Failure is a part of every leader’s life. Don’t fight it. Embrace moments of failure because it’s how you respond to failure that matters most.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Marisa Porges, Head of School at The Baldwin School. Dr. Porges previously served at the White House, as White House Fellow and a senior advisor for cybersecurity and technology policy at the National Economic Council. Prior to joining the White House, she was a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and at the Council on Foreign Relations. In these roles, she traveled throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan, conducting research on counterterrorism — including interviews with former members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and Syrian rebel fighters, where she sought to better understand their perspectives. Dr. Porges also served as a counterterrorism policy advisor in the U.S. Departments of the Treasury and Defense, and on active duty in the U.S. Navy, flying jets as a Naval Flight Officer. Dr. Porges holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a doctorate from King’s College London. Her awards include the National Committee on American Foreign Policy 21st Century Leader Award and the NATO Medal for service in Afghanistan.
Thank you for joining us! Exactly what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I serve as the eighth Head of School of The Baldwin School, an all-girls school outside of Philadelphia that teaches girls from pre-Kindergarten through grade twelve.
I’m fortunate to now lead the same school I attended growing up, and to which I owe so much. It was at Baldwin that I first experienced what it was like to have mentors and colleagues — in school, it was my teachers and classmates — push me to pursue my personal passion and confidently chase my dreams. Lessons they taught me in Baldwin’s physics lab, on its basketball court and more, gave me the determination and resilience to one day fly off of aircraft carriers and serve at the White House. And, years later, to lead the school that gave me so much.
Now, every day as Head of School, I get to see how passionate, expert faculty, innovative curriculum, and a nurturing community combine to shape nearly six hundred girls into empathetic leaders and impact-oriented global citizens. It gives me hope for the future.
Tell us a bit about your military background.
Early in my career, I served on active duty in the U.S. Navy — flying a carrier-based jet, the EA-6B Prowler, as navigator and electronic countermeasures officer. Essentially, our job was to use electronic weapons, including jamming radars and an anti-radiation missile, to protect other aircraft as flying into enemy territory.
I also served alongside the military, as a civilian advisor to U.S. forces and national security leaders, in Washington, DC and Afghanistan. While not in uniform at that time, I partnered closely with soldiers and sailors to address major national security concerns, including counter terrorism and cybersecurity efforts. This work included serving at the White House, as White House Fellow and a senior advisor for cybersecurity and technology policy at the National Economic Council. I also traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan, conducting research on counterterrorism — including by interviewing former members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Syrian rebel fighters, in an attempt to better understand their perspectives.
Can you share the most interesting story from experiences during your military career? What “takeaway” did you learn from that story?
If pushed to share one defining moment, it would be something that happened at the start of my military career — when a more senior officer questioned my ability to succeed at flight school, because I was a woman. I whispered, “I think I’ll be fine.” That was it. In the moment, that was my entire response.
I realize this isn’t so much a story as one moment in a career that’s still unfolding, but it influenced much of what I’ve done since then — in the military, at the White House, in my personal life, and in my work at Baldwin. And in the book I’m currently writing, for the next generation of female leaders. It motivated me and, also, made me think hard about what kind of leader I wanted to be and how I mentor young women who are earlier in their career. Especially because I think of that moment with both regret and pride. I regret that I didn’t more fully own the power of my voice — to defend a female’s value in the cockpit and my own abilities to thrive in the male-dominated arena of naval aviation. But I also take pride in sticking to my dreams, and holding on to the quiet confidence I had at that stage.
What lessons were most lasting from that experience? First, I learned to never let another person quiet your voice. Secondly, I understood more strongly than ever that women will always face challenges in the workplace, and that it is up to us to succeed anyway. And thirdly, it affirmed for me that actions speak louder than words. My initial response was a whisper, but what I did in that cockpit and throughout my military career was what roared — and continues to motivate me today.
That experience is also why I’m writing a book titled “What Girls Need” that talks about how we’re redesigning and rethinking Baldwin’s curriculum to help make sure our girls are equipped to deal with and overcome these kinds of challenges. So that the future young women respond better than I did.
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 I first arrived in Afghanistan, a unique set of circumstances meant I wasn’t issued personal protective equipment immediately. Meaning that I didn’t have a helmet and flak jacket to wear when we traveled in a convoy on the streets of Kabul or when our base was under attack from the Taliban.
Shortly after I got there, the sirens blared “Duck and Cover” — the signal that we were under attack and were supposed to, among other things, put on our protective gear. Without prompting, the seasoned colonel in my office, who looked out for all of us whether or not we were his responsibility, handed me his flak jacket and helmet. I tried to resist but he insisted. In his mind, his people’s safety — my well being — came first.
That moment stands out to me, to this day, as the sort of quiet, unsung heroism that can make the biggest difference to a team and an organization. I always share this story with the girls I teach and mentor, as an important life lesson — about how leadership and heroism comes in many different forms, and about how small acts can leave a lasting influence on those around you.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Heroes come in many shapes and sizes — and include those people who, without asking, sacrifices to quietly help others. They don’t scream for accolades, they aren’t out for personal gain and they don’t dwell on what they’ve done. These heroes are driven to take care of the people around them, whatever that may entail.
In fact, the attributes of a hero are also those of a strong leader: selflessness, empathy; and a steadfast commitment to your team’s mission.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers three leadership or life lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
These are the lessons I look forward to sharing in my forthcoming book, “What Girls Need.” Basically, there are three that stand out:
1) People are the key. Put your people first and there is nothing you and your team can’t achieve.
2) Failure is a part of every leader’s life. Don’t fight it. Embrace moments of failure because it’s how you respond to failure that matters most.
3) Always remember the why — Mission does matter, for you and your team. Keeping a “why” at the forefront of your mind keeps you and your team focused, motivated and on the path of progress.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Absolutely. My time in uniform and working alongside the military in combat zones had the biggest influences on my approach to leadership. It shaped the work I do, with my team and my students, every day. It’s also where I experienced failure firsthand — and watched even the strongest leaders I know respond to personal and professional failure with resilience, grace, and determination.
Talking about these experiences from my military career has helped me teach our girls to recognize their leadership potential and reflect on how their own responses to difficulty or failure. These lessons have helped to nurture resilience and perseverance in our students, as well as in our team of professionals at Baldwin. Whether you’re facing a lack of protective gear in a hostile environment or institutional biases about your gender, ethnicity or faith, the ability to push through adversity is key to success.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
There are always exciting projects in the works at Baldwin — It’s the nature of my school’s mission, as we’re committed to continually evolving how we teach our girls to ensure they’re most prepared for college and life beyond that.
Right now, we’re in the midst of an inspiring multiyear initiative to understand how expected changes in the future workplace and world will impact today’s K-12 students — and how we can best prepare our girls for what awaits them after school and college. We’re looking at everything — trends for female representation in certain industries, how barriers for women will differ from today, the role of technology, macroeconomic changes, globalization, new demands on the future workforce, and more. With this knowledge, we are evolving our curriculum to include more interdisciplinary learning and real-world problem solving, and enhance efforts to nurture the soft skills our girls will need to succeed in the decades to come. First and foremost, this will help people by helping our girls become their best selves — and most effectively contribute to their communities after graduation. It will also help educators better understand how we prepare the next generation of women for the world to come.
I’m also working on putting these lessons together in “What Girls Need” so that hopefully parents, teachers, and other influencers everywhere can benefit from what we’re learning about how to help prepare girls to succeed in the workforce of the future.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help them get their teams to thrive?
One word: empathy. First and foremost, you have to be an empathetic leader. Understanding people is the key to supporting them — in and out of the workplace — and motivating them to be their best selves.
Studies show that this sort of soft skill is what matter most in the real world. The biggest difference between average and amazing leaders — almost 90 percent of the time — is “emotional factors, not intellectual acumen.” And empathy, in particular, is critical to helping any team thrive. It’s the competitive edge that today’s leaders need to succeed.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
For large teams, I think creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is key. This is true of any leader — but the larger the team, the more likely you’ll need imaginative ways to find solutions for challenges that often bog down larger groups and empower individuals to work together collaboratively. So that one plus one equals four, when it comes to both your team’s output and sense of unity.
With large teams there are more potential pitfalls, because there are more moving parts, more diverse personalities, and more personal needs you must consider as you coordinate the everyday functioning of your team. However, large teams also offer many advantages, from providing more resources to creating a greater diversity of ideas and offering greater potential for you to mentor and lean on trustworthy co-leaders. The key to making complex groups like this a strong, productive team is to think outside the box when it comes to leveraging your assets and overcoming challenges.
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 it be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The movement I’d most like to inspire is to help to close the gender gap that remains across the workforce and more strategically, more consistently and more effectively prepare girls and women to thrive in the face of workplace challenges. Not only would this help girls and women, but it would also better society as whole — ensuring we can leverage the intellect, powerful ideas, and motivating force that women can bring to our economy and society as a whole
For example of just how much work remains to close the gender gap, consider the fields of computer science and STEM, which remain some of the fastest-growing areas of the economy. Today, women earn only 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the country. And when it comes to technology jobs, like engineers and software programmers, women occupy less than 20 percent of the positions. In fact, a recent study suggests that women won’t reach parity with men in the publication of computer science research until possibly the year 2137. The greater likelihood, if trends continue, is that gender parity in this field will never be reached.
So there is a clear need for such a movement — and a lot of roadblocks in the way. One of the most formidable exists not in the current workplace but decades earlier, at the K-12 educational levels. If we want to close the gender gap, we have to drive institutional change and make sure we are setting girls up for success very early on.
Some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The first name that comes to mind is one whom I doubt many people will recognize — and it’s pulled from history rather than present day, so I unfortunately won’t have the chance to share a meal with her: Frances Perkins. Perkins was an influential leader on women’s and workers’ rights in the early 20th century, who also served as Secretary of Labor for President Franklin Roosevelt. Making her the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet. More than anything, her legacy of dedication and creative problem solving helped lay the foundation for major changes in the lives of women across America. And I’d point out that Baldwin has a proud connection with Frances Perkins: she lectures at Baldwin in the 1930s, and remains an inspiration to our girls and me.
While we won’t be getting her to respond via social media, If she was alive today I’d love to talk with her about what made her tick. Her example of creative, impactful, mission-oriented leadership still holds lessons for all of us today.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.