Retired Air Force brigadier general: 'Vulnerability can end up a strength'
Dana H. Born, the first woman to be presidentially appointed to lead faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy, visited Elon on Feb. 11, 2014, to offer leadership lessons through class visits and an evening talk.
Here’s what most people already know about retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dana H. Born: She was the first woman to lead the faculty of the U.S. Air Force Academy, she commanded the 11th Mission Support Squadron at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and she served as aide to the Secretary of the Air Force.
Her numerous awards include the Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. After leaving the Air Force last year, she joined the faculty of Harvard University as a lecturer in public policy.
That’s what Born calls her “public narrative.”
Her “private narrative?” She was initially placed in special education classes as a child until her mother discovered ways to help her overcome a learning disability. And as one of the earliest women to enroll at the Air Force Academy in the late 1970s, it was difficult to form friendships with other female cadets like the one she shared with her older sister growing up in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
For Born, it’s this part of her life that helps build trust with others. It makes her more human, more authentic, and it’s the type of information that she believes leaders should share more often in their daily lives. Unfortunately, she told a Whitley Auditorium audience on Tuesday, the “private narrative” is something people hide.
“We’re risk-averse about that element of who we are,” Born said. “We need to ask ourselves, 'why is that such a scary thing? And what does that mean as far as leadership and trust and vulnerability, and weakness and strength?'”
Sponsored by the Center for Leadership, a campus visit on Feb. 11, 2014, brought Born to College Coffee, two separate classes for guest lectures, and lunch with military veterans who work at the university, among other activities.
It was the evening lecture, titled "Living a Legacy: Leadership and Character Development," where she opened up about the anxieties and fears of growing up a middle child in a close-knit New York town. She learned from those formative experiences that overcoming challenges created a sense of “what’s next” in her attitude.
If she could memorize the lines of a play, which her mother made her do because of the auditory ways in which Born best learns, could she accomplish other feats? Could she run track? Cross country? Could she attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and later scale many of the highest peaks in the state?
The answer was yes. Because she shares her personal stories, Born said, it helps her messages resonate to younger audiences just now developing their own leadership skills. And it was her own mother who inadvertently taught Born about the strength of “private narratives.”
After her appointment to lead the Air Force Academy faculty, Born’s mom disclosed to a reporter her daughter’s early learning disabilities. Born was first mortified. But as people started asking her about the disability and sharing their own journeys, Born recognized how she had, in fact, been hiding her true self.
Being open about her life has served her well ever since.
“It’s amazing how vulnerability can end up being a strength in the story of our passions,” she said. “What inspires me now is taking the skids off of people, the things that limit you, or taking the skids off what people are putting out for others ... and helping you be your best self.”
Born graduated with distinction from the U.S. Force Academy in 1983 and today holds two master’s degrees (Trinity University and University of Melbourne) and a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology from Penn State University. She currently teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
In her closing remarks, Born challenged Elon University students to find their calling in life and strive to change the world.
“Each of us is passionate about something,” she said. “Linking that passion to creating a commitment for a purpose is key to unlocking the future and changing the world.”