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Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general, reflects on career

Not once in her 37-year career in the U.S. Army did Ann Dunwoody have a female commanding officer.

Every step of the way — from her first day to her retirement in 2012 — she reported to a man.

Of course, that's probably not surprising, considering that when Dunwoody joined the Army, women were relegated to the Women's Army Corps.

A lot changed in 37 years.

In 2008, Dunwoody became the first woman promoted to four-star general in U.S. military history. Her role was to oversee the Army's logistical arm, a force of 69,000 soldiers and civilians with a budget that would have put it among the largest 50 companies in the country.

As she climbed the Army ladder, many of those men helped her tremendously.

But Dunwoody — who is the fourth generation of her family to serve in the Army — also encountered male supervisors who were not pleased that a woman was climbing with such vigor.

After retiring, Dunwoody wrote A Higher Standard, which chronicles her life and career. She tells stories of fellow military leaders — men and women — who inspired and mentored her. She does not gloss over the challenges she faced in such a male-dominated institution.

Though a memoir, the book is very much a manual for business leaders. Dunwoody offers a variety of advice, from how to not let people slide to embracing diversity.

Dunwoody, 62, and her husband, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, moved to Tampa three years ago, partly to be close to her father, Hal Dunwoody, who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and inspired his daughter. He died last month at age 96.

A featured speaker at Saturday's Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Dunwoody talked to the Times last week.

You write a lot about your love for the Army. You have four generations of West Pointers in your family, after all. But you also talk about some dark times — a subordinate who got in trouble for having affairs, a colleague who was addicted to pain pills and, of course, the dealings you had with gender discrimination. Was it difficult for you to come to terms with writing about those episodes that occurred in an institution for which you have such affection?

Yes. I didn't skip along the yellow brick road. I had a lot of great things happen and I had challenges, just like anyone in any career. But to talk about it — especially with a great institution like the military and the Army where incidents like these are exceptions, but they still occur — it's harder to talk about those things because you always want to talk about the great things. And so, yes, I really had to dig deep and share the realities.

Some would say speaking openly about those things — those difficult, challenging, negative issues — is a sign of leadership. Do you agree?

Absolutely. I think you can pretend those things don't exist, but the reality is they do. So you hope other people can learn from the same kind of lessons I learned along the way and benefit from my experiences. The whole book was about things that helped me be successful and how to be a better leader.

The book is a blend of memoir and leadership manual. Where do you think it's resonating most?

It's a small publisher, so it hasn't had a lot of exposure yet, but it's had a variety of readers from young people to small-business people to CEOs. Because the message is good leaders never stop learning no matter where you are. I put myself in that category. I hope I never stop learning. And we've had people from the business arena who have read the book and there's tips for them.

When it comes to diversity, how much did the Army improve during your career?

It was almost four decades that I got to witness the changes that took place in this great institution. The integration of blacks. The integration of women. The integration of gays. The opening of so many opportunities and doors for women that I witnessed. Nothing happens overnight. Change is not easy. But it's for the better to leverage the talent that exists in this great country of ours.

Like a lot of people who are first at being something, you seem a little uncomfortable about being labeled as the first female four-star general. How have you contended with that?

Yes (laughs). You try not to focus on the gender part of it. My journey was more about leadership than gender. I like to think I was selected for things because I was best qualified and not because I was a woman. And if I thought I was chosen because I was female, I would have turned it down, I know.

A lot of your work in the Army was in logistics, which I would think is a part of the military that works a lot like a business.

Absolutely. My last command, particularly, which was 69,000 people. It was a global organization. It was a $60 billion budget that you're managing and that's just like a business. You have to manage and be efficient. If you think about how it compares to Coca-Cola, it's a similar size, but they're not getting shot at when they deliver their product. I think our leadership challenges are the same: How do you diversify your workforce … how to build a bench, how you create a positive work environment. Whether you're in the military or running a business, the challenges are similar.

You write in the book about a few times you had to get around people who were hesitant to embrace change. You bruised some toes.

If you're in a popularity contest, you're not going to get a whole lot done.

Having lived in Tampa for three years, what have you noticed about the business leadership here and what do you think of the area?

What we're excited about is the growth and energy of making Tampa and St. Pete the go-to place, bringing in more business, modernizing, upgrading and making this place a choice. It's a wonderful city that's continuing to grow.

Contact Chris Tisch at Follow @Christisch1.

Hear Dunwoody talk about her book

Gen. Ann Dunwoody will be a featured author at the free Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Saturday on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She will speak at 2:45 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom. Get more information at

Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general, reflects on career 10/16/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2015 7:10pm]
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