Lessons From a Dutchman

Overlooking Oberammergau, Germany.

I had the good fortune of attending a course at the NATO School Oberammergau this past May. A week long course, with an extra day for personal time in Munich, had a profound and lasting impact on me. I’ve always believed that the people we meet in our lives can always teach us something. I think my cheesy way of phrasing it when I was spitballing ideas for my blog title and purpose was, “The path of life is paved with people who will teach us along the way, provided we care enough to listen.” Through observing and interacting with other students of different nationality, both on the course and socially in the evening, I walked away with a different perspective, a renewed outlook. I came away with a willingness to allow myself the time to look inwards, and the courage to force myself to make changes.

There were several people that I meet that impacted me in some small measure, but for the purposes of this article, I have to single out a particular Dutchman. We were not on the same course, but met at the Meet & Greet on the Monday. He is what I like to call a people magnet. He draws people to him. His demeanour is inviting. He is funny and confident, engaging. I too can sometimes be a bit of a people magnet, in the right setting. But our polarity must have been correct that evening, because I was drawn into his circle rather than be repelled, and we hit it off. The group of us shared stories, we laughed, carried on, and bonded in a way that military folks will understand.

At some point in the evening, we decided to become Facebook friends. In perusing each other’s profiles, I remarked how the Dutch always seem to look so good, that they take pride in their appearance. Yes, I was stereotyping, but my limited exposure had showed me that they were not likely to be out at a Walmart in pajamas in the middle of the day. He agreed. He asked why we wouldn’t want to look good? Why wouldn’t you take pride in your appearance? If you look good, you feel good. He said he likes to look good for his wife, and she likes to look good for him. Not a word of this came across in a superficial, material, or chauvinistic way. He was really seeming to state it as fact. This aspect didn’t seem to be limited to the Dutch. It was something I had noticed from the Nordic nations as well. They all seemed genuinely happy and more importantly, they had an air of good health about them. Maybe there was something to their philosophy.

The next night was intended to be a quiet night. We had a fantastic course supper, and I shut down relatively early to head home with three others. Two had already veered off for their accommodations, and the one remaining wanted to stop for a last drink, in a platonic manner… just to be clear. I really didn’t want to, but this fellow seemed determined. Not wanting to be rude I acquiesced. I regretted it shortly after we were seated and having the drink. I often say I could talk to the side of the wall if it would listen, but having a conversation with this fellow was painful, especially without the rest of the group present. It was awkward. I all but chugged my really good German beer, and headed home.

The following evening I was lamenting the awkwardness of the drink the night before, and muttering about how I wished I could have gotten home that half an hour earlier and at least had a good night’s rest. My Dutch friend pointed out that us Canadians are just too nice. If I didn’t want to stop for that drink in the first place, I should have just said that. Intuitively, I know he is right, but yet I still cave. I often find myself being more concerned about other people’s feelings ahead of my own. Truth be told, it is probably more about me feeling bad for hurting someone else’s feelings; I’d rather avoid feeling bad and just have the damn drink. But for whatever reason, I’ll call it the Germany effect, with a dash of Dutchman delivery, I found myself agreeing with him. He was right. I had nobody to blame but myself because if I had wanted to go straight home, I should have just said that, and went straight home. Why have I somehow been incapable of seeing things so simply until then?

Through the course of the week, these little interactions seemed to be having an impact on me. The course itself was opening my mind to a new way of looking at things, something I was not expecting. The Friday evening I decided to make my way into town to say farewell to my new friends, the Dutchman and his classmates. Listening to them, hearing about how they live, what they spend their time doing, where their priorities are, it was as if I had donned a new pair of glasses and was seeing things in an entirely different light suddenly. I soaked it up. 

I headed to Munich in the morning, determined to make the most out of a solo day in a foreign country. I walked over 20km around the city, absolutely captivated by it. People make time to simply be in the moment. They seem to be more connected or intimate with whomever they are sharing their time. The vibe is laid back. They are present, happy, healthy, grounded. It didn’t feel frenzied. I vowed to make a change upon return home. 

I followed up my Munich trip with a message to my Dutch friend. I actually thanked him for unwittingly having been my therapist for the week. And he came back with another gem for me: If you talk, you are only saying things you already know. If you listen, you learn new things. That is why we have two ears and one mouth. The irony that I hadn’t heard that expression before was not lost on me. 

The Germany effect, with a dash of Dutchman, has me listening. Listening to others, and taking the time to listen to my inner self a little more. I’m also happy to report that I’ve been making some small progress on the changes I vowed – getting up earlier to start the day with walking the dog and a healthy breakfast, procrastinating less, prioritizing and being okay saying no to things. Small steps, easy changes, but one has to start somewhere.

Career Advice I Wish I Had Got

Since leaving the Regular Force I now breathe a little easier in the fall when the succession boards are occurring, and again in the spring when posting messages are cut. The angst and stress that are brought on by the two is something I do not miss, not in the least.

What carrot will be dangled? Where are they looking to send me? Where do I want to go? How can I tap dance or stick handle things to make the two align? Can I still progress while balancing my family needs? Will the boss understand my decisions or professional aims? It’s not an easy cycle to live through. Going back to the Royal Military College last fall reminded me of that, and prompted this article as a result. I hope you enjoy.

Feelings are deceptive assholes…

I wrote an article awhile ago for my alma mater’s newletter, e-Veritas. It was something that was stewing in my mind for a long time. I don’t know how many times I sat in mental health briefings in the military getting more and more pissed off by the minute with the language that was being used that was giving feelings far too much credence.

I’ve attached that article below, “Stigma and Stereotypes: Perception does not always equal reality.” This was my first attempt to articulate why I felt that way. Since then, I’ve read Mark Manson’s books, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, and Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. For the record, he, and I’m sure a bunch of other smart people, explain this concept way better than me, about how feelings drive what we do, and sometimes not for the better. I encourage you to read his books, but likewise, I hope you’ll take a peek at my article!

Odd Ducks, Sesame Street Game & Fitting In

In my previous article, “Organizational Culture, Leadership, and the Power of Being Yourself,” I talk a little bit about fitting in, and having the confidence to be yourself. I put particular emphasis on the fact that I wanted what any other junior officer wanted: to be good at my job and earn the respect of my troops, my superiors, and my peers. I think that fitting in, and being acknowledged as competent, is a common sentiment felt by the majority of the workforce and it is indeed the exception that has no qualms about being the odd duck. But what does it mean when to fit in? What makes someone the odd duck? Or what about the one who is one of those things that is not like the other? Crazy though it may seem, I don’t ever want to be the odd duck, but I’m okay being one of those things that is not like the other.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an odd duck hater. There should be room for them in an organization as well. In fact, odd ducks increase the likeliness of thinking outside the box, they diversify an organization. Odd ducks get that description for reasons related to their behaviour. It isn’t a physical characteristic, they just march to a different beat. 

One of these things is not like the other is all about the physical appearances. It harkens back to the Sesame Street classic that was all about picking out the one thing that was a little bit different because of size, shape, colour, etc. It is tangible.

I was one of those things in my career. I was the girl. The female. The chick. The one that wasn’t a dude. I couldn’t do much to change that, so I had no choice but to accept it. But it was not always that straight forward and simple. It still isn’t. A conversation I had Friday night has me circling back to this topic again.

I meet a rock star from our small military world this past Friday, one I had heard plenty about, but our paths surprisingly had never crossed. Yes, she is also one of those things that is not like the other. But more importantly, she’s the triple threat in the world of combat engineers: airborne, combat diver, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) qualified. She is combat tested and proven. A leader. A role model. For anyone, of any gender. We hit it off, and got to talking about our experiences and backgrounds. The thing I have noticed that her, two of my close female infantry friends, and I have in common is that we all hail from small east coast towns/villages whereby gender was irrelevant. Nobody told us we couldn’t do things that the boys could. Instead, we were expected to do things that the boys did – carry in the wood, help with the lobster traps, bailing hay, etc. Maybe that’s just a coincidence, but I suspect it had a large part to do with our successes in a male dominated environment.

In a lot of ways, we “fit in” right from the start in the military. From a behaviour standpoint, we were not odd ducks. From a physical appearance side of the house however, we were one of those things that was not like the other. Each of our abilities to embrace that was probably a little different. In Friday evening’s discussion we got to talking about how we dressed (or didn’t dress) to downplay our femininity. I remembered my first few months in the regiment. It was nerve racking to get dressed if it called for civilian attire. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. As I mentioned in my article I referenced, following the conversation I had with my TSM whereby he gave me my confidence back, I stopped caring. I came fully to the realization that I am a woman, and I was done with trying to downplay that fact. I still was very cognizant that I had to be dressed professionally, in a manner that reflected my position as an officer, but if someone happened to notice I was a woman, or checked out my ass in my jeans, that was a reflection on them, not on me. It need not have any bearing on my ability to do my job. I came to that realization early on in my career. Others do not. Some never do. Some have doubts along the way. I did.

In Afghanistan, when I learned that on the camp I was being referred to as catwoman in the gym because I was wearing all black, lycra pants and a fitted dri-fit shirt, I was mortified. I stopped wearing that to the gym…for a stint. Slowly, once again, I came to the “fuck it” moment. Fuck them. This is more comfortable and easier to wear, and I don’t give a shit if they get their jollies off of ogling me looking sweaty and gross, red in the face, trying to keep myself in shape. I actually think it bothered my crew more than me in the end. It was like they were talking about their sister or something.

The “fuck it” moment can be a magical moment. It equates to a level of self-confidence that is empowering. You take positive control over yourself, your reactions to others, and their perception of you. It is remarkably freeing.

So if I can come to that “fuck it” conclusion so easily over physical appearance, and am okay with being one of those things that is not like the other, what’s my hang up about being an odd duck? Well, my physical appearance is just that. I can’t really change it in the grand scheme of things. But if I’m an odd duck, that speaks to the core of who I am. It is my personal culture so to speak – the vibe I give off, maybe it’s my values? It is something inherent in who I am as a person that is different enough from the rest that it warrants the moniker odd duck.

Behaviour, unlike physical appearance, is far more malleable. Consequently, the pressure to change would be greater. I would not want to fundamentally alter who I am to fit into a work place culture, and I think it would be exhausting to always feel a little bit different than everyone else. I would rather find myself a work place culture I’m more in step with. But that’s just me. I don’t have the level of self-actualization required to pull off odd duck status. To those that do, I tip my hat to you, because we do need you.

I stand by what I put in that article:

There needs to be congruence or harmony between the individual and the organizational culture. If they are at odds, there will be dissatisfaction with one of three likely outcomes:

  • the employee leaves;
  • the employee stays but is unhappy and the dissatisfaction permeates through other facets of life, not just work; or
  • depending on the organization and the individual’s status within it, they can exercise leadership and gradually shift the culture over time.

Every organization has a culture, some more pronounced and rigid than others, but there is room for everyone within that culture. Be yourself. While great leaders will always find a way to adapt to the environment or situation, this does not mean they alter who they are fundamentally. We need leaders who have the strength and courage to remain true to themselves. Through being yourself, and promoting that message to your subordinates, we contribute to healthy workplace culture that is capable of growing and is supported by a more diverse foundation.

Easy words to say perhaps, when you’re not an odd duck.

Do traits really need to be labeled as masculine or feminine???

This may just be a personal pet peeve of mine. Maybe I am the only one whose blood pressure starts to go up when I hear people categorizing traits into the category of masculine or feminine, but I just can’t help it. It drives me bonkers. I find it to be a useless and unnecessary exercise. It’s for that reason when I stumbled across a particular article, it struck a nerve, and it drove me to the keyboard. It was an angry rant kind of article that came out of it for me. Check it out if you like, “I Dislike Labels…Strongly.”

High School Predictions…

Ambition. What did I want to be when I grew up? You wouldn’t think that would be a terribly tough question to answer, yet I can’t quite put my finger on the answer. Never have been able to. I can tell you things I like. I can tell you things I don’t like. But do I have a dream of something specific? Not so sure.

Here’s what I do know. I’m not comfortable with not having some measure of financial security in life. So that means I need some way to pay the bills. 

I do not have the desire to conquer the world, to rise to the absolute top of any organization. I simply have no interest in the time commitment that would take. I accept that I like having time to do things just for pleasure – play a sport, attend my kids’ activities, garden, laze on a beach, travel. 

I also know that I like change, or a dynamic environment that is people based. I wouldn’t do well doing the same thing day in and day out. 

I know I like to talk, to tell stories. I often say I’d talk to the side of the wall if it would listen. I guess that’s partly what this blog is for me. A place for me to tell stories. And then I remembered my high school yearbook. We had to answer the questions of ambition, probable fate, pet saying, and pet peeve. Here’s mine, and a friend’s:

I wonder if I can get her to follow my blog?!!

My TSN Turning Point…

I’ve added two more of my articles, “The Burden of Command”, and “The Truth May Hurt, But Lack of Honesty is More Harmful.” Both of these articles were very personal to me as they represent the TSN turning point in my career.

Dan’s death rocked my professional world. As a Second-in-Command (2IC), you rarely have to quite literally take over, even though that is the primary reason why we have 2ICs. I had only really just come to terms with accepting that where the military saw me going, and what I had as a goal, were not going to align. And then suddenly, I was commanding the unit they told me I didn’t have the potential to command, and in pretty shitty circumstances.

After the dust settled, I felt more adrift in the military than I had ever felt. The positive to come from this period of time was that though I might not have come any closer to knowing what I wanted enough in my life/career that I would deal with the bullshit to get it, it did reveal what I no longer wanted enough that I was willing to put up with the bullshit, pain and frustration to get – promotion and title.

I suppose if I had bothered to put any amount of real honest reflection into myself prior to this point, or had taken positive control over my professional satisfaction, I might not have ended up in the circumstances that I did. But I didn’t. I was complacent. Plenty about my career kept me happy and satisfied, and so I carried on. I stayed on the path that I was on, and didn’t really question whether it was the right path or not, and I was happy to chase the dream that the military told me I was supposed to chase.

Despite this, and in hindsight, I still say that I had a good career. I loved a lot about what I did. Yet it still baffles me that I never questioned myself or was willing to take a little more risk to explore other options. I hope it’s not too late, or it perhaps makes the ultimate goal of this blog a little pointless for me.

Please take a read of the articles. Feel free to share, or comment. I do truly appreciate you taking the time to read my writings.

Impressive ladies!!!

24 years later, three of us have transitioned to part time service, one still serving full time.

I couldn’t be more proud of these impressive ladies, and thankful that I was able to be with two them in Halifax for each of their respective last day in the Regular Force. They are each power houses and highly respected officers, and rightfully so. I’m immensely proud of their achievements, and even more proud to call them friends. 

Center is Lieutenant Colonel Eleanor Taylor, a proud Infantry Officer of the Royal Canadian Regiment. She commanded a rifle company in Afghanistan, and has recently been announced as an Officer of the Order of Military Merit. Her accomplishments are so impressive. She’s also my third cousin 🙂

On the right is Commander Nancy Setchell, a stellar Naval Warfare Officer. She just finished a successful command of HMCS Charlottetown, and she did so in a way that only Nancy could do. The navy is a foreign element to me, but to see how loved and respected she is by superiors, peers and subordinates alike speaks to her incredible leadership and competency.

It’s unfortunate that Lieutenant Colonel Ellie Haevens could not have been with us to really complete the package, so I did a very terrible job of photoshopping her in! We were a foursome at the Royal Military College way back when, meeting each other in 1995. Ellie is a logistics officer and is currently posted to the Netherlands so couldn’t make it back. Yet another impressive lady who has had some significant success in her career. And just for shits and giggles, here are the four of us clowning around way back when!

1st Year, Royal Military College of Canada, 1995-96

So for all the naysayers out there, who may still question the value of women in the military, these three ladies show you just how wrong you are. They are competence personified, have earned their ranks and positions, and have commanded and served in an honorable manner that is beyond question. I am grateful to have them in my life, and pretty damn proud of them!

Love of Sport

I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that I’m a soccer player. I have loved and played that sport since I was U6. Started as a goalie, channeling my grandfather Mike Wall’s, aka Pussyfoot, cat-like movements…or so I thought 😂. At U12 I didn’t like how hard the ball was coming at me from the boys and transitioned out to center mid. I played through university, and was fortunate enough to be part of the CISM (Conseil International du Sport Militaires) team for many years. It is essentially a military national team that competes with other military national teams.

I’m not sure why I’m the only Canadian in a sea of Americans in this picture. Where were my teammates?!?

Sport in general has been a huge part of my life and in my mind it is one of the greatest things the military can offer. I have represented my base in regional and national competitions in volleyball, soccer, hockey and golf, and internationally in soccer. On the civilian side of things I never would have been able to do that. But it’s part of military culture to be fit, to compete, and to be part of a team. I’ve gone to England, the Netherlands, Germany, and the USA for soccer alone. I had the honour of carrying the Canadian flag for the opening ceremonies in Germany at the Military World Soccer Championships in 2012. This is the kind of opportunity the military can offer. I see kids pouring themselves into hockey so they can get a scholarship to go play in the states and get their education. Join the military instead! They’ll cover your education, and your sporting career isn’t limited to university.

Seriously, I am so grateful to the military for what it offered in this regard. It allowed me to establish a sport as a lifetime habit. And sport teaches things. A lot of very meaningful things. I wrote about it here. Please check it out.

Will I find inspiration??

This was my Facebook post from almost two weeks ago, at the tail end of a work trip to Germany that was life changing in some ways. I finished this book on the plane ride home and it resulted in this blog. I applied his advice of “do something.”

Next up? Will I find equal inspiration? I can only hope!!