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Leadership Lessons from Major Katie Higgins Cook, the First Female Blue Angels Pilot – Part One

Problems with Boeing’s 737 Max as it lands

The road to becoming a military aviator is one filled with difficult challenges. It takes extraordinary skill and precision to command the skies all while mastering what is also required to be an officer. While completing missions is paramount, a Marine Corps pilot’s role as a character model is just as important. Major Katie Higgins Cook of the U.S. Marine Corps knows just what it’s like. Armed with qualities of a good leader such as passion and perseverance, she makes her mark in the military through a life of service. In 2015, she shattered the glass ceiling and flew high as the first female pilot to perform with the Blue Angels team. As per Ed Kopko’s book, “Project Bold Life: The Proven Formula for Taking on Challenges and Achieving Happiness and Success”, “Pursuing boldness in our lives demands seeking a higher level of excellence.” Without question, Higgins’ bold life is a direct result of her pursuit of personal excellence!

Now, she continues to lead and inspire Marines (firefighters, fuelers, and airfield maintainers) as commander of Airfield Operations Company, Marine Wing Support Squadron 271 at Marine Corps Axillary Landing Field Bogue, North Carolina.

Centennial of Women Service to the U.S. Marine Corps

Earlier this year, the centennial of women serving United States Marine Corps was celebrated. Throughout the Marine Corps’ history, women have served with pride, honor, and distinction in defense of America’s freedom. It is fitting that Bold Business is covering women leaders in the Marine Corps this year to recognize and celebrate the many ways that women are positively rewriting the history of the Corps. Lt. General Reynolds a  Bold Leader Spotlight recipient recently spoke about how the barriers have gone away. Like Major Katie Higgins Cook, she also has broken new ground during her career.

“Being a woman in this organization is not always easy, so it helps to have somebody out there fighting for you and with you,” said Lt. General Reynolds. “This is an opportunity that you can make your voice matter.”


Becoming an Inspiration as a Blue Angel

A third-generation military aviator, it seems Major Cook was born to fly and to become a Marine. Her paternal grandfather served during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Her father was an F-18 fighter pilot in the Navy. Carrying on the family legacy, she joined the Marine Corps after graduating from the US Naval Academy.

Major Katie Higgins Cook became one of the few female Marine aviators to fly combat missions in Afghanistan in support of Operations Enduring Freedom. After that, Cook was assigned to Uganda in support of contingency operations in Africa. During her deployment there, she received an unexpected call. A member of the Blue Angels invited her to apply as a pilot for the elite aviation demonstration team. Cook was still a junior captain back then, but she decided to take on the challenge.

Becoming the First Female Blue Angels Pilot

Cook put on the iconic blue flight suit, and she made history as the first female Blue Angels pilot. She performed at airshows across the country, breaking sound and gender barriers. Whenever she saw girls and boys in the audience, she would tell them to pursue their dreams no matter what. She proved that both men and women could be leaders in the military.

During that time, Major Cook refused to take all the credit for breaking barriers. She claimed that amazing women like the WAVES of WWII, LtCol Sarah Deal Burrow (first USMC Pilot), and the countless other women in support roles on the Blue Angels team helped carve a path for her. According to Cook, when she was in the cockpit, she wasn’t the ‘Lady Blue Angel’. Instead, she was just another pilot. And she could fly planes just as well as her teammates did.

Major Katie Higgins Cook on What It Means to Be a Leader

I had the opportunity to interview Major Katie Higgins Cook. For Part 1 of our two-part story, she discusses the challenges and opportunities she faced throughout her career in a male-dominated field. Cook also shares how she guides her team as a Commander, as well as some of the most important lessons she learned as a leader.

John R. Miles: What is a day like in the life of a pilot? How is it different when you are part of a precision team like the Blue Angels?

Katie Higgins Cook: The biggest thing about being a pilot is the focus on safety in every aspect of your life. You can’t fly a plane sick, drunk, tired. You have to eat right, be healthy, have time management, and have an attention to detail. Before a flight, you have to dedicate time to prepare by checking notice to airman (NOTAMs), weather, and inspecting your aircraft.  Even after you fly, you have to take the time to debrief so you correct any mistakes you might have made.

In the Blue Angels, you take these same sentiments but apply them to the extreme. You have to work out a minimum five days a week and eat right in order to have the physical stamina to do what is required.  It also helps you also look professional in the Blue Suit when you are out representing your country.  We have a whole team of maintainers that assist us with our aircraft inspections, and our post-flight debriefs are up to two hours long.

The Blues fly faster, lower, and closer than the average pilot. While it is similar to the life of a normal pilot it gets taken to the extreme.

John R. Miles: Is leadership different when you think of being in a unit like the Blue Angels, Special Forces or Marine Corps Force Recon?

Katie Higgins Cook: From a Blue Angels perspective, the strict military chain of command is a bit different. For us, the number 1 pilot (also called the “Boss”) is in command but all decisions are made as a democracy amongst the team.  This was very weird to me at first as it was a far departure from every other USMC unit I had previously been in.  Another difference that was odd for me as a Marine Corps officer was that the Navy officers called their enlisted Sailors by their first name. It was automatic on the team and much more familiar than in a normal squadron.  While much different from other units, it created a more intimate connection between the officers and enlisted in a shorter timeline with just this small act.

My brother is an Explosive Ordinance Disposal officer and he often deploys with SEAL Teams. The relationship between an officer and enlisted is much closer in this community than in other communities. My brother refers to his Senior Chief by his first name for the same reason.  It breaks down the divide between officers and enlisted and creates closer bonds between its team members.

John R. Miles: If you had to boil down your leadership and coaching style to three elements, what would they be?

Katie Higgins Cook: I would say trust, absolutely. That is really built from showing you will stand up for your troops.  If something goes wrong, then you as the officer take the onus on yourself.  Even if the blame is on someone else in the unit, the leader is accountable.  Obviously, you can and should correct this deficiency in private with the at-fault individual, but ultimately the responsibility is on you.

Dedication. Not only dedication to the troops which is obvious but to the mission as well. This means being one of the first in and last out. If they are doing a field exercise, a conditioning hike, any other difficult task, their leaders need to be there with them.

At least for me, my leadership style is much more motherly than the average Marine Corps officer. I have actually had some Marines call me “mom” by accident.  I am very clear with my expectations and my Marines know there will be consequences for failing to meet these expectations.  That being said, I am totally dedicated to the sentiment that you praise in public and punish in private.  When they do things wrong, it usually involves a one-way conversation where I lay out how they let me and their fellow Marines down.  When they do things well, I am their biggest champion and use them as an example to follow to their other Marines.

John R. Miles: How have you had to adjust your leadership style being a female officer in the male-dominated military and especially the Marine Corps?

Katie Higgins Cook: The Marine Corps is only 6% female. So, I have definitely had to adjust my style. If I yelled and screamed every time someone did something wrong, I would be labeled a crazy person. Yelling is not productive or comprehended by people. Especially if you are a female. I have abandoned yelling as a leadership tactic and if I ever do, it is such a rarity that they really take notice.

I didn’t develop my leadership style until after I left the Naval Academy. It took one deployment to really get my footing underneath me leadership-wise. I had two enlisted troops under me that wanted to transfer to a different Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). I sat down with them every day in Afghanistan and taught them basic math to help them get their ASVAB scores up so they could attain their dreams. This was really my first sense of reward from leadership and it came through experience. Not from a book. I learned it over time and after that, it became my goal onward. I was dedicated to leaving a Marine better than before I met them.

John R. Miles: Speaking of this, I read you saved a number of Marines in Afghanistan.

Katie Higgins Cook: Yes. While on patrol in Afghanistan, an urgent call came in that a squad was in trouble and pinned down by the enemy. I was a very junior officer then but my crew and I took quick action and took out the enemy force.

On my second deployment, I was at a local bar and someone approached me. They heard my voice and asked if I had been in Afghanistan as a pilot.  I confirmed that it was in fact me. They said they were pinned down in a firefight and by taking action on the enemy, my crew saved their lives. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

John R. Miles: I recently wrote a Bold Leadership Spotlight story on Marine Corps LT. General Reynolds. Have you ever had the chance to meet her and what has her example meant to women Marine NCOs and Officers?

Katie Higgins Cook: I have never met her but my current Commanding Officer has and goes on and on about how she is an amazing leader.  She has set the standard for female Marines and is absolutely an inspiration to us. She commanded Marines at Parris Island, led the Marine Corps Cyber Command, and now is breaking a glass ceiling that we have not seen consistently in the Marine Corps.  Hopefully, she will get that fourth star in the future.  As a mid-grade officer, watching someone succeed that has a similar background to you and is a female achieve these amazing things. It shows you this path is possible.

I saw this in the Blue Angels quite often.  Younger kids did not know a female could be a Blue Angel or Marine and I corrected those misperceptions. Lt. Gen Reynolds does this for me. She is making major policy changes and setting the example of female Marines and women leaders around the world.

John R. Miles: What are some of the biggest leadership challenges you have had to overcome?

Katie Higgins Cook: Some of the biggest challenges are peer to peer or cross-functional leadership, getting someone at your same level to get on the same page with you and motivate them to do the task at hand. I am now in command of Marine Corps Auxiliary Landing Field Bogue, NC.  We are a strategic asset for Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP).  This training simulates landing on an amphibious assault ship both at night and during the day.  As a result of this strategic importance, MCALF Bogue has several entities that are involved with its overall success.  The trouble is getting all these people and units focused on the same goal.  You have to build trust and get them invested in our mission. Charging in the same direction. It is easy to say Lance Corporal do this task because they are trained to do that.  But getting another Major or Lt. Colonel to do it is different.

John R. Miles: How does this apply to women and diversity leadership in the civilian world?

Katie Higgins Cook: I think the civilian world, depending on the sector, you are either directly or indirectly selling a product or service. You have something that someone has hired you to do. Having women, various races, sexual orientations, and religions represented allows you to tap into many backgrounds. This results in your products not being tailored to any one type of person.

The C-130 is a dual cockpit as it is a two-pilot aircraft.  When we are conducting Close Air Support, we will usually fly from the right seat and fired from the left. This is atypical of the normal flight for the plane where the pilot flying is usually in the left seat. When I am sitting in the right seat, I have to lean over to my left when utilizing the autopilot turn knob because it is not located exactly on centerline in the aircraft.  When I lean over, I can no longer see the Heads Up Display (HUD) because I am smaller stature than the normal pilot. This is a small example, but perhaps if you had a woman on the design team building the aircraft, maybe it would have been tailored differently to meet the diverse needs.

In the end, If you are building a product to a certain demographic or age, you are missing out on all these other people of different background. This will give you a more well-rounded product.

The Path Forward for Diversity and Inclusion in the Military

Even though breaking gender barriers wasn’t originally part of Major Cook’s plans, her appointment as the first female Blue Angels pilot proved to be an important milestone in the military. It’s a significant move on integrating more women into combat ground forces. In Part two of this story, Major Katie Higgins Cook will share her views on harassment as well as diversity and inclusion. She will also discuss her leadership perspectives.

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