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Over the years, women around the world have been defying limitations set by previous generations. The accomplishments of the few who are in the U.S. armed forces are a testament to this. In a male-dominated field with 1.3 million active duty personnel, only 213, 851 – about 16 percent of the total force are women; while females in the Marine Corps make up 7.5 percent of active officers. Marine Corps Major Katie Higgins Cook is one of them. Proving that leadership and excellence lead to success regardless of gender, she took the opportunity to serve and became the first female pilot to perform with the Blue Angels team.

Empowering Women in the Military

What does women empowerment mean? It’s how women elaborate and recreate what they can be, do and accomplish in a circumstance they were previously denied. This is what’s happening in the armed forces now. Boundaries are coming down and there are more opportunities than ever.  In 2015, the Defense Department ordered the opening of all combat roles to women following a policy review by the military services. It was one of the most significant moves to boost female integration in the armed forces. The following year, exclusions on women’s participation in combat arms occupations were removed.

The year 2018 marks the centennial celebration of women in the Marines. And women certainly come a long way over the last 100 years since Opha May Johnson, the first female Marine, signed up to join the Corps. She and all the women who enlisted that day paved the way for other females to pursue their dreams of serving their country.

Today, women in the Marines continue to shatter expectations and break stereotypes along the way. They excel in roles from which they have been previously excluded and occupy positions of authority. They do it without the need for any special treatment just because they are women. As Major Katie Higgins Cook mentioned in Part 1 of this story, all that servicewomen want is to be given the same opportunities and standards as everyone else in the team.

Major Katie Higgins Cook on Equality and Leadership Perspectives

In the first part of our interview, Major Katie Higgins Cook Female Blue Angels Pilot discussed leadership advice and the challenges she faced as a female Marine Officer. For Part 2, Cook shares her views on diversity and inclusion, harassment and leadership perspectives. She also weighs in on what equality in the military means for her.

John R. Miles: A few months ago, I was on a panel at the Diversity MBA National Conference and was queried about firms that are truly doing something unique to help middle management female managers get ahead. Is the Marine Corps doing anything unique in this regard?

Katie Higgins Cook: We have nothing that gives women, or diverse candidates, anything that gets them promoted quickly or gives them a leg up simply because of their race or gender.  In fact, the Marine Corps is doing just the opposite.  Women are now doing pull-ups in their fitness tests and our uniforms are being redesigned to mimic the male versions. Women have to go to the same infantry courses the men have to go through. At least in the Marine Corps, this is facilitating women in mid-level leadership positions because we are being held to the same standards.  Our subordinates can be confident in the fact that we go through the same specialty training as our male counterparts and have the tools to perform at the same level.  By holding us to the same standard it shows that we can do what the males have to do and thus it leads to broader acceptance.

female blue angels pilot katie higgins cook in a side view photo
Are women performing as well as men? Definitely, according to Major Katie Higgins Cook.

John R. Miles:  What is being done in the military regarding harassment and how can business leaders apply those lessons to do a better job of creating a more civil environment?

Katie Higgins Cook: I do not know if the harassment is worse. I think there is a new backdrop that is allowing women and men to come forward and report it more. The military has definitely done this and revolutionized its reporting of sexual harassment and assault. We have resources from the chaplain to victim advocates. There is a ton of training on this from learning how to take a stand and step in before a situation occurs — to learning the resources to help a victim after the fact.  It is a priority in the Marine Corps to stamp this out.

You saw this with the Marine Corps United situation. The Commandant came out and said this behavior is not going to be allowed and they were dealt with severely once identified. The culture is changing and it is no longer as decisive as it once was. We are brothers and sisters in arms. We are becoming more closely aligned.

I am no longer a woman Marine, I am simply a Marine.

In the civilian world, there is a lot of training about what is defined as sexual harassment and the process of reporting inappropriate situations.  However, I think where the training often falls short is putting the onus on the other members of the team to set a culture and an environment where this type of behavior will not be tolerated.  It is everyone’s responsibility to keep sexual harassment from occurring, you can’t just throw your hands up and say it doesn’t involve me, so it’s not my business.

Having gained a sense of Major Cook’s concerns as a leader and time with the Blue Angels Team, I was eager to turn the discussion to more personal topics. 

John R. Miles: How have you realized such success in a male-dominated field, what lessons have you learned along the way?

Katie Higgins Cook: The number one lesson I learned is you need to be excellent in everything you do. Before a flight, I would prepare for hours — the brief, studying, and flying skills. I wanted to be excellent. Even if I came across someone who didn’t like women, if I was excellent, they couldn’t deny me opportunities. I had very high fitness reports and performance scores. I worked my butt off, and this goes for males or females. If your record speaks for itself, it is hard for someone to deny you a promotion or opportunity. You cannot be sedentary and expect opportunities to come to you. You need to be the best.

katie higgins cook on the field with her hands on her hips
Major Cook tells us how to survive in a male-dominated world.

John R. Miles: When you think of what allowed you to advance in the military, do you think hard work was enough? If not, what are the other keys to your success?

Katie Higgins Cook: No, I do not think it is the end all be all. The other process is that you need to be excellent on your own, not by diminishing others. I am not getting to the top by using another as a ladder to success. You need to bring others with you. I created study guides and flight planning materials and rather than hord that for myself, I would be sure to share it with my fellow pilots. It is never about throwing someone under the bus. You have to empower others. This is equally important as a civilian. You have to facilitate others around you as well. A pilot could be the best in the world, but if everyone around you is failing, you will never meet the end goal.

female blue angels pilot katie higgins cook seated at the back of a truck
You can never win alone.

John R. Miles: I have been lucky to have key mentors throughout my career who have guided me in making leadership and career decisions. Do you have anyone you consider a key to your success? What have they taught you?

Katie Higgins Cook: For sure. I was really lucky to be born into a family with a large military background, from my grandfather to my father. They were my first mentors. My father has been an invaluable resource throughout my career. I still reach out to him to this day. It is great he was a pilot because I can talk to him in our jargon.

I actually married another Marine pilot who was also in the Blue Angels. I am lucky to bounce ideas off of him, and I am forever grateful I have these people in my own family.

The number one message I got from my dad is you do not put “pilot” on your tax return. You put “Marine officer”. Your first priority is your Marines. My husband has taught me to have fun. You can get really wrapped up around day to day events. You need to have fun. Do the mission but make it fun and have fun together.

John R. Miles: Sharing wisdom from your time at the Naval Academy –to flying in combat to being a female Blue Angels Pilot —  what advice do you have for the next generation of leaders?

Katie Higgins Cook: I would say the same phrase I tell everyone. Calm seas don’t make a skilled sailor. It is not about the calm seas or the smooth sailing in your life. It is about the shortfalls or failures and how you deal with them and overcome them. You have to learn and move forward. That is how you shape yourself as a person, and in my case, as a Marine, Wife, and Mother.

John R. Miles: And, who are some of your favorite leaders to follow?

Katie Higgins Cook: Defense Secretary James Mattis.  He is often referred to as the Warrior Monk because he is unmarried and dedicated his life to the Marine Corps and his country. He has been described as having a 1000-year-old mind because he reads countless books and is a prolific tactician. I think one of his most famous quotes helps give you an idea of the type of person he is: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” He is a phenomenal leader and sets the example in political turmoil. No matter what, he remains steadfast in his mission to advance the interests of the United States.

james mattis at a podium, a good example for female blue angels pilot katie higgins cook
Known as the Warrior Monk, Defense Secretary James Mattis is a bold leader for Major Katie Higgins Cook.

John R. Miles: I have written numerous articles about the topic of diversity and inclusion. Diversity in the workplace is important to young people and millennials — and Silicon Valley hasn’t really been a leader in that department. What real steps in the business world can tech companies and other organizations take to increase diversity?

Katie Higgins Cook: Some businesses get stuck in the hiring practice that the resume is the end all be all of a candidate. They pick an employee based solely on their schooling or previous experience which is undeniably important.   However, there is an intangible value to a person’s background that they can bring a different perspective to the table. You can’t keep hiring the same people from the same schools and get a different result. Look beyond the paper and see other perspectives. Maybe they are older and have a military background or didn’t take the normal path to success that others have been afforded.

John R. Miles: These have been some heavier topics so we’ll switch to a little bit lighter. If you get to have dinner with three living people, who would they be?

Katie Higgins Cook: Besides my two boys and my husband it would be Joe Biden, the Pope, and Angela Merkel before she leaves office.

tryptic of pope francis, angela merkel and joe biden
The three people Major Katie Higgins Cook would have dinner with.

John R. Miles: What is next for you in your career? 

Katie Higgins Cook: I am transitioning to the reserves next October, and have been lucky enough to get the opportunity to work for Shell Oil in the Houston area.

The success of military leaders like Major Katie Higgins Cook is a testament that hard work, strong leadership skills and the desire to serve are keys to achieving greatness. She is an inspiration not only because she is the first female Blue Angels pilot. More importantly, she proves that by focusing on being excellent every day, both men and women move up the ranks.


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