible leaders, both changed the course of our region and global thought leaders.
This week, I’m bringing to you a conversation that I had with Shannon Huffman Polson. Shannon is the author of the recently released book, The Grit Factor. And she’s the founder and CEO of the Grit institute, which is a leadership development and organization helping leaders thrive in times of change and uncertainty. We can all relate to that right now.
Shannon was one of the first female attack pilots in the US Army. She’s led 2 apache helicopter platoons, and uses that experience along with interviews with other brilliant and significant women in the military to teach lessons on how we can all develop more grit, become more resilient, and become more impactful as leaders.
If you enjoy this conversation, make sure you subscribe to the podcast and share it with a friend in partnering leadership.com.
Now, here’s my conversation with Shannon Huffman Polson.
Mahan Tavakoli: Shannon Huffman Polson. Welcome to Partnering Leadership.
Shannon Polson: Thanks so much. It's great to be here with you.
Mahan Tavakoli: I absolutely love reading your book, learning your story, and I think, you have a lot of leadership lessons that are important for all kinds of leaders especially to what we’re experiencing now. Before we get to some of your leadership insights, I would love to know how your upbringing influenced who you became Shannon.
Shannon Polson: Well, there's probably, we could probably take the whole podcast on that. I think I was very fortunate to have two parents who both said that I could do anything that I wanted to do, and pushed me to work hard. It pushed me to really push myself. And I think my father, in particular, was somebody who really challenged me to push the boundaries of what I thought was comfortable, and what I thought I could do. And I think that really ended up forming me significantly.
I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. I always like to say that in Alaska, things, life is a little bit tougher for sure. And, although I grew up in what is considered the city in Alaska, you don't drive anywhere in the winter without a candle and some warm boots in the back of the car. Because if you go off the road, you need to take care of yourself. There’s definitely a strong ethos of being able to take care of yourself, being able to hold your own.
And in terms of the gender differences, there aren't as many, it didn't seem to me at least growing up. There's a joke that there's a bumper sticker in Alaska that says “Alaska, where men are men, and women win the Iditarod”, of course, referring to that thousand mile dog sled race which has happened several times. So I think that all of that, both the combination of my, both of my parents, as well as, that environment were really very formational for me.
Mahan Tavakoli: Shannon, did that environment by itself make you a strong, resilient person? Or was it your dad exposing you to different things?
Shannon Polson: It was both for sure. I think it was the environment, there's a lot of ways to respond to an environment. There's a lot of ways to respond to exposure, or to pressure.
I always tell the story of being on the soccer field and this is nothing like the soccer that people played today, where there's these really hyper competitive leagues. This was just girls club soccer. I was a defense, full back. And there was a girl on one of the other teams who was on offense and she ended up being on the national ski team. She was a really tough, tough cookie. And she'd come charging down my side of the field or charging down any side of the field, move it all just part like the red sea and she would score on goal every time.
And I remember my dad at the end of one game coming up to me and putting his arm around me and being very encouraging and saying, “Why don't you just charge back at her?”
And I just looked at him like he was crazy. And the next game, she came charging down my side of the field and I went charging back at her and neither one of us stopped and we collided midfield and even the soccer field was silent, which never happens. And she never charged my side of the field again after that.
So I feel like that was this very formational lesson, I could tell you so many of these like this. But where he really pushed me to push myself past the point of comfort, and I started to realize that you get up every time you fall down, and you get up stronger each time.
Mahan Tavakoli: And it seems like you continue taking on the challenges, skydiving in college, climbing the Nali. Do you think resilience and grit is something you developed by taking on these challenging tasks, or is it something you have?
Shannon Polson: I think that question is almost always at both ends. I think the science is pretty clear that you get better at doing hard things by doing hard things. I also found that I really enjoyed these risky, somewhat risky anyway, but I don't think based jumping makes any sense at all, but, but skydiving for most people, it sounds risky. And I ended up really enjoying that kind of thing.
I think that's the key. I started to realize that I enjoyed pushing myself, and I enjoyed the results that came from pushing myself. And that comes from that exposure, and from that experience, for sure. So I would say it's sort of a both end equation. Each time you do something challenging, you get better at doing challenging things. And if it's in mountaineering, then that applies to school. And if it's in school, that can apply to skydiving. And so all of those sorts of lessons build on each other, even if they're in different parts of your life.
Mahan Tavakoli: And it seems that you are one of those people that when you were told you can’t do it, you get charged up. And I love the fact that you became one of the first women to fly the Apache attack helicopter, and the story behind that.
Shannon Polson: Yes, I'm happy to share that. It is, I think that's probably true. I was fortunate to grow up with a family that said that I could do anything I wanted to. And once you get a little bit older, you realize not everybody thinks that, and not everybody is as supportive as that.
And, it's good that we're sort of young, and naive, and willing to push through some of those things. At the same time, being young and naive can also mean that we get crippled by those things. So that's why the story is one that I like to share, especially for leaders who are facing obstacles that they didn't expect maybe, or that they haven't faced in the past.
And that story is being a college student. I was drilling with the national guard as part of the simultaneous membership program As part of my reserve officer training course scholarship, and that was at Duke university. I was studying English lit. I was part of an aviation battalion in Raleigh, North Carolina.
So towards the end of my college years, I drove out to Raleigh to receive my assignment for the years ahead. There was a state aviation officer there. He was a Colonel, so he was probably around 40 years old. I had just turned 21. I hadn't yet graduated from college. So I'm just a college student. I hadn't yet been commissioned So I was just a cadet, and wasn't even a Lieutenant. And I remember standing in front of his desk, and it seemed like his desk was as wide as the room. It seemed like those plate glass windows or what at the back were shiny, and essentially that it was a completely overwhelming sort of a place to be.
And I stood at attention and saluted and he asked me to sit down and we had this interchange and a couple of sentences back and forth. And then he said this thing that I'll never forget when he stopped in the middle of a sentence. And he leaned back in his chair and looked down his nose and said, “You realize cadet, that you will never fly an attack aircraft.”
And I looked back at him and it was a surprising comment because attack aircrafts, at the time, weren't open to women to fly. But I knew that the only response in that situation was to say, “Yes, sir.” And so I said, “Yes, sir.” And I went back to the ROTC detachment on the campus of Duke university and I requested a transfer out of the national guard and onto active duty.
And later that spring, Congress changed the game on that Colonel, and everybody else who had similar proclivities and lifted the combat occlusion clause and suddenly everything in the inventory was open to women and men to fly. That of course was only the beginning of the journey. But I think it was one of those places that I learned that I had to own my own story, that there would always be times that somebody else tried to put me into a narrative and that if I want to own my own story, I was going to have to do the work to do that.
Mahan Tavakoli: And your story is truly inspiring, Shannon, and what you’ve done in your brilliant book is you’ve taken powerful stories of women, and incorporated it in a way where people can see themselves and the grit that these women had in pursuing their goals and objectives.
You’ve also put great exercises at the end of every section, for people to understand how to become more gritty in their own lives. So I think you’ve done a brilliant job, both with your story which I find inspiring, and stories of a lot of these incredible women.
Shannon Polson: It's actually why it's such an honor to bring this book into the world, and why I feel so passionate about it is my experience is one experience. I am always grateful to have a chance to share it, if it can ever help anybody else.
But when I started to do the work on The Grit Factor, it was because a young officer reached out to me and asked me to be her mentor. She started the same process that I had already gone through. And I immediately said yes. And then I realized, gosh, my experience was some time ago. I was one of the first women to integrate into this all male field which is surely somewhat unique, and my reactions are individual.
So how can I scale the advice that I offer to this young leader? And if I do that work, cause I know it's going to be a lot of work, how do I then take that and then scale that in a way that others can benefit from it as well? And that really was the genesis of what became The Grit Factor, interviewing dozens of leaders in the Vanguards of their fields.
I have to say that the real honor of this is to be part of this whole Grit Factor experience is that these leaders were so willing to so candidly share both stories, and lessons learned, and things that all of us wished we had known, or that we would offer to the next people coming up.
And that is the real strength, I think of this book that I can't claim credit for any of that, except to be able to shepherd that into the world, and that really is an honor.
Mahan Tavakoli: And in addition to that Shannon, you put a framework to leadership with respect to The Grit Factor, and I would love to touch on certain aspects of the framework; commit, learn, and launch. On committing, you talked about story as the core of identity. What do you mean by that?
Shannon Polson: I think it's so easy. And I will say again, a lot of this formed because of pulling all of these interviews together, and then doing that background research in psychology and leadership and management to understand really how these lessons and stories fell out. And how they made sense to convey. And from mistakes in my own experience which I bring up to say that I think it's very easy, especially as a young person to immediately say, “Hey, I'm part of this organization. This is the mission of this organization, or this is the vision.” Especially in a place like the military where it's so front and center. But a leader, it seems to me, has to do the work first to own his or her own story. And I like to say that we don't get to choose the raw material of our lives. We don't get to choose all of the pieces that we're given. But we have the opportunity and even the responsibility to decide what shape that raw material is going to take.
And as a writer, I really, I like to think about the narrative arc. Like there's some things that stay in, there's some things that get cut out, and that's just how it looks when you put a book together. It's the same thing for our lives. We're given all of this raw material. We make mistakes. We have successes. We decide how to shape that material.
And that is really owning our own story, which allows us to then go down into saying these are the core values that I hold, that are in violet, that I'm not going to allow to be compromised no matter what the organizational story might be. And once you've done that work, that becomes the core of leadership and grit that allows you to maneuver through the challenges that you might end up facing. That you will inherently by virtue of going through life, and going through work, and being a leader will end up facing.
Mahan Tavakoli: Shannon, absolutely loved that. And you just said, we don’t choose the raw material that we’ve given, we choose the stories we weave together, and we need to own our own story. I think that is absolute brilliance.
Shannon Polson: Yes. Well, it's a hard thing to do, right? I think that's the other thing is when I do keynotes, and I have the chance to keynote now even virtually to companies across the country, and around the world, and work with people in workshops, and lead them through the training, going at The Grit Institute.
And in every one of those, we have a short amount of time to be able to say, “Hey, let's talk about really doing the work to own your own story.” I offer a couple of exercises to do that. But that's just the beginning because this is introspective work, and it's really work that requires the head space, and the creative time to kind of sit back, and really think about things and own them. I own the failures. I own the successes. And at the end of the day, I own the arc of my story, and I own where the direction that it's going to go, and that I'm going to take it. So, yes, it's very powerful, very deep work for sure.
Mahan Tavakoli: And Shannon, you build on the fact that purpose is the bedrock to grit now Most especially, since the start of the pandemic. But even over the past few years, we hear a lot about purpose driven individuals, purpose driven organizations. So what do you mean when you talk about purpose being the bedrock of grit?
Shannon Polson: That's such a good question. And honestly, this is probably the piece that I'm maybe most passionate about because it is, again, so easy to be pulled in so many directions by what's around us. And it can be very good work. It can be very good people. It can be very good work. It can be lots of great ideas, but at the end of the day, we again have to take this story that deep work that we've done around our own story and our own values. And I offer an exercise, of course, to drill down into core purposes as well to say, why am I here?
I love the Mary Oliver poem that says, “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? You have a short, wild, and precious life. Why are you here? What are you here to do? What are you here to give? What are you here to contribute?” And that's the question of purpose.
I used to really be envious when I was younger, I would say. There's these people out there that they know, that they want to study the red headed beetle in China. I'm just making that up. But they know that that's their life's work. And how do you know your life work? And that's the work of drilling down into what core purpose is. And it may not be something specific, it may be something that is more general, that is more directional, but really doing that work to own what your own life work is. Not the life work of your company, this isn't the mission and vision of something external. This is what drives you, that you then connect to that mission and vision of the company or the work that you might be doing so when I think about once you've done that work, once you connect to that core purpose, I like to use the metaphor in the Apache helicopter, it's of course it's a weapons platform so we have crosshairs. I say, you put it in the cross hairs. You never take your eyes off of it.
But at the end of the day, with all the turbulence of what's going on around us, pandemic or no pandemic, politics or no politics, whatever it is, we all have so many things that are buffeting us, and that will buffet us if we're not anchored to what matters the most.
And so when you stay connected to that core purpose, it allows you to negotiate this turbulence, and remain connected, and moving towards what matters the most.
Mahan Tavakoli: Along with that, I also love, in the launch portion, you talked about, turn your nose to face the wind. Can you explain where that comes from, and what do you mean by it?
Shannon Polson: Yes, absolutely. I talk about the first day that I walked out on the tarmac, towards the Apache helicopter at the beginning of a keynote, usually. And in Alabama, Fort Rucker, even in the winter in Alabama, it can be pretty cold, and I have chills going up and down my spine because it's a cold day, but I'm terrified. I'm excited and I'm terrified. I'm not about to let anybody know either one of those things.
And I'm walking out on the tarmac towards this aircraft and I see it, and it's just crunching there. It's two cockpits that are seated in tandem, all glass it's 58 feet long, it's 18 feet wide. It's 12 feet high, there's two 1,850 horsepower engines on the nose. There's three site systems and it sees during day, or night, or adverse conditions. It can hold any one of a number of different weapons.
And I look at this aircraft and I think, what am I doing here? Who am I to fly this? And right there, I have to do the work. Again, talking back to owning my own story. I walk up to it. I climb in the cockpit, and then we get ready for takeoff. We run up to full RPM with the rotors and we taxi out on the runway.
In my keynotes, I always ask, which way do you take off in the Apache? And people usually say, up, which is of course the end goal. But in the Apache, like in any other aircraft, you turn the nose to face the wind. And when you use it the right way, the resistance helps you rise. It's basic aerodynamics.
But it's also really that metaphor I think is so perfect because at the end of the day, we all face obstacles. We all face challenges. Maybe, especially now all of us are in the same boat. I mean, different boats on the same sea anyway. And you've got to face challenges head on. And at the end, when you do that, there's confidence that comes from that, there's lift that comes from that, there's momentum that comes from that, and that can really help you move through that challenge or obstacle.
If you take it sideways, it never turns out okay. But taking it head on is a way to take on any challenge and that's the way you take off in the Apache. It's also how I described, facing fear because fear is very normal to feel. We all feel it professionally and personally, probably right now. And the only way to face it is to face that head on. And I think that metaphor with the aircraft is just perfect for them.
Mahan Tavakoli: It’s a brilliant metaphor especially for the times we're living in right now, Shannon. Absolutely love that.
Now, your book, as I mentioned, has tremendous leadership insights, great exercises for people to go through. So I found a lot of value in your insights in the book. Now, I wonder though, how do you see this resilience and grit being different for men in leadership roles, and women in leadership roles?
Shannon Polson: It's such a good question, and it's a tricky one. I went ahead slightly at the beginning and then I'll just answer it directly. My hedge is that every person is different. And that I think that sometimes, generalizations will not fit the person. And so there are men who may deal with things differently, or have other things that are considerations, and there are women who will as well. So that's my hedge.
But, the two things that are tricky, and this is, I think mostly backed up with some pretty good data as well, is that women, and I'm just going to speak actually to this time, and then I'll speak more generally. In this time, women are, as they always have been, but now even more so, balancing both what they are doing professionally, and what they are doing at home. And they're forced to go back and forth. Between those roles in a way that none of us have had to do before.
I think many of us have had to balance it, and women more so than men in the past, but now even more so. I know speaking for myself, I have two children who are seven and 10, and we're homeschooling them. And I'm launching a book, and I run a business, and I'll say that's no joke. And I think that, again, there are men who are doing this as well, but, the data seems to be fairly clear that the weight of this is much more on women leaders generally.
The other thing is that women are frequently penalized for taking risks. They're penalized for speaking out, for being ambitious, or being forthright. And yet those are our leadership characteristics that are necessary for a given situation.
And so there are leadership characteristics that need to be employed and given situations. Decisiveness, candor, and yet the data seems clear that women are judged for those differently than men are.
In that way, I would say that grit is necessary in different ways because of the different experiences, generally that men and women have as leaders and in leadership roles.
Mahan Tavakoli: And I have to tell you, as the father of two girls, I’m also very appreciative of strong, female leaders like you, that advocate for grit, and advocate on behalf of women. So I think it's really important to have those role models for all young women.
Shannon Polson: Well, thank you. I think so too. And I think that goes back to this concept of story. I just actually talked to a whole group of coast guard folks today, and I think they call themselves Coasties. And somebody asks like, “How do you keep going when you're hearing people around you saying, well, you really shouldn't do this? Or you can't really do this? Or questioning you for how you do something?”
And I said, it's a great question. There's a couple of answers to that. One is what is gained strength, not only from owning your own story, but also looking at other stories of other people who have persevered through challenges, doesn't have to be the same kind of challenge. Look at those stories and there's lots of them. Women tend to tell their own stories less often. You'll have to seek them out more, but we're doing better as a culture by bringing those to the fore, but draw strength from those stories.
And then the second part of that is focus on the work, and not on the detractors. Where you put your focus matters a great deal. And again, I think this is very much supported by social science, women tend to be more concerned about making everybody happy, and you cannot make everybody happy. You cannot please everybody, so you've got to focus on the work. And that doesn't mean relationships aren't important because of course they are, but focus on the work, and not on the detractors, and then draw strength in those other examples that can help to propel you forward.
You're right. Role models are so important.
Mahan Tavakoli: And that’s fabulous actually. I know your book is meant for business leaders. I have read it, and recommended it highly to all business leaders. But I’ve also started my daughters, 11 and 14 years old, reading the stories because I think they can see strong, gritty women achieving great things.
So, I would love for them to ask you a couple of their questions as they are reflecting on grit.
Shannon Polson: I would be honored. Absolutely, please.
Hi there, how are you?
Daria Tavakoli: I’m good.
Shannon Polson: What's your name?
Daria Tavakoli: My name is Daria, and I’m 14 years old. I was wondering, how can you develop grit at school?
Shannon Polson: Ooh, that's such a good question. That's such a good question. I'm going to draw on some research that comes from Angela Duckworth, who's at the University of Pennsylvania. And she's actually looked at this very specifically, I think, because she's so interested in this for her children, but it also applies to grownups by the way.
So this is the same for school, and it's the same for grownups in their work. And that is in part by starting with understanding that when you do hard things, it makes you smarter. And understanding that the science shows, they have brain science on this which is so cool. But when you do hard things that makes you smarter, and it makes you better able to do hard things.
So going into school, understanding with, “Hey, if I work hard at this, even if I fail, it's going to make me better able to come at this problem in a different way.”
And so not being afraid of failing, it's okay. If you don't get it, you're going to get better and smarter by working through that challenge.
So I think it really helps to know that when you go into a challenge that you're getting better every time you try it. Even if you can't figure it out the first time, you've just got to keep at it until you figure it out. Does that make sense?
Daria Tavakoli: Thank you.
Ariana Tavakoli: Hi, my name is Ariana, and I’m 11 years old.
Shannon Polson: Hi Ariana. What a beautiful name.
Ariana Tavakoli: Thank you. My question is with everybody that you interviewed, who had the most grit? And who inspired you the most?
Shannon Polson: Oh my goodness. You know, I can't. This is, you've asked me the question that I can't answer. Well done, Ariana. I would say they all inspire me, and they all inspire me in different ways. But let me think of somebody whose story I should, I can share with you.
Okay. I'm going to give you the story of Shaye Haver. And the reason is Shaye is somebody who was just in the news, although you wouldn't have seen her name, because she is now, she was an Apache pilot, like I was. She ended up going to Ranger school with the army. And she was one of the first two women to graduate from Ranger school. And then she became one of the first women infantry officers in the army. And now she's in her second command, commanding the old guard that does all of the fancy things that you see in Washington DC.
So she just commanded or was in charge of bringing, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to light and state. So if you look at those pictures, you'll see that there's a woman officer. You'll see her hair's in a bun, and that's because she is the commander of the old guard, and she tells a really incredible story in The Grit Factor, which is sort of crazy.
She's in the middle of the woods in ranger school, and at ranger school, they don't give you very much to eat, and you carry really heavy packs, and you don't sleep very much at all. So just imagine, sleeping 1 to 3 hours a night, not eating enough, you're so hungry, you're working so hard, and she was on a patrol going through the woods, and she thought she was going crazy.
She was working so hard. She was so tired. And she sat down under a tree, and she thought “I'm behind everybody else, I'm not keeping up. I think I'm going crazy. I don't know what's wrong.” And then she reconnected to what mattered the most for her. And for her that meant thinking about the people that cared about her the most, her family and her very close girlfriends, that she had gone through ranger school with.
And she said, “I'm here because of them, because they believe in me.” And then she thought to the soldiers that she was going to support, and she thought I'm here because of those soldiers. And because I believe in supporting those soldiers. And because she connected to what was most important to her, she got up, she started running, and she realized she was ahead of everybody else.
But there was that moment where she was scared, and she didn't think she was doing well at all. And she just had to stop herself, and remember what mattered the most.
So whenever you get to that place at some point in your life, if you feel scared or things are overwhelming, you remember what matters the most, who loves you, and why you're doing what you're doing. That connecting to purpose matters a lot.
Ariana Tavakoli: Thank you.
Shannon Polson: A true honor.
Mahan Tavakoli: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Shannon, because I think, as I read your book, it is relevant for leaders, men and women. It is relevant for people of all ages. You have incorporated thinking exercises, which I really like. So it’s not just the stories, and it’s not just the lessons, you are asking questions to help people reflect on how they can become more gritty.
And in addition to that, I think it’s great examples, and great stories for all young women, as they see people like you, who have broken through barriers, and who continue to say having grit is important, and it’s good weather you’re men, women, tall, short, white, black, pink, purple. Whatever you happen to be, grit is essential for your success, and your book did a fabulous job on that.
Shannon Polson: I'm so grateful that it resonates. It was certainly written for anybody. And I think that is a key takeaway. Initially, I hadn't intended it at all to be focused on women, but it turns out, I think there's real value in that as well. But I do. I'm so grateful to hear from men who are finding just as much value in it for them also.
So thank you so much. I'm grateful that it resonates.
Mahan Tavakoli: Absolutely. So Shannon, we will link to your book, and to your website on the podcast. How would you recommend for the listeners of Partnering Leadership to connect with you, find out more about you. Your consulting services. Your speaking services. Everything that you offer.
Shannon Polson: Yes, thank you so much. I met to shannonpolson.com. The training is at thegritinstitute.com. You can find me at either website, and I spend most of my time on social media, on LinkedIn or Twitter. So those are the two places to find me. I'm at LinkedIn at Shannon H Polson. So I'd love to see you in any of those places.
Mahan Tavakoli: Well, thank you very much Shannon, for this interview. More importantly, for putting out very relevant content out into the world at the time when it’s needed the most.
Shannon Polson: Absolutely. It's an honor. And thanks so much for a wonderful conversation.
Author of The Grit Factor, CEO of the Grit Institute
Shannon Huffman Polson has worked with leaders in industries across the country and around the world on managing change, building leadership and grit, and planning for diversity. Polson is the founder and CEO of The Grit Institute (thegritinstitute.com), a leadership development organization dedicated to the whole leader approach to ethical and people-centered performance in times of change and challenge.
Polson is the author of The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience, and Leadership in the Most Male-Dominated Organization in the World, keynote speaker at business and corporate events around the world. Clients include Microsoft, Amazon, New York Life, Bristol Myers Squibb, the FDIC, and T-Mobile among others.