Maryland National Guard reached a history-making milestone last year by becoming the first-ever to be led by all-female leadership.
Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, said she knew she wanted to “build the bench” with the brightest talent available. Her personnel decisions put the unit on a path to become the first of the 54 to have an all-female command staff.
Singh, along with Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, assistant adjutant general for Army, Brig. Gen. April Vogel, assistant adjutant general for Air Command, and Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa Wilson, senior enlisted leader, lead roughly 6,000 personnel across the state.
Despite the historic significance, Singh is quick to point out that these women were chosen for their skills, not gender. She doesn’t shy away from the symbolism, though, of being able to empower and embolden younger generations coming up through the ranks. In many ways, Singh said she has always looked at the bigger picture, whether that’s choosing leaders or a direction for her own life.
The Maryland-native is a success story all on her own. Singh dropped out of high school and once lived homeless on the very streets she now oversees. Looking back, she credits her recruiter with providing the step up she needed at that moment in her life.
“I would say that I didn’t really know that I wanted this to be my path, this long,” she said. “I think when you start out in the military you think, ‘oh, I’m just going to do it for a couple of years and then I’m gonna be done,’ and for me, you know this was an opportunity that kind of came into the path at a time that I really needed something that was a shining light.”
Singh says at the time of her enlistment roughly 37 years ago, she was just looking for a way to make money and learn a skill. She never anticipated it would turn into a long-term career with a commissioning to become an officer.
“I joined the National Guard in Maryland, 1981. And so now to be the commander — or the adjutant general for the Maryland Guard — is truly amazing. It’s been an amazing journey,” she said.
Her experience as a prior-enlisted soldier helps her to now think about the impact of her decisions on the ground level.
“If I’m thinking about x, how’s that going to be perceived down at the bottom? I’m always thinking about that. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change the decision that I make … it just means I want to take in all aspects,” she said.
When Singh came into her role as adjutant general in 2015, her priority was to build a robust team of excellence – in her experience that starts with diversity.
“When I think of the depth of the bench that I want to build, it’s ensuring that I have a bench that is diverse, not just in terms of the people but in terms of their capabilities; in terms of their thinking,” Singh said. “The one thing that I learned after working in private industry for so many years is that if you want to have the best of the best – the best team – then you need to have that diverse set of capabilities.”
And now that proverbial bench is not only filled with female leaders at the top, who also share a commonality of being mothers.
For Birckhead, who initially served with the Army Reserve then received an appointment to the Maryland Army National Guard in 1994, being a part of this historic moment is not lost on her. She has spent a lot of time reflecting on its meaning and the role she plays in it.
“One of the things that I do is I’m always reflecting. At the end of the day I do a 360, like ‘what did Janeen do today, what could I have done better, who did I affect,’ but bigger picture when you think about how long the National Guard has existed, when you think about how many soldiers have gone through – to think about that this is the first time that we have been able to align (all-female leadership), this it’s really striking.”
She adds that seeing other women in positions of higher leadership, like Singh, makes the goal seem attainable – a thought she held as she picked up rank. She advises younger soldiers to find people who they, too, can be motivated by.
“I would tell them that they need to have several different mentors, several different role models to follow because one path may not be the single path. And seek those opportunities, people just need to know you’re looking,” Birckhead said. “And don’t be so hard on yourself, women especially do that, you’re going to face setbacks. Everybody does.”
She also hopes that others in position of influence will broaden their perspective on who they take under their guidance.
“It takes, as they know, more than 20 years to grow a general officer. So, it’s easy to take those people that got it all going on, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of those things we think about when we think of diversity,” she said. “It’s easy to take that person and prop them up and say ‘see, this is my mentee,’ but I would encourage them to go after the diamonds in the rough because diamonds are hard and those are the ones we want to shine up and say, this is my legacy to leave behind.”Read comments