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Former U.S. Army Captain Shannon Huffman Polson: 'A Leader Has To Own Her Story'

Polson, one of the first women to pilot the Apache helicopter, spoke about how to have 'grit' in leadership at XChange 2020.

Repeatedly, over a number of years, Shannon Huffman Polson was told by her superiors that she was not going to achieve her goal of flying an attack aircraft in the U.S. Army.

But even as she committed herself to doing the best she could at the jobs she was being given, she never slowed down in her pursuit.

[Related: Aron Ralston: The Three Gifts Adversity Gives Us]

"If at any point along that journey of a few years I had accepted anybody else's version--anybody else's narrative of who I was and what I was there to do--I would have stalled out, dead in the water," Polson told the audience at XChange 2020, hosted by CRN parent The Channel Company this week in San Antonio. "A leader has to own her story first, before she's ready to lead anything else."

The former U.S. Army captain became one of the first women to pilot the Apache attack helicopter, and her keynote talk at the XChange conference offered lessons drawn from her experiences as a leader of two flight platoons.

Following her service, she went on to work in the corporate world at companies including Microsoft. And this September, her book"The Grit Factor" will be published based on her experiences as well as interviews with other accomplished women in the armed services.

One key "Grit Factor" lesson, which Polson credited to Air Force Major General Dawn Dunlop, is to "never be afraid to ask for what you want."

"Never assume anybody knows what it is that you want. You have to earn it, but you also have to ask for it," Polson said--noting that studies have shown women typically ask for promotions when they are over-qualified, while men often ask when they are under-qualified.

Likewise, in order to boost diversity, business leaders should not restrict themselves to interviewing candidates who’ve put their names in the hat, she said.

"If you want the best person running that team, then you should solicit the people that ought to be interviewing for that job," she said.

Polson also offered her own stories from several of her missions that required quick thinking and decisive leadership.

During one crucial mission in Bosnia, she recalled hearing a sound indicating that an anti-aircraft system was tracking her helicopter. But based on her knowledge of the broader situation, she made the judgment call to keep going--and to turn down the sound of the warning system, in fact.

"I think each one of us is in our own cockpits today [and] every single one of us is overwhelmed by inputs," she said. "We have a lot of competing information coming in at any given time. And it's absolutely critical, in those times when you need to be mission-focused, that you learn to reach over and to turn down that noise."

Michael Goldstein, president and CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based LAN Infotech, said the talk was "inspiring" on many levels.

"It really made me think a lot about what it is to be a great leader. You have to be a hands-on person to be able to go out there and lead,” he said. “I thought that was just amazing."

Goldstein said he also appreciated her emphasis on "always being able to ask for that job, that position, that you feel you're entitled to."

Integral to Polson's message, of course, was the notion of "grit"--something a leader can only achieve once they've uncovered their "core purpose," she said.

"This is real introspective work. And it's work you should do probably every year, because it might change," she said.

Once you have done the work to "drill down to that core purpose, you can find that thing that I have always called grit," Polson said. "Because grit isn't just for military pilots and big mountain climbers ... Every single one of us has grit innate to who we are. And it's easy to find that grit, most times, at the intersection between your core purpose and your passion."

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