Heroes Among Us: “The leader must understand each person’s gifts and weaknesses so that they can utilize everyone to their utmost capability and compensate for any risk.”, with MJ Hegar and Marco Derhy

During my third tour in Afghanistan, I was shot down and had to engage the enemy in ground combat to get out alive. This experience is part of why I was at the forefront of the fight to open all jobs in the military up for competition to women. What I took away from this experience is that for a team facing a great challenge, their leader must understand each person’s gifts and weaknesses so that they can utilize everyone to their utmost capability and compensate for any risk.

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hippo’s Chief Patient Advocate: MJ Hegar. Hegar is an Air Force veteran, advocate for women in the military, and healthcare professional who ran a tightly-fought race for Congress in 2018. She is now joining forces with Hippo, the only website/mobile app that provides consumers with the lowest prices for prescription and generic drugs and is accepted at virtually every pharmacy, including all major chains, with savings of up to 97%. As Hippo’s Chief Patient Advocate, MJ will ensure that all Americans know how to get the prescriptions they need at the lowest prices. This position is the culmination of decades of experience championing equity and fairness, thanks to her background in the military, public affairs, and healthcare industries. MJ started as one of only a handful of female helicopter pilots in the United States Air Force in the early 2000s. After serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan flying medevac missions, she earned her Purple Heart after being wounded while evacuating injured soldiers . Ultimately, the Taliban shot down her helicopter, and she was forced to return fire while awaiting rescue. When MJ was blocked from her next career choice in the military because of her gender, she partnered with the ACLU and other female veterans to make sure all military jobs would be open to women — especially combat positions from which they’d historically been barred. Following her success repealing the Ground Combat Exclusion Policy, MJ spent five years in the healthcare industry, leading key projects for the largest hospital network in Central Texas. In that role, she saw how burdensome healthcare costs could debilitate individuals and families. In 2017, MJ ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in her home district in north Austin, Texas campaigning for the rights of every person, not just influential and wealthy donors. As she toured her district, one common voter story stood out: people struggled to pay for their healthcare, and some even stopped taking expensive, life-saving medications. She challenged the status quo both in her extremely close race for Congress (she lost by less than 3% to a deeply entrenched incumbent) and by reversing the seemingly intractable stance of the military against women in combat positions. Now MJ is furthering her passion for fighting for justice by setting her sights on unaffordable prescription medications. MJ Hegar is the author of her memoir, Shoot Like A Girl, which Netflix adapted into a major motion picture. She lives in Texas with her husband and two sons.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I was raised in Texas from 7 after fleeing a domestic violence situation with my mother and sister in Connecticut. I think that’s why I became a rescue pilot later…I developed a deeply rooted desire to help people. After attending the University of Texas, I entered the military and became a rescue helicopter pilot. When my military career ended (that happens when you sue the Department of Defense), I worked for five years in healthcare and saw just how unsustainable our current model is.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Sure, during my time campaigning for office in Texas in 2018, I met several individuals who tearfully told me their stories hoping I could help them. The ones that keep me up at night are encounters like the man I met at a town hall whose wife had a terminal diagnosis. She decided to stop taking her medications despite losing precious months off of her lifespan because she was “bankrupting her family.” I am devoted to helping people get access to medications that can improve their quality of life and, in some cases, extend their lives. These medications shouldn’t just be available to those with Cadillac insurance policies or wealth.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I spent five years as an Aircraft Maintenance Officer and seven as a Combat Search and Rescue Helicopter Pilot. I’ve lived and deployed all over the world, working on the F-16 and the B-2 Stealth Bomber, as well as flying long-range overwater rescue, wildfire suppression, marijuana eradication, and combat rescue.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “takeaway” did you learn from that story?

During my third tour in Afghanistan, I was shot down and had to engage the enemy in ground combat to get out alive. This experience is part of why I was at the forefront of the fight to open all jobs in the military up for the competition to women. What I took away from this experience is that for a team facing a great challenge, their leader must understand each person’s gifts and weaknesses to utilize everyone to their utmost capability and compensate for any risk.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

When my aircraft was shot down, we were going to be exfiltrated (after a 20-minute firefight) on the skids of a tiny recon helicopter. One of my crewmates saw the special forces guys struggling to get one of the stretchers onto another aircraft as we began to lift off. He ran back to the crash site to help them despite the heavy fire we were under and abandoning what could be his only ride home.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

To me, a hero is someone who puts the welfare of others ahead of their own in the face of danger and even though no one would blame them if they chose not to do so.

Does a person need to face a life and death situation to do something heroic or be called a hero?

No, there are all sorts of dangers… career-ending decisions, psychological danger, etc. It’s probably more common in life and death situations that heroes among us are revealed. Still, I think that heroic people are fighting to reunite families on the border, fighting to slow climate change, and fighting to ensure voting rights or criminal justice reform whose works are in danger from wealthy special interests.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Get to know the members of your team and in what areas you should defer to them. When I was a young pilot, I thought I knew everything. And while pilots will sometimes take the input of members of their crew but make a different decision (and sometimes even be right), one instance taught me a huge lesson. I was flying with the New York Air National Guard, and we were in some pretty bad weather. The Flight Engineer asked me not to turn on the windshield wipers, but to turn them on-off…on-off…as needed. I thought that sounded ridiculous. Luckily for me, another member of the crew casually reminded me that this Flight Engineer had decades of experience and had survived a helicopter crash into the water under similar weather…one of the complicating factors was that the wiper motor burned out and filled the cockpit with smoke. Pale-faced, I apologized and proceeded to nurse the wipers as needed. I never forgot that, and always asked ‘why?’ when an input didn’t seem to make sense to me in the future.

2. If you feel like you’re fighting every person on something, it’s probably you that’s wrong. As a brand new Lieutenant (22 and ready to take on the world, in charge of men and women in their 40s and younger), I found myself in a disagreement with my second. He was a highly-respected, experienced Senior Master Sergeant. I don’t remember what that disagreement was, but I remember when I looked around the room in the meeting and realized everyone was with him. Despite disagreeing, I took the course of action he recommended, and of course, he had been right. That’s not to say that you can’t swim against the current. Just be sure you’re doing it out of the experience and don’t overrule someone with more expertise than you lightly.

3. Identifying and utilizing informal leaders is often the key to success. The officers are often not the expertise, but sometimes their official senior enlisted folks could be wrong. During the run-up to Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, we knew the B-2 platform would get its first real combat test. We needed to be ready for our first-ever combat deployment. Without discussing classified details, I can tell you something didn’t feel right as we prepared. There was unease among the younger enlisted folks. I sought out the opinion of an often abrasive, mid-ranked troop and asked him why. He revealed a problem with the maintenance materials we were going to take with us and that those in a leadership position didn’t want to accept the blame for letting them lapse. We ended up delaying the operation and fixing the problem. Where some people see a trouble-maker, I saw someone who wasn’t going to be shy about pointing out an ugly baby in our midst. Leaders must be careful not to surround themselves with sycophants and yes-men, but above all else, listen to the informal leaders. Seek out and consider the perspective of those that the youngest among us seem to be looking to.

4. Your position or title doesn’t get you respect. Your competence and interpersonal relationships do. Generally speaking, this is a lesson that some officers either learn with senior enlisted troops or don’t. You can lead from any rank or position if you are a servant-leader and know when to follow.

5. Lastly, never apply what we in aviation called “The Halo Effect” to your superiors. As a brand-new co-pilot, I flew with an extremely experienced pilot (the second in command of our unit and an instructor pilot). We were taxiing out on an urgent Medevac, and there was a firetruck parked on the taxiway. I called it out as an “obstacle,” and he noted he saw it. Just then, our operations center came over the radio with updated coordinates on our survivor. I went what we call “heads in,” plugging in the updated position, beginning to set our navigational course, when BOOM. Our rotors hit the fire truck. My sense that he was a very experienced pilot made me apply some infallibility to him that essentially made me fail him. While he was “on the controls” and the senior pilot, it was really my fault we hit that truck. We owe it to those burdened with command and expected to know better always to help them navigate those fire trucks. They don’t have to listen to us, and you can be judicious in the way you give your input but never fail to. It is not a good feeling to think back and realize you had the input that could have averted tragedy.

Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

Yes, of course. It grew me up, gave me discipline and leadership experience and confidence in myself and my teams. The transition to civilian life wasn’t always easy (I still struggle with people being late to meetings and not dropping people to do pushups for insubordination 😉 ). Military service doesn’t guarantee a valuable employee, but it sure as heck makes it more likely!

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

I say find what works for you. I’ve tried quite a few things. For some, therapy is key. We need to overcome the sense that it’s somehow weak to seek help. If your knee is injured, you do physical therapy. It’s the same with your mind. For some, group activities with other veterans help, as civilians often don’t understand what we’ve been through. For introverts like me, however, group activities can make things worse. Avoid substance abuse, especially alcohol and opioids. They are deadly and can make your psychological situation so much worse. So many suicides involve alcohol. However, occasional marijuana use certainly can help with PTSD. The bottom line always seeks self-awareness. Understand why you react the way you do to certain situations and what can help YOU. There’s real power inaccurate self-assessment.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! On the campaign trail, I met too many people who tearfully pleaded with me to help their families afford the medications that could help them. They were choosing between rent, food, and prescriptions that, in some cases, meant extending the life span of their loved ones. I’m fighting hard to help people access the medications available to people with Cadillac insurance policies. One-third of all prescriptions are left abandoned at the pharmacy in our country. I sought out and found one of the solutions. Hippo is a platform that combines industry-disrupting technology with partnerships that enable them to offer up to 97% discounts on everyday medications in every pharmacy.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Listen to your gut. If you aren’t waking up every day with a sense of purpose and going to sleep every night with a sense of satisfaction, re-evaluate what you’re committing your time and energy to.

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Hire carefully using behavioral interviewing techniques, hone your emotional intelligence, and develop your people with a mind to help them capitalize on their strengths instead of just compensating for their “areas of opportunity.”

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband is not only my best friend and the most amazing dad and partner I’ve ever met, but he also challenges me to better myself to keep up with him. He has supported me by encouraging me to continue my education, write my book, and even run for office despite the extra burden this places on him. In the 2016 Presidential election, I got one vote. My husband wrote me in, and when I asked him why he would do such a thin,g, he just shrugged and said, “I think you’d do the best job.” I’m the luckiest woman alive.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try not to underestimate the impact one person can have, so I take every opportunity to mentor and guide young men and women to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams with the diligence and tenacity it takes to make their mark on the world.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Right now, our country is so divided, which puts the fate of the free world globally at risk. Our national security is fragile. Internally we take sides and constantly misunderstand each other, and extremists feel safe to express hateful rhetoric. If I had one wish, it would be to try to heal the divide in our country so that we can move forward on real solutions to the great threats of our time. We must lead on climate change. We must make our schools safe and better at teaching our kids. We have to secure individual rights against those who impose their ideas of morality on others, confiscate our lands, and discriminate against people. These are huge problems that will take collaboration to fix. I hope we can begin to come back together as a nation and embrace true leadership.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Fate does not call upon us at the hour of our choosing.” — Optimus Prime.

This taught me that you could find inspiration anywhere, even a kid’s cartoon. It taught me that we must introduce our kids to philosophy early, and it is certainly something to remember when you are faced with an opportunity at the worst possible time. It’s never a good time to have kids, travel, change jobs, sue the Secretary of Defense, etc. But, we only get one life on this crazy rock hurtling through space. We have to seize the chance to do something big when it comes around. You never know if you’ll get another.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this if we tag them 🙂

I have been so blessed by the many people I have met on this crazy journey. I guess if I could have lunch with one person, it would have to be Michelle Obama. She led with such dignity and grace in the face of so much racism and hate. I would love to get her insight on so many things. But, if I had a second choice, it would be Bono so I could introduce a rock star to my husband and finally give him a reward for all of the crazy things he’s enabled me to do (when Bono’s in the US, of course).

Video Clip info

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.