Bissell Brings Powerful Message for Women’s History Month
LEXINGTON, Va., March 9, 2022—Sharing lessons learned from her experiences from what she called “the family business,” Maj. Gen. Marti Bissell, deputy commanding general, Army National Guard, assigned to the U.S Army Training and Doctrine Command, spoke to cadets, faculty, staff, and other guests in Marshall Hall on the evening of Monday, March 7. She came to VMI during Women’s History Month as part of the VMI Gender Diversity and Inclusion Program.
Bissell began by describing the influence her family has had on her career. Not only has her grandfather, father, brother, husband, and son served in the U.S. Army but also her father-in-law and several brothers-in-law. She credits her supportive family and “battle buddy” husband Col. Gary Bissell ’89, deputy chief of staff and operations at VMI, for helping her achieve her professional success.
She went on to describe her nearly 34-year journey in the Army as more like a maze than a straight path, while emphasizing a maze offers many more learning opportunities than she might have otherwise had. In addition to her multiple assignments in the military, she’s also held roles at VMI including protocol officer and Title IX officer, as well as assistant chief of staff.
Much of Bissell’s talk focused on the idea of the various powers that leaders may have, and how misused or mismanaged power can turn someone from a leader to a dictator. Using stories from throughout her career, Bissell discussed how a leader can help, inspire, mentor, and react to their own mistakes and the mistakes of those under them, and how a leader chooses to use power makes the difference between a good leader or a poor one. “Lead, don’t dictate,” she said, emphasizing the power of building relationships. “People will want to follow you.”
“What stood out to me was that she found power in not only your own mistakes, but also in how you respond to others' mistakes,” said Jillian Maher ’24. “Mistakes are inevitable, but how you react to them and recover from them is what's important.”
Bissell emphasized that people in a leadership role often have the power to “move mountains” and make significant change, but change should only be made when it’s actually needed. “People will bend over backwards to do what they think you need or you want,” she said. Leaders should not change things just because they have the power to do so, and those helping make change should always understand the why behind it. She also emphasized leaders should work to leave things better than they were when they arrived, and to be a coach rather than a cheerleader.
Bissell recalled moments in her career when she faced challenges, including difficult language barriers as a NATO officer, soldiers affected by domestic abuse, and lost opportunities, highlighting how empathy, strong listening skills, and avoiding shortcuts have helped her along the way.
Bissell credited many people who acted as mentors and champions for her, but emphasized, while mentors are nice, champions are better. She encouraged the room to gravitate toward people with similar visions and values and find champions who are genuinely willing to help and want to see them succeed.
As she wrapped up, she opened the floor to questions, and reminded the cadets who are about to pave their own paths that, “you define your success,” and that challenges are only “data points, they do not define you.” When asked to define failure, she stated “failure only happens when you stop trying.” She often went back to the quality all leaders, or aspiring leaders, should have: integrity. Her strict way of defining integrity is, “would you still do the right thing if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?”
Madison Cappellano ’24 took Bissell’s advice to mean that, “life challenges you, and it is the way you redefine your goals that will make you successful,” she said. “Being confident and believing in yourself will earn the respect of your followers in any career path you may choose.”
The VMI Gender Diversity and Inclusion Program seeks to promote gender diversity, inclusion, and respect, to foster dialogue about diversity and shared values, and to facilitate the development of strong, inclusive, and forward-thinking leadership.
Maj. Michelle Ellwood
VMI Photos by Kelly Nye
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VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE