In Their Shoes
“No leader is perfect, and don’t try to be.”
– Sarah Patchem Cipov ’98.
“Risk is necessary for growth …”
– Hillary P. Britch-Hedberg ’07.
“It can be lonely at the top, but the friends that stick by you while you’re regimental commander are your true friends for life”
– Alison M. Lanz ’10.
“Know going into this position that not a single one of your decisions will make everyone happy.”
– Regan C. Steen ’15.
When Erin Gats ’17 assumed command of the Norwich University Corps of Cadets this fall, she became the fifth woman to step into those shoes—and they’re big shoes to fill. By some magical serendipity, the first initials of the women to occupy the top spot in the Corps, when placed in chronological order, spell the word SHARE. It seemed too fortuitous a coincidence to pass up. So we asked the four who came before to convey their experiences, insights, and advice, providing Erin a glimpse of what it will mean to stand in their shoes.
The following is what they shared.
Who at Norwich influenced you the most, and why?
Many people influenced me, and they are all important. The Rev for helping me gain perspective. Electrical engineering professor Dennis Tyner for teaching us to think about concepts—not memorize—and that our failures are learning opportunities for future success. My peers for teaching me about teamwork and all the complexities of working together. Marine Colonel Robert Beaudoin for teaching me to focus on the job and to be strong when others doubted me. Overall, Norwich provided me a great place to learn who I am and grow into the leader I wanted to become.
The faculty and staff were so supportive at Norwich, from my swim coach to my ROTC instructors, to my professors. My go-to mentor was always Colonel Russ Holden ’73. He was there to listen, hear out my thought process, and offer guidance. He didn’t just tell me what to do—he guided and supported me in the decisions I made as regimental commander. The Rev was also a constant sounding board. He provided a calm place to visit, and is special to me because he was the officiant for my wedding!
There are so many people at Norwich who proved a positive influence—between the criminal justice professors, commandants, Army ROTC cadre, and fellow cadets—that it is hard to name any one individual. However, Colonel Russ Holden ’73 had a profound impact on my development as a leader in both the Corps of Cadets and as an Army officer. He taught me to be a more flexible and creative leader, something that significantly helped me during my deployment to Afghanistan. Also [the late] Peg Meyer, who sadly left us way too early, encouraged me to live each day like it’s my last and enjoy every moment. It is so rare to meet someone with such zest for life! Most important, it is the culture and atmosphere that is so unique to Norwich that provided the greatest influence on my life.
I had many influential role models who helped shape me during my time at Norwich, but my mentor and chemistry professor, Natalia Blank, made the greatest impact. She pushed me to challenge myself in ways that made me see what I was actually capable of. As a strong female role model in the field of science, she inspired me to be a better leader and always seek out ways to continue to expand my knowledge.
What was the most valuable lesson you took from Norwich and how has it played out in your life?
Team first, Corps first … It’s not about the leader; it’s about the team you support. Whether the team is an 800-plus-person cadet corps, a 30-person navy-operations team, or an 8-person sourcing team, the job of a leader is to take care of your people so that the team can accomplish the mission and do great things.
Before Norwich, I wasn’t much of a risk-taker; if I wasn’t sure I would succeed at something, I didn’t want to risk doing it. Norwich changed that. Being willing to accept risk and try things I wasn’t comfortable with was probably the most important lesson I learned on the Hill, and is one that carries on today. Whether it’s as simple as speaking in front of a large group of people, to accepting an assignment that scares you, risk is necessary for growth, and that’s usually where you’ll see the biggest rewards.
Norwich physically and mentally prepares you for life’s greatest challenges. The most valuable lesson I learned from my time at Norwich was the ability to overcome adversity. Between rookdom, MCW, and Army FTXs, marching around the UP with a heavy drum, the cold winters, and CJ professor Stan Shernock’s senior seminar, there isn’t much life can throw at you that you haven’t already overcome at Norwich. During my deployment in the mountains of Afghanistan, we lived for months without running water, showers, toilets, etc. When it snowed and I was freezing, I reminded myself it was colder than this on a Norwich Army FTX. When I was on long combat patrols and had to think on my feet, I was grateful for the miles I endured walking in the gutter while not being able to look around, yet was still expected to recognize and greet my cadre. It’s amazing how walking in the gutter can improve your peripheral vision in a combat zone. How about the mountain across the street called Paine? Seriously … Paine? I found that this mountain was only used to induce pain, mainly by cadre and the Army ROTC department.
Life requires balance. As regimental commander, you learn to balance your academic requirements, ROTC commitments, personal relationships, and your responsibilities. It taught me the art of prioritization, time management, and delegation.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as regimental commander, and how did you overcome it?
Leading through change. Change is difficult for organizations, and people react to it in many ways. For me, I focused on my job, the people in the Cadet Corps, and my academics. I did not focus on the negative reactions to the change, though I did learn to acknowledge the diversity of opinions and help move the culture toward the new reality. Stay positive! My regimental commander experience helped me in my first Navy job in a way I could not have anticipated. I am honored to be part of a group of women who were first on Navy combat ships in 1998. At the time, I did not recognize the importance for women who participated in these events. Today, I dream of a world where my daughter is asked, What is it like to be a leader? And for there to be no expectation for her job choice based on gender.
One of the biggest challenges as regimental commander is juggling the many competing demands placed upon you. Like so many students, I was balancing athletics with academics, but with the added time commitment of being the regimental commander. Being open about the challenges helped; there were times I would have to tell my coach I needed to miss practice, or times I asked my professors for an extension. Sometimes you can’t handle it all, and I found that there was always someone willing to help when asked.
I was the regimental commander when the Corps was getting away from the “original company” model and moving into its current structure, with a published recognition date for rooks and a standardized task list to achieve recognition. My absolute greatest challenge was to successfully represent the feelings of my fellow cadets to the administration, and vice versa. Leading change is never easy, but I believe it’s harder at Norwich, where we are so rooted in our amazing history and tradition. When the chow hall transitioned from the sturdy green fiberglass food trays to the flimsy black plastic ones, you would think the world had ended. (How are we going to use these flimsy plastic trays for sledding?) You can never please everyone, but in time, I believe my regimental staff and I did a great job convincing the Corps that the change would be for the best and that a standardized recognition would allow for better adherence to our standards. At the end of the day, the Corps of Cadets survived!
The biggest challenge I faced was dealing with the conflicts between what some students perceived to be important traditions and the safety of fellow cadets. I learned that the vast majority of cadets ultimately do make the well-being of other students a top priority, and issues that come up can be fixed by focusing on the culture we create, beginning with the rook experience.
Erin Gats stepped into the top Corps job just this fall. Imagine you could go back to where she is now and give yourself some advice and a hint of what to expect. What would you say?
I would sum it up with part of a quote, which cadets should recognize: “To thine own self be true.” You have to learn who you are as a leader and what kind of leader you want to be. There will be many challenges presented to you in life, and how you react is your choice. Stay strong to your principles, even when it goes against popular opinion. No leader is perfect, and don’t try to be. Find others within the team that are smart and can help compensate for your weaknesses, then trust and empower your team. Don’t forget your academics!
Embrace the opportunity that’s been given to you. You’ll be questioned often and harshly by your peers, but don’t back down if you know you’re doing the right thing. Try new things, make mistakes, brush yourself off, and learn from your failures. Most important, enjoy your senior year. You’ll be under a microscope, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fun with the people who will be your lifelong friends.
First and foremost— have fun! This is your last year with some of the best friends you will ever have. Make time to be yourself and relax with your rook buddies! Expect to be put in tough situations by some of your friends. It can be lonely at the top, but the friends that stick by you while you’re regimental commander are your true friends for life. Humble yourself and take the time to talk to your Corps. Have conversations with rooks and other underclassmen—it is important for you to understand what is important to them. You are their leader and you must be able to convey their feelings and ideas to the Commandant’s Office. Pick your battles, especially with your fellow seniors. Nothing is black and white! Remember that you commission as an O-1 and your time as regimental commander is a great opportunity for your fellow officers to plug pictures of you with seven chevrons into every PowerPoint presentation. Seriously, though, be proud of what you have accomplished and enjoy!
Know going into this position that not a single one of your decisions will make everyone happy. It will be your responsibility to base all of your decisions on what you truly believe will be best for your fellow cadets and the Corps as a whole. Never forget that you will always have your peers in leadership positions around you to provide insight and advice. Most important, have fun with what you’re doing. It will be over before you know it.