My Major Life Work

Another assignment in my “Personal Legacy” writing course was to describe my major life work, followed by the advice I would give a young person seeking a career. Here’s what I wrote:

My major life work is being a leader. It’s an unlikely calling for a bashful farm girl who didn’t talk to people and who feared speaking in class. I fell into this role; it was never one of my dreams or expectations. Even after becoming a U.S. Navy officer, I didn’t see myself as a leader, only as someone doing my best to advance in my naval career.

I realized how much I’d changed during a conversation while living on Guam. I was a Sunday School teacher, and I commented to the superintendent about my dread of preparing lessons for my class. She said she wished she had a class; she didn’t like being in charge of the whole organization. I said I’d rather be in charge than teach. We swapped jobs and were both happy.

An officer, by definition, is a leader. I was a supervisor and responsible for the people who worked for me.  My job required that I do leadership things, such as making tough decisions, giving speeches, and stepping forward when things went wrong. I was always conscious of being a role model and a leadership example. I always cared about doing “the right thing,” Over time, leadership became my passion. With each new job assignment and each promotion, my responsibilities increased. So did my love of being a leader.

Following a tour at a naval air station, where I’d run a maintenance department with 650 sailors, I transferred to a staff job in Washington, D.C. For the first time in the 18 years I’d been an officer, I had no subordinates. I was only responsible for myself. I worried I’d forget how to be a leader, that I’d lose my touch. Eventually, my immediate boss put me in charge of the civilians in our division. He didn’t want to deal with their issues. They were happy to talk to me instead of him, and I was happy to be a leader again. The arrangement worked for all of us.

What happened early in my life that allowed me to evolve into a leader was being raised by my parents. They gave me a foundation of honesty, credibility, integrity, commitment, respect for myself and others, trust, and generosity. They believed in me and offered their support. We worked hard on the farm, we worked together, and we didn’t quit until the job was done. Those characteristics brought me through some rough times over the years.

After retiring from the Navy, I again wondered if my leadership skills would atrophy. Would all this knowledge be wasted and never used again? When I joined a real estate investment group, I decided I wanted to lead the group because I wanted a strong voice in how my money was used. I expected competition for that slot; I thought everyone would want to be the leader. To my surprise, no one else did. They were happy to let me lead the group. They followed my direction and appreciated my efforts to hold them accountable.

A year after moving home to South Dakota, I was asked to take over as president of Battleship South Dakota Memorial. The board of directors was looking for a retired Navy captain to hold the volunteer position. I said yes. When the Veterans of Foreign Wars post needed a commander, I said yes. These past two years have given me more leadership work than I cared to have. But it’s been a challenge I’ve enjoyed.

My message to young people about choosing a career would be to do what interests and excites you. Don’t worry that you might not succeed. If it’s what you want to do, then go for it with the expectation that you will succeed. Because you will. I had no clue what I was getting into when I joined the Navy, only the belief that it would go well for me. My career unfolded one assignment at a time. Working through the problems and difficulties made me stronger; they are what made me a leader. Don’t choose a career someone else wants you to have. It’s your life; you will be the one living it.

I no longer worry about losing my leadership skills. They will aid me for the rest of my life, whenever someone asks for my help. Leadership is still my passion.

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