"Solution-Focused Leadership" with former CIA & FBI Operations Agent Tracy Walder

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[Episode Transcript]

Solution-Focused Leadership with Tracy Walder

MAJ. CATHERINE ROY: Thank you for joining us for this episode of the VMI Leader Journey. I am your host, Major Catherine Roy, communications and marketing specialist for the Center for Leadership and Ethics. Our guest is former CIA and FBI operations agent Tracey Walder. She is also the author of The Unexpected Spy: from the CIA to the FBI My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World's Most Notorious Terrorists. I got to meet Miss Walder during her visit to VMI as our third Courageous Leaders Speaker for 2022. There will be a link to her talk on our YouTube channel in the description of the episode below. During our conversation, we discussed her experiences working in the male-dominated world of national security, her leadership competencies, and how she was able to take hold of her own destiny through perseverance, determination, and education. She now devotes her time being an upstander for women and gender equality in the workplace through her work as a high school teacher, college professor, and board member. She writes curriculum and uses her voice and inspires many young women to pursue careers in national security. I hope today's episode will inspire you to face circumstances and challenges in your own life, as our title suggests, with a solution-focused mindset. Subscribe, share, and like this episode so we know how we're doing. And now to today's episode with Ms. Tracy Walter.

TRACY WALDER: My name is Tracy Walder. I am the first woman, the only woman right now to have served on the operations side of both the CIA and the FBI. And now I am currently an educator. I teach criminal justice and terrorism and one of my main goals is to change the gender gap in national security and in law enforcement.

ROY: What was your background that brought you to that career?

WALDER: So, a lot of times I get asked, you know, did you always want to work in the CIA? And the blunt answer is, why would I? You know, I was to kind of orient the time I was born in the seventies and, you know, grew up then. And we didn't have pop culture like students do today. You know, we didn't have Homeland and Criminal Minds and all those fun shows. And so, for me, I had no exposure, really, to the CIA. The CIA, for me, was this sort of nebulous organization that worked a lot of issues concerning Russia. I think that was really the context of which I viewed the CIA. I really became interested in counterterrorism, though. I remember the specific year was 1997, and Osama bin Laden did his first interview with the West or Western News Station, which was CNN at the time. And in that interview, is where he issued his fatwa or declaration of war against the United States. And I sort of started to become curious. And I think for me, that was a really pivotal turning point. I went to college to be a history major with the intent of being a high school history teacher. And I think from there, I sort of decided to take a different path. I got very interested in terrorism, but really didn't know, which sounds silly now, who worked it and where I could learn about it and how I could get a job doing it. But that's sort of the long way of how I got into that career.

ROY: Hmm. Was, were there courses in criminal justice back then?

WALDER: So back at that time, you know, I went to USC, which I think is a great school. I loved it. But, you know, this was the mid-nineties. The kind of closest course you could take on terrorism was really international studies or international affairs.

ROY: Right.

WALDER: I took Introduction to Islam. I wanted to learn about you know, even though I do not think that bin Laden is a Muslim in the standard sense, I wanted to learn about what this was. I had never been exposed to it at all. And I started taking Middle Eastern history classes. And so, I didn't change my major. I was still a history major, but I was able to find classes that fit my curiosity and, you know, like I said, the school I went to was great. We just didn't, there weren't criminal justice and, and terrorism classes because it in a strange way, international terrorism didn't almost exist at that time. It didn't affect us at that time.

ROY: Right. Right. Not in such a deeply personal way like it does now.

WALDER: No, absolutely not.

[music break]

ROY: In college, as you were taking those courses, did any of your professors kind of pick up that you had maybe an interest in that? Did you have any mentors there?

WALDER: So interestingly, in college, not as much. The only mentor that I had is one that actually didn't necessarily get me interested in terrorism but helped me realize that there were other applications of my degree. So, you know, when I went to college, I thought it maybe I was a little naive. You know, you go you get your major in history. And then the only thing that you can do with it is be a high school history teacher, which was fine with me because that's what I wanted to do. But the dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences at the time was a professor in one of my classes, Intro to Economics and I was really struggling in that class. Yes. And so, I had.

ROY: A lot of people do!

WALDER: And that meeting, in a strange way, really changed the trajectory a bit of my life because afterward he kind of asked me a question, you know, what do you want to be when you grow up? You know? And I said, well, I'm a history major. I become a history teacher. That's what I do. And he said.

ROY: That's the one path.

WALDER: I mean, if that's what you want to do, great. But let me give you just some ideas of things that you can let me, let me print some things out. And so, he did it, stapled it together, and I walked out of his office with that and I started looking at it. I'm like, wow, these things sound interesting. And so, I didn't really check off what I saw myself doing in the future. I started applying for internships at some of the things I found interesting. So, I interned at the Museum of Natural History, which is very close to USC's campus. Catalogued the artifacts wrote that all descriptions, loved it. I interned for a senator in Washington D.C., - loved it. And so, I think that opened my eyes to the fact that I didn't have to pigeonhole myself. You know, just write in this major right in that major. So, my international studies teachers, it's not that they weren't interested in helping me. I don't think that there was a path at that time that they could have recommended that I followed.

ROY: Hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah. There's a there are a lot of things that you can do with any given...

WALDER: Absolutely!

ROY: major. And I do think as a young person, I remember myself thinking, okay, well, this seems like the logical way or that seems like the logical thing. But you know, if you're liberal arts majors, there's tons of things.

WALDER: There's so many things!

ROY: With that degree. I'm not sure if the teaching has changed so much where there's more of an emphasis on critical thinking that could be a part of it. Or people are just saying, maybe because it's not the thing anymore to get a job and retire from that same employer.

WALDER: Absolutely.

ROY: You know, so people I think, are being more creative with what they do with their education.

WALDER: 100%. And I think that that speaks as well to something I'm passionate about, which is actually the development of soft skills versus hard skills. And I think a lot of times I'll get asked, particularly by college students, you know, what do I need to take? What do I need to major in? What language do I need to speak to get this job at the CIA?  And it's really not that, that formulaic. I think as humans not to get all, you know, sociological on you, but as humans, we like to know how something is attained. So, that way we can like work towards that. We want that information.

ROY: If there's a process, there's a path, and there's a checkbox.

WALDER: That feels good. Yeah, that feels really good. And it's not to discourage people from those careers. It's actually to give people hope that those careers can be for them. Because I didn't get the job at the CIA because I had taken you know, every terrorism class known to man, and none of those were available. I didn't get the job because I spoke another language. The languages they were looking for at that time were actually Spanish and Russian. So I don't speak either of those those are not the reasons that I got the job. Yes, I had a good GPA. I went to USC on a full ride 'cause my dad was a professor and if... the only way we could afford to stay there was for me to get good grades. So that was good pressure.

ROY: A little motivation.Yeah.

WALDER: So yes, I had a good GPA, but I think that would motivate a lot of people to have a good GPA. So, other than that, I don't know exactly what I brought to the table. And I don't think the CIA will ever, you know, explicitly tell me

ROY: Right.

WALDER: but I always take time to reflect. Right on what that did. And one thing I do know about myself and one thing about the CIA, you can't come to the CIA with those hard skills. How are you going to prepare yourself? I worked weapons of mass destruction in the counterterrorism center. There's no class I could have taken. Right? To prepare myself for that, however, I did have active listening skills. I did have critical thinking skills. I did have empathy. I did have a lot of problem-solving, conflict management… I know that those were well developed in me.

ROY: Yeah.

WALDER: And so I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of soft skills because there's so much focus on the hard skills.

ROY: I think that's starting to shift a little bit.

WALDER: I do too. I completely agree.

ROY: Yes. So, when I was in college, either I was blissfully ignorant or just wasn't aware of it. But you didn't have leadership classes.

WALDER: Absolutely not.

ROY: And so those are the, the soft skills or it's at least an exposure to, you know, what soft skills make, what kind of leader. So, the LEAD344 course did you visit a section of the…?

WALDER: I did not.

ROY: OK that's under the auspices of the center. Colonel Gray, our director is the director of that program. But it's a diverse group of professors with different backgrounds and different experiences that teach those courses. And so, it's just A to Z, a catalog of all kinds of leadership theories. Depending on who you have, you're going to do a profile of someone and then identify which type of leader they were or what type of leadership they exercise. So it's interesting that you didn't... this... How did you get exposure to the soft skills or did you, you know, was it through your training once you got hired?

WALDER: So, I don't... That's a great question. I don't think it was from my training because when I reflect on the questions that I was asked through the interview process, or, you know, through the different steps, they were trying to see if I had those skills.

ROY: Oh, uh-huh.

WALDER: That's what they were trying to see. And I never took a leadership class. I was never viewed as a leader by really anyone most of my life. And, and it's not I was just always, you know, I was bullied pretty horrifically. I was as a result; I was an introvert. I was very shy. I just really wanted to fly as low under the radar as possible.

ROY: Yeah. So, you wouldn't be a target?

WALDER: Absolutely. But I do think as awful as that bullying was, as awful as the developmental disability that I had was maybe some of that actually contributed to having some of those soft skills. And then they were brought out more as a result of me, you know, being in the agency.

ROY: Plus, I would think that would help you if you're working in covert operations.

WALDER: 100%.

ROY: Flying under the radar is probably a good, a good mindset to have!

WALDER: Yeah.

ROY: Let's not be the boisterous, you know, charismatic person out here. That's not, not really the way you want to go. So, you mentioned that you're currently teaching high school. Is that right?

WALDER: So, I teach both high school and college.

ROY: Do you have a preference of age group?

WALDER: Oh gosh...

ROY: Or is it kind of cool to see the progression?

WALDER: It's kind of cool to see the progression, to be honest. I know I like kind of the upper levels. Like no one wants me teaching elementary school ever to any child, so I know that that's not my preference, but I love high school. I've been doing that for quite some time and I designed a course on national security and foreign policy for, um, I taught at an all-girls school for females and what, what was really cool was I did an event for my book at the Spy Museum.

ROY: Oh cool! I've been there.

WALDER: Yes, it's fantastic.

ROY: It is cool.

WALDER: About 45 of my students who have now gone into careers in law enforcement, the military, national security, foreign policy all surprised me there. And it was really...

ROY: Oh, wow!

WALDER: Cool to see that, you know, I did that.

ROY: Yeah!

WALDER: Exposing them to these careers did that. And, you know, I have students at the Naval Academy, students at Norway, students... liberal... Washington and Lee, you know, all over. But a lot of them are wanting to pursue these careers. And I think that's a really neat thing to be able to see.

ROY: Yeah, I think that bombarding those agencies with a lot of female applicants, that might have an impact. We'll see if it does or not. So what kind of leader are you would you say? Even, because... what I've been following is I'm pretty active on LinkedIn, for example, and there are a lot of people posting and talking about introverts being good, the ability of introverts to be a good leader. And so you're a self-professing introvert. How would you describe, or can you characterize the kind of leader you are and why do you think you're that kind?

WALDER: So, my dad calls me the watcher which I know sounds creepy, but in a weird way. But I think that is the kind of leader that I am is that I am the watcher and I'm extremely perceptive. I can gauge people who they are and about 2 seconds, which I don't know if that's good or bad, I think that is the kind of leader that I am. And I think I misunderstood growing up what a leader was supposed to be. I thought that the leader was the person who was always front and center-right, was always the loudest, was always and that's that's, there's so many different types of leaders. And I didn't...

ROY: Yes.

WALDER: know, when I was younger, what that meant. And so I always said, oh, I'm not a leader. I'm a follower. And I think to this day, I still don't necessarily view myself as a leader. Aside from being a watcher. I think I'm also a teacher. And I think teachers are leaders. If you think about it.

ROY: Well, you're influencing.

WALDER: Yes.

ROY: So, that is the definition of leadership is to influence others. 

WALDER:Yeah. I think so. And I think also by watching, I'm also influencing behavior because I'm taking it all in which maybe that is their introvert kind of side helping me out. But I would say those are really kind of the two things that I look at.

ROY: So, as somebody who is very observant. Would you say you're detail-oriented?

WALDER: So that's a good question

ROY: Because I know you did lots of map reading and all that stuff.

WALDER: Yes and no. I'm detail-oriented to a certain extent. Sometimes I think this is just personal, so I don't want to upset anyone who is super detail-oriented. Well, you can get too caught up in the details.

ROY: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

WALDER: and not see, sort of, the bigger picture. So I am detailed oriented, but I do have kind of a hard stop when I see that it's maybe hindering moving forward, hindering making a decision, right? You just kind of have to make decisions than whatever details there are that you've gathered.

ROY: So engineers, for example, would tell you, don't let perfection get in the way of.

WALDER: Yes.

ROY: Putting a product out there.

WALDER: Yes.

ROY: So, you know, so yeah, I mean, even as somebody... I do some graphic design and you're like, I'm just not getting the wow factor yet.

WALDER: I'm not a perfectionist.

ROY: Yeah, I'm not I wouldn't say I'm a perfectionist either. But yeah, that can get in the way of getting things done. So, you said so you're a watcher, you like to observe. Would you say you’re kind of discerning? You say you can kind of character, you know, size somebody up pretty quickly.

WALDER: It has gotten so bad. Well, I don't know if this is bad or good that my husband in hiring staff at his practice,

ROY: Oh, funny.

WALDER: will be like, can you just meet them like real quick and just like let me know what I should do. And it always… like I this is going to sound strange, but I and I don't know if this is good or bad because you don't want to be a judgmental person. I don't think I am. I don't judge people for the lives they lead or the decisions that they make.

ROY: Well, you're not making a value decision.

WALDER: Correct. I'm just probably making a decision as whether or not I should trust you, whether or not where you fit in best in a specific role. Like I can make those judgments very quickly.

ROY: That's actually quite a skill to have because...

WALDER: I don't know how I got it.

ROY: So many people struggle with or their organization struggles with having people in the right spot.

WALDER: 100%.

ROY: So, you know, is this person, you know, maybe they have a certain skill, but organizationally, should they be on the lower end? Should they be on the entry-level end or should they be middle management or higher? So yeah, I think that that is a tremendous skill that people are recognizing is, is key.

WALDER: Mm-hmm. I would say my biggest downfall probably as a leader is I, I'm not a perfectionist, which I like that about myself. I am overly obsessed probably with being fair. And that can lead to problems because when things are unfair, I get upset. Right. And so, it's things aren't going to always be fair. And so, it's one of those things that's a tough road to walk.

ROY: Do you have an example of where something you thought was just unfair and it kind of prevented you from?

WALDER: No...

ROY: Anything?

WALDER: Not particularly.

ROY: But just do you stress over it then?

WALDER: I don't stress over it being fair for myself. What'll happen is, is it carries into the classroom or for my students, I want to be as fair as possible. And sometimes it goes wrong, and fairness gets taken advantage of or, you know, like those kinds of things are where I see issues sometimes.

ROY: So, would you say it's a fairness where you're trying to make opportunity accessible to your students?

WALDER: I try to, but you can never always do it.

ROY: Yeah, there's some, you know, students I find... as the mom of three boys, you know, you do have to just say, listen, Junior, you just have to memorize that conjugation.

WALDER: It is what it is. Yes.

[music break]

ROY: You mentioned and I've read in your book as well that your goal is really to encourage women and show them that they can work in national security, law enforcement. So talk a minute about how you're going about doing that mentoring and championing women.

WALDER: Sure. But I want to actually back up just a little bit if that's OK? I think one of the things that I want women to really think about is, you know, I think it was Madeline Albright, who said, there's a special place in hell for women who don't support other women.

ROY: Ooh!

WALDER: And I think that's something we need to be doing more of or else we're not going to see equity in certain places where perhaps we are not as visible. I think that that's a huge thing. I ran into that at Quantico you know, with women really just fighting each other, basically. And, you know, how is that helping? You know, the issue.

ROY: As you observed, women, what do you suppose that friction comes from of women not being each other's best advocates?

WALDER: So, in my opinion, I think that that friction actually doesn't come from pettiness. It doesn't come from that. It comes from women just wanting to fit in. So, I think when you get into, you know, VMI, maybe where there's a lower female population, or the FBI, where there's only 19% of women are special agents there, and there's only one of four, there's four women in the class of 40. Right. You want to be perceived as exactly like the males. So, if there is an injustice being done and one woman might stand up for that injustice or might say that you see this, the other women don't want to ride on that train necessarily, because now everyone's turning against her. And so, I think that's actually where I'm I see it personally the most is just wanting to fit in.

ROY: Or fly under the radar.

WALDER: Or fly under the radar.

ROY: I'm not really female, you know, that's not what you're seeing!

WALDER: Because I used to think that, you know, if I, through education, get women to enter you know, these jobs or expose them to it, which is what I am trying to do now. I think the problem, though, is, is if once they're there, they're not uplifting other women, then that's a problem as well.

ROY: Yeah.

WALDER: And that's one of the things that I, I, one of the boards I sit on is called Girl Security, and it's a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. And they are trying to get more women in the pipeline of all different careers... and security-type careers too - cybersecurity to military intelligence. You name it. That's, that's what they do. And it's a pretty amazing organization. It is women helping and supporting and mentoring other women.

[music break]

ROY: We can talk a little bit more about the presence of women. So, when I worked at a company where, it was defense contractors, and so when you would go to a big event, a conference, or a trade show, it was mostly men and you were selling to the military. And most of those decision-makers were also men. And the business I worked for was woman-owned. So, it had certain advantages for contracting. But her thing was that all the, the corporate gear that you would wear at an event was very masculine, unisex, nothing feminine. And so when I came on board, one of the things I did was I was like, I don't want to look like a guy at the events. I'm female and I'm happy to be a woman. I'll dress conservatively, but I like what you said in your book, about, you know, I want if I want to curl my hair, that's OK. I can still do my job and have a nice hairstyle. Were you able to bring that to the workplace? Or do you encourage the girls that you teach to do that?

WALDER: So at CIA, I had no issues bringing that to the workplace whatsoever. FBI was a bit of a different story and I kind of call it performative masculinity that sometimes we have to engage in, which is frustrating. You know we have, I think, a cultural idea of what someone in law enforcement looks like or what someone in the military looks like, and that's fine. There's nothing wrong with being masculine, being feminine, kind of be who you are. My love of all things feminine and femininity does not diminish my intelligence and my ability to get a job done. And when we start to gauge people like that and assume that because they're this, they're this, that's when we run into a problem. And I think that's exactly what happened to me. I am unapologetically feminine. It's who I am. Yes, I dress conservatively, but I have long hair and that the FBI wore my uniform I put my hair in a bun. But I did everything that I was supposed to do. But it was still an issue. And I just I refused to, to change because I'm not going to change as long as I'm following the rules. I'm not going to change who I am as a person and the things that I like to fit whatever your perception of me is supposed to be so that you can digest that better.

ROY: Right. Yeah. That's a reflection of the other person, not you.

[music break]

ROY: Talk a little bit about your decision-making process. So, you were in the FBI and in the book you say 15 months after you had been in there, you resigned your position and then went to start your career as a teacher. When did you know it was the time to get out? That was something that I was never mentored through. I had to figure it out on my own, and sometimes people stay in situations that are detrimental. Some people leave too soon. So, what was that decision-making process like?

WALDER: So, I think I did stay at the FBI far too long after, after everything that happened to me at Quantico, and it was, it was very, very bad. You know, I think I thought when I graduated that everything would be so much better because you're in a different environment. And I think to my decision making I always try not to make rash decisions. Right. Let's get through Quantico. This is a kind of a…

ROY: It's a short period of time.

WALDER: It's tough. It's a short period of time. Maybe people are just crazy because it's you know, it's, it's you're under a lot of pressure. Get out into the field office.

ROY: What year was that?

WALDER: O-five, O-six, six-ish.

ROY: Ok.

WALDER: And you know, graduate from Quantico went into my office. And I think really from day one, the sexual harassment started. And I think I was a little ashamed. And so I never told really anyone what was going on until finally, I would have, like, these biweekly dinners with my dad. My dad is 6' 3" kind of Nordic-looking psychologist but Vietnam vet like so he's, he's quiet and measured. And when I told him something that my boss had said to me, I think he lost his mind. And I don't have it in my book because it's far too graphic. But my dad lost his mind, and he was like, how long has this talk been going on for? Oh, since day one. I had become just completely... I thought this was normal.

ROY: Right. Kinda numb to it.

WALDER: Correct. And even though I was, felt terrible about myself and wasn't happy I just thought that this was how even though this isn't how people behaved at the CIA, I just thought that, wow, this is like a normal way to talk to people. And so...

ROY: Did you think it was an FBI culture thing or did you think it was like really like societal normal?

WALDER: I think I thought maybe it was an FBI cultural thing because I wasn't raised that way.

ROY: Right, yeah.

WALDER: My dad was very, my... I have a great dad and a great mom. And I think I filed a complaint because my dad told me that that's what I should do. And their way to investigate it was to promote my supervisor who made that statement to me and then move me to an office about 5 hours away not paying my expenses.

ROY: Oh, wow.

WALDER: And so it was at that point where I had two choices. I could either take this to like a lawsuit level or I could leave and just move on with my life. And I made the decision to, to, to leave and move on with my life. But it breaks my heart a little bit because, in 2019, I received an email from this woman. A lot of them are for were former Air Force and just great women and it was a 17-woman law, gender discrimination lawsuit against the FBI. And they asked me if I could, you know, help on their behalf. And I think I felt gutted because I thought, wow. I thought this fixed itself. If I would have just done more. If I would have I think I felt a little bit guilty.

ROY: Between that comment and how... some things that you said in your book, it seems like you're the kind of person that takes a lot of responsibility on yourself.

WALDER: Yes.

ROY: Yeah. Would you say that that comes from passion or where do you think that comes from?

WALDER: That's a great question.

ROY: Are you the oldest child?

WALDER: I am the oldest child so that's probably that.

ROY: Umm-hmm.

WALDER: Also, you know, I think and I was going to say this later tonight, but my mom would always just say, you know if you are... this is what Teddy Roosevelt said. If you're complaining without posing a solution, you're whining.

ROY: Yeah.

WALDER: And so, there was this big thing about stop complaining, stop complaining. Do something about it. Do something about it. Do something about it my whole life. And so, I think it's good and bad right at the same time because then you take on too much like personal responsibility, but I think it also made me more of an upstander than a bystander. I think sometimes.

ROY: Oh, that's a great phrase, an upstander rather than a bystander. That's great. Sounds like that requires someone to have some moral courage. So next year, our leadership theme is going to be The Courage of Convictions. And it's definitely about moral courage. Everybody's going in one direction, but you're going to be the dissenting voice standing up for what's right. What are your thoughts on that? You know, where do you find or can you find support or do you just have to accept, hey, I'm the lone voice here?

WALDER: I think moral courage is so scary but so admirable. Right? And it's so essential because the only way and I guess kind of going back to the complaining, I think the only way that you really can pose a solution sometimes is by having that moral courage, right? Because sometimes that solution isn't going to be the most popular thing in the room. And so I think that it's incredibly important. And I think we leaders probably, for the most part, have a higher developed sense of that than others. And I think moral courage is... you're never going to be the popular person. And I think a lot of us, though, want to be that popular person. And want to fit in and want to be a part of the organization. And sometimes it seems like having that moral courage isn't being a part of the organization, but it is. You're actually being incredibly loyal to that organization, kind of what you were talking about before, and trying to, I guess, right a ship.

ROY: Yes. So, the way I've heard that taught that helps me, again, with those templates that that helped me go, OK, this is my muscle memory, here's what I need to do or say or here's how I approach that is really to say, you know what, we're going to be mission-focused here where it's not about our personality. It's really about what's best for the job at hand, the task, the mission. A lot of companies have mission statements, vision statements. I'm a big brand advocate, so when you understand thoroughly the brand or the culture are nicely aligned, you can, I think, stand on that mission focus and have those courageous conversations. That's what helps me.

WALDER: Umm-hmm. I agree.

[music break]

ROY: Our Courageous Leaders speaker series has brought in lots of great folks who are exemplars of citizen leadership. Here at VMI, we say we graduate citizen-soldiers because they've got that military environment, so they do have a sense of that, whether they commission or not. What does citizen leader mean to you?

WALDER: So, I personally love that that's, that that is a focus of, of VMI is I think that it's incredibly important. I think the structure that comes along with it, right? The training that I got at the CIA and the FBI in my opinion, actually make me a better worker, a better teacher, a better person, and a better friend, more so than other folks that didn't get that structure around them. So, I just, I love the idea of citizen-soldier. And I also think sort of goes into that idea of kind of having that strong moral compass and being a moral leader and not being afraid sometimes because you have the foundation of those skills and the confidence to do the right thing.

ROY: Where do you get your moral compass from? Do you have like a certain philosophy of your own? Where would you say that comes from or maybe you don't think you have a strong moral compass, right?

WALDER: No, I know I have a strong moral compass. I don't know that I have a particular saying that I've really used to sort of govern or...

ROY: Or just, you know, what was the influence maybe that provided that that sense of what's right and what's wrong?

WALDER: I would definitely say my parents, I mean, look, they were very strict.

ROY: Oh, yeah?

WALDER: Yes. I said, you know, I look at I have a huge line of military. My great grandparents, my great-grandpa fought in World War One. My, both my grandpas fought in World War Two. My dad and my uncle fought in Vietnam. I mean, I come from a very long line of the military. Yes. And so that structure is really, really important. And I think also in a strange way, not getting too wrapped up in an ego has been very helpful. And in a way, the bullying, I guess, sort of kept that in check. And bullying, I think, strengthened my moral compass because I think I realized you know, at that moment with the bullying, I could have chosen, I think, to go with the bully. Right. But I made a decision not to be a part of their group because they were mean and they bullied me incessantly because of it, right? And I think that strengthened my moral compass because I didn't. I chose the road less traveled a little bit, if you think about it. And I emerged, OK, and you know better. It wasn't fun while it was happening, but I'm glad I did it. So, I think that's, those are sort of the things that have shaped my moral compass.

ROY: So do you ever get the opportunity to talk to kids who are, are bullies or who are being bullied?

WALDER: So I do that pretty much every day...

ROY: Wow.

WALDER: you know, with my students. And, you know, I'm very open about it and I'm very open about what happened to me. Because I think it's really important that we create a place or people who people students can go to to talk about these things.

ROY: Yeah. We've talked a lot, probably over the past couple of years, about the need to well, empathy, which you talked about earlier. And we can only be empathetic if we share our stories. And we can't diminish people who are saying this is the experience that I had. Now, how you interpret the events might not be completely accurate. You might not know what the, you might assume what the other person's motivation was and internalize something from your frame of reference. But talking about it, I think gets it out there because especially if you're talking to someone older and wiser, because the person can go, you know, I don't think that's what was really going on. Maybe it was X or did you think about this. So, sharing, and that's great that you're sharing, you know, what you went through those lived experiences.

[music break]

WALDER: I love my mom and dad very much, but I came from a mom who didn't speak at all about any of her experiences. She believed it wasn't appropriate that you should only speak exactly when you're spoken to and speak whatever the question is at hand. But what I've noticed, even with my own daughter, is she's little, she's in first grade. But when something happens on the four-square court, you know, and it's a big it's the end of the world to her, right? Because your six-and-a-half, that's what you do. But I tell her, you know, when I was seven in this person hit me in the face with the four-square ball, I felt the same way. And I've noticed she responds better to me when I relay that I have been in this same position. You almost feel like, wow, someone gets me and it, it, it takes this, like, a weight off of your shoulders.

ROY: Uh-huh.

WADLER: In a strange way, you don't feel like you're the only one. And so I'm not minimizing everyone to a six-and-a-half-year-old. Like, that's not what I'm saying. But what I found is, is with my students, you know, if I say to them, look, this is the type of bullying that happened to me, and this is, this is what happened and this is it, actually, I can see them almost feel like, wow, OK, I'm not alone., like, she made it out the other side. And I just found that to be extremely helpful.

ROY: Well, thank you so much, Tracy, for your time.

WALDER: Thank you for having me! ROY: So gracious of you to spend your whole day here with us. WALDER: Loved it. VMI is an amazing, amazing place.

ROY: Well, we hope you enjoy your talk this evening. We'll be recording that. So anybody listening to the podcast, I will put a link to Tracy's talk, the video that we're going to get, in the description below so that you can access that.

On behalf of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. We thank the following. Mr. Caleb Minus VMI class of 2020 for the intro and backing music, find more of his musical stylings on his Instagram page at minus official. That's @MYNUSOfficial. Colonel Dave Gray, Ph.D., U.S. Army retired director of the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics. And of course, as always, our podcast guests.

Find this podcast and other CLE programming information on the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics website VMI, dot edu forward-slash CLE. Follow the VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram accounts.

The VMI Center for Leadership and Ethics educates, engages, and inspires the VMI Corps of Cadets, VMI staff, faculty and alumni, and listeners like you. Thanks for tuning in.  

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