This story was originally published on Aug. 19, 2013. We are republishing and updating it today as Linda Singh, now a Major General, leads the Maryland National Guard's attempts to quell the Baltimore riots. The violence, which began on Monday, broke out after the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in April.
Linda Singh has an extraordinary dual career. She has served as a managing director at consulting giant Accenture and a Major General in the U.S. Army. She also has a remarkable history: She's a high-school dropout and onetime runaway who found a path to leadership. Singh, who took charge of the Maryland Army National Guard after two years of service in Afghanistan, shares her story and lessons in leadership here.
One day last year during my service in Afghanistan, I accompanied a group of Department of Defense civilians to a refugee camp. I stood in the middle of a garbage-strewn lot, handing out clothes to children. It was a zoo—kids grabbing shirts and pants no matter the size. Clearly, the kids would never wear this clothing. They would sell or barter it for food or fuel or other things they needed more.
These kids, wanting such simple things to survive, reminded me of my grandmother bringing home hand-me-downs from her employer. I wore those hand-me-downs. And like these kids in the refugee camp, I was once homeless too.
Living with my grandparents in Maryland for the first eight years of my life, I never realized we were poor. We had food and clothes, even if they were used or handmade, and my grandma and grandpa gave me plenty of love. I moved in with my parents on my ninth birthday, and that’s when things turned turbulent. Abuse occurred at multiple points during my childhood. I was sexually molested by a couple of my relatives. After one of those incidents, when I was 15, I ran away from home. Actually, my mom and I had a really big fight and I was told to leave.
I got jobs at Burger King and later at a pretzel stand and made enough money to rent a room from an elderly couple in Frederick, Maryland. The room cost $65 a month, and soon enough I couldn’t afford that. So I moved out. I slept on the porches of friends’ homes or in the back office of the pretzel stand in the Francis Scott Key mall. I made it work.
And I kept it together at school. I got good grades and played Varsity basketball—power forward, scoring a dozen or so points per game. But eventually, the stress of working, going to school and having no home did me in. My grades declined. I didn’t have enough money to take the SAT test. So I dropped out of high school.
Then one day, on my break from work at the pretzel stand, I spotted a U.S. Army National Guard recruiting booth in the mall. What possessed me to walk over and redirect my life, I’m not sure. But on June 3, 1981, at 17, I joined the Army. I had to persuade my parents to sign the papers because I wasn’t yet 18. It was the best thing they ever did for me. It turned my life around.
So, as I stood on that filthy lot in Afghanistan and watched the kids scrounge for handouts, I realized that most of them don’t have even the tenuous support I had when I was their age. Girls in Afghanistan can’t escape bad home lives by joining the military. At that moment, I decided I needed to speak the truth about my life and what it takes to be a leader. If I can be transparent, maybe I can help people overcome their difficulties. The children and parents I saw that day will likely never tell their story publicly, but I can tell mine. If that helps one person go from hopelessness to success, then telling my story will explain why I ended up at that dusty lot.
Last Veteran’s Day, I stood on an Accenture stage and told my story, from running away as a teen to quitting school, to working and supporting myself, to joining the military and getting my education there. I also told the truth about leadership: The back story of many successful leaders is heartbreak, sleepless nights, and overcoming adversity.
In Afghanistan and now back in the U.S., I’ve given a lot of thought about what I learned and paths to success. Here are three of my leadership lessons:
Value Diversity. In Afghanistan we worked with people from 60 countries and learned the value of diverse individuals collaborating. We were all there to roll out solutions for the Afghan people, but we had to understand each other’s perspectives first and then put aside cultural differences. I’ve read that diversity makes for better teams, better boards, better companies. In Afghanistan, I saw this every minute of every day.
Always be authentic. This group of people from incredibly different backgrounds, time zones and cultures made quite a bit of progress together, and I wondered what enabled us. It was not the timelines or the work plans; even groups that fail have those. As an American, I was aware that we can be seen as unfriendly and not understanding of other cultures, so I was very conscious to never get caught up in the dreariness of the place or the pressure of the job. I set out to be present and genuine, kind and cordial everyday. People told me they appreciated that, and I realized the power of presence and the importance of authenticity. Success is not just what you get done, the deals you close, the P&L you manage. It is your authenticity.
Mentor others. I used to mentor mid- to senior-level people, but now I focus on young people in Accenture's junior ranks because that’s where transformation happens. Right now I’m mentoring about 30 African-American and Hispanic analysts. Some of them get down on themselves for not being more successful in the first year or two after college. I tell them that leadership is not necessarily what you read in a management book. Leadership is the ability to change. As I see them adapting the ways they approach problems and working to find solutions in new and better ways, I’m encouraged.
Most of the people I speak to haven’t seen what I’ve seen, and I’m glad. But I’m also glad I can bring them leadership lessons from a different life where nothing is taken for granted and value really does come from adversity.