Before she was 30 years old, Vernice FlyGirl Armour had scaled
heights and plowed down obstacles that few women overcome in a
lifetime. She had become Camp Pendletons 2001 Female Athlete of the
Year, the first female African-American on Nashvilles motorcycle
police squad, and a member of the San Diego Sunfire professional
womens football team.
Securing a spot on the police squad had been Armours childhood
dream, but as she got older, she recognized there was no need to
stay on the ground. With the tangibility of the possibility before
her, she realized she could take flightand save liveswith mission
In 2003 as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, Armour flew the
Super-Cobra attack helicopter in an invasion of Iraq and served two
tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. From these challenging
experiences, the woman nicknamed FlyGirl developed her book and
basis for inspirational speakingZero to Breakthrough: The
7-Step Battle-Tested Method for Accomplishing Goals That
Matter. We are all leaders, she says. It has nothing to do
with a title.
FlyGirl spoke with The Public Manager about how government
leaders can change the status quo and achieve both personal and
professional goals even in these challenging times. Additionally,
she advised committed action in overcoming with barriers, and
reflected on the militarys repeal of its Dont Ask, Dont Tell policy
regarding gay servicemen and women.
What seeds are we planting? FlyGirl asks public managers. How do we
give top talent access and exposure to opportunity? And she reminds
us all to create a flight plan by which we can navigate obstacles
orif necessarytake them out.
Q: I loved reading your story. Tell us about your mission
in Iraq and what it taught you.
A: One of the most memorable missions in Iraq for me [was when
our]troops [were] pinned down in the cemetery outside of An Najaf.
Our attack helicopter had already been out for a little over an
hour, so it only had 20 minutes of fuel left and only one missile
left. But when your Marines and soldiers are in trouble, we answer
We headed up to the north of the cemetery; we were able to get the
missile to come off the second time. But when it didnt come off
that first time when we were coming down for our very first pass,
we didnt have enough fuel to make a re-attack. Communication and
our teamwork were essential in that moment. The missile came off,
we pulled off, and we headed back to base. We landed almost out of
fuel, and completely out of ammo.
But the really interesting part of itor the memorable part of the
story for meis, several months after this mission and after being
back in Iraq from my deployment, I was in the hospital standing in
line for a routine appointment. I was talking to the Marine in
front of me, and we started comparing stories of being in Iraq, and
it turned out we were in the same detachmentthe 11th MEU. He
started telling me about an experience where he was pinned down,
didnt have any ammunition to shoot back with; and a Cobra came in
and shot a missile.
I said, Wait a minute; that sounds like a mission I was on! When we
paired up the day, it was the same mission, the same aircraft, and
the same missile. And at that moment he just stopped and he stared
at me and said, Maam, you saved my life.
That was my mission in life at that point: to protect the troops on
the ground. What I really learned from that experience is the
teamwork, the communication, that breakthrough mentalitythinking
out the side of the cockpit. How do you get something done even
though its proving difficult in the moment? [It is about] being
decisive in the midst of combat. I like to say, you can be in
combat in the middle of corporate America as well, whether youre in
a nonprofit or an association. Being decisive as a leader is
Q: That is critical. In the book, you write about not
giving obstacles power as well. Whats that about?
A: Well, thats huge because obstacles, challenges, road
blockstheyre all inevitable. But how we respond versus react is
really the key. As my granny used to say, anything worth having is
worth working for.
Acknowledge the obstacle. You have to look at it [to] see what
youre dealing with. You have to acknowledge it, but on the same
note you dont want to give it power. The power needs to be reserved
for how youre going to navigate that obstacle, circumvent that
obstacle, or take that obstacle out.
One of the main things that I like to talk about is engagement.
Youre probably familiar with the survey or report that came out a
little while ago that said at least 78 percent of corporate America
is disengaged at work. So how do we get that engagement back online
so people are cleared hot? Cleared hot means you can blow up the
target with bullets, bombs, missiles; and when bullets, bombs,
missiles blow up, theyre hot! So you get that clearance to blow up
your obstacles. Acknowledge them, dont give them power, and do what
you need to do to engagego cleared hotand take that obstacle out so
you can continue on toward the missions and the goals of your
company, your organization, or your group and team.
Q: In the government engagement is a huge issue. There are
so many obstacles in terms of the budget; there are challenges for
our country such as homelessness or the debt. And I think that our
audience really needs that breakthrough mentality. Do you have any
advice on how to help our leaders work through those really big,
daunting things that teams of peopleliterally agencies worth of
peopleneed to deal with?
A: Yes. There are two points Id like to drive home on this. Number
one is the breakthrough mentality. What is the definition of
breakthrough mentality? Its refusing to settle even in the smallest
of moments and demanding a breakthrough life, demanding a
breakthrough experience or organization, or a breakthrough team.
And once you have that breakthrough mentality inside you, youve
harnessed the power of it and you are ready to unleash it.
Number two, you have to create a flight plan. Where are you? Where
do you want to be?
If you look at some of the situations we have going on here, people
have created a flight plan; we just all have our own flight plans
that go in different directions, and you cant take one plane in
multiple directions. You can do a flight that stops in different
places, but what are we trying to do? How efficient or productive
are we trying to be? Budgets are being cut back, personnel are
being cut back. We can bring our team togetherwere not a group.
Were not just a bunch of people in one place togetherwe are a team
going for one mission, one goal, one team.
So we can create the flight plan that we have all agreed upon; then
we can start taking the steps moving forward. But when your
definition of success looks so radically different, thats where the
real challenges and obstacles come up.
Q: I think about the idea of one mission, one goal, one
team when I think about how the military is trying to deal with the
repeal of Dont Ask, Dont Tell. I talked to someone in the Navy,
someone who trained the Navy and tried to make sure that the
message was carried out throughout the forces. Do you think
training will help? Will it have an impact on our armed
A: Truth and integrity always have an impact, no matter where it
is. Dont Ask, Dont Tell just meant you didnt talk about it. It
didnt mean that it wasnt already a reality. Gays and lesbians were
already allowed to be in the military; they just couldnt talk about
it. Or if they perished in war or a battle, their partner wasnt the
one that got the call. Their partner could have heard about it on
the news. This goes so beyond some of the superficial things that
we talk about.
But if I were to really point at this question and the one before,
to accomplish that goal, to accomplish the mission, it takes
committed, consistent action by our leaders. Were all leaders; it
has nothing to do with a title. The repeal of Dont Ask, Dont Tell
has been a conversation thats been going on for a while. The LGBT
(lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community in the military has
been in conversation for much longer than that when there was a ban
in the military. If you were a homosexual, you had to lie. Now,
were totally out of integrity.
When integrity and truth come into the conversation we can be in
alignment and stop letting that top talentpeople who are
ultraqualifiedgo because of something that doesnt even matter. We
all know theres a war on top talent. Theyre trying to get that top
talent into our organizations. Lets concentrate on the things that
matter. How do we become the best team to accomplish the goal
together? We win together, we lose together.
Q: Those are really powerful words. You talk also in the
book about opening yourself up to discovery. You made a great
analogy to the Karate Kid. Can you tell us how we do that?
A: When you talk about opening yourself to discovery, I have a more
personal story that Id like to share.
I did not want to be in aviation; I didnt even want to be in the
military. It wasnt a blatant not-want, I just hadnt thought about
I saw a black woman in a flight suit, and at that point I didnt
want to go to the aviation tent because I had this block in my mind
that black people dont fly. I dont see black people flying. And it
wasnt something I really had an interest in or aspired to do.
But when I saw that black woman in the flight suit I said, whoa,
wait a minute. Mind you, Im in college. Im not in K-through-eight
or high school. I was in college, the time of tangibility of the
possibility. Thats why mentors and role modelsthe champions and
sponsors in our organizationsare so incredibly important. They
represent the tangibility of the possibility and the belief that we
can move forward and get it done.
Im having this conversation with you because I saw a woman in a
flight suit on a hot summer day back in 1994 for five minutes. I
dont know her name, dont know where shes from, dont know anything
else about her. But she planted a strong seed. My question to the
leaders is: What seeds are we planting? Its all about access and
exposure, and on the individuals part, being open to discovery and
giving yourself that access and exposure. Opportunities dont go
away; other people take advantage of them.
Q: FlyGirl, on behalf of The Public Manager, thank
you for your inspiration.
A: You are cleared hot.
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