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USACE’s first female brigadier general talks leadership with district staff

Published Feb. 1, 2019

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ first female general officer, retired Brig. Gen. Margaret Burcham spoke at a professional development session for leaders, where she talked authority, communication, effectiveness, influence, rapport, skill and values with the Louisville District staff Jan. 29 in the Mazzoli Federal Building.

This engagement allowed personnel to learn more about becoming leaders and developing the workforce. 

A 1982 West Point graduate, Congress appointed Burcham to the rank of brigadier general in 2011, and she pinned on one-star in January of 2012. 

This opportunity bloomed from a relationship cultivated when a young leader was inspired and reached out. 

“This was huge, especially for someone like me,” said Col. Antoinette Gant, Louisville District commander, as a part of her introduction of Burcham. “… I just wrote this letter, and I said, ‘Hey ma’am, I know we have never met, but I think it is an honor for you to be the first female engineer general officer. Thank you for what you are doing."

Burcham responded and the relationship developed as Burcham returned an interest in Gant’s military career as well.

According to Burcham leveraging the expertise of others is important to building relationships and is a vital component of leadership. 

“Immediately build a relationship with your people,” Burcham said. “Understand who people are, their values, and why we care. There is no one who is unimportant.”

As a part of the interaction, the group discussed 10 key skills or traits a good leader should have, and Burcham focused the conversation on three: values, communication and relationship building, and then she and other leaders around the room proffered the things they’ve learned in their years as leaders.

“Values guide my personal conduct … trusting someone solves half the problem,” Burcham said. “If you hire the right people, they’ll run your company for you.”

Using good communication skills helps to build relationships, too and creates a welcoming environment for coaching, teaching and mentoring. 
With communication, leaders should be slow to speak and quick to listen in order to understand, added Chris Karem, environmental branch chief. For it’s important to listen first, get understanding, and then respond.

A contract specialist with the district, April Judd expressed that there is a lot to be gained from both receiving and giving mentorship; in fact, this is one of her Leadership Development Program II goals.  

“I truly leave each of my mentor sessions with a sense of accomplishment and motivation,” Judd said. “My mentor assures me that our time together is mutually beneficial, and as I grow in my career I hope that others will continue to allow me the opportunity to mentor them.”

Louisville District deputy commander, Lt. Col. Kevin Lewis agreed and added that good leaders use their personal stumbling blocks as path stones for those that follow.

“Lift as we climb – that is my personal mantra,” Lewis said. “I have several mentees, and one of my main goals is to help them achieve their full potential. Another aim is to help them avoid some of the many mistakes that I made.”

Leaders come with different styles and aptitudes, but Burcham said everyone must work to become better. 

“You’ve got to practice leadership – it is a skill,” Burcham said. “You can learn it, but it’s going to take work. It’s something I have to work at all the time.”

Lewis agreed and added that the work put into leadership pays in dividends.

“Strong leadership is essential to any organization functioning efficiently and effectively,” Lewis said. “It’s an on-going process.”