Lt. Col. Steven Johnson, Special Operations Task Force-West, commander greets Michele Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, upon arrival at a firebase in Shindand District, Afghanistan, April 13, 2011.

Lt. Col. Steven Johnson, Special Operations Task Force-West, commander greets Michele Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, upon arrival at a firebase in Shindand District, Afghanistan, April 13, 2011. DOD / Spc. Jeff Collet

Tapping Flournoy as SecDef Would Be a Really Big Deal

A natsec black belt and outstanding leader, the former policy undersecretary would also be uniquely positioned to implement some long-overdue personnel changes.

Washington’s favorite game has begun – trying to guess who the incoming president will choose for his cabinet and other critical appointees across the U.S. government. For the role of secretary of defense, nearly everyone’s top pick is Michèle Flournoy. There is simply no one more qualified or more ready to hit the ground running, than Flournoy. Not only is she immensely well-versed on the issues and ready to lead on day-one in “the building,” she would also be the first woman to run the American defense department, a milestone we should not dismiss without proper reflection.  Yes, this is a “big deal.”  A very big deal.

As a university president, I know how important it is for younger generations to see people who look like themselves in serious leadership roles. When those people are as impressive as Michèle Flournoy, generations of young women and little girls will be able to aspire to heights their mothers were never allowed to contemplate.  And as a woman who has served both in uniform (as the first and only woman pilot in my C-130 squadron) and later as a senior civilian in the Pentagon (with Ms. Flournoy as my boss for three of those six years), I know first-hand how inspiring it is to see a supremely talented woman lead – and how hard it is when such role models are lacking. Michèle Flournoy is not just a role model for having busted this glass ceiling, she is a role model to all military members and defense professionals – men and women – for her level of expertise and for how inclusively and effectively she leads.

Having served in a series of high-level Pentagon positions in both the Clinton and the Obama administrations, Flournoy has developed a masterful knowledge of the Pentagon bureaucracy. Her expertise is unmatched in everything from strategy and budgets to the delicate art of civilian control, interagency coordination, and White House decision-making. Further, she knows all the players, from the admirals and generals she will need to bring along to achieve the administration’s goals in securing America’s defense, to senators and congresswomen and men (and their staffs) as well as the leaders in the intelligence, homeland security, and diplomatic corps.  From both her time as undersecretary of defense for policy under President Obama and her work starting and leading a think tank, she is well known and well respected among her counterparts around the world.  These deep relationships will be critical to rebuilding damaged American alliances.

And Michèle Flournoy is a leader who has mentored scores of national security professionals, who will be eager to serve again with her as Secretary. This ready-to-roll network will allow her to hit the ground running with a high-functioning team of brilliant professionals across the department. Many of these impressive professionals are women!  Defense experts like Kath Hicks (one of my former bosses), Susanna Blume, Melissa Dalton, Mara Karlin, Julie Smith, Sharon Burke, Loren DeJonge, and more, have all worked in the pentagon and been mentored by Ms. Flournoy for years.

Apart from how desperately the Pentagon needs a competent and knowledgeable leader at the helm right now, it is simply high time the Department of Defense had a woman in this role. It was only in 2016 that the last legal restrictions on women serving in combat were removed, meaning that at the highest levels – three and four-star admirals and generals and the equivalent civilian undersecretary and assistant secretary levels – the uniformed military is still lagging the civilian side in having women ascend to those positions of power and authority.

The handful of women generals and admirals that exist have made their way through an old-fashioned personnel structure that still presumes a single (male) bread-winner in the family followed by a stay-at-home (female) spouse who will be ready and able to pack up and move house every two to three years to facilitate the military member’s steady rise through the ranks. This process does not allow for pauses along the way for life events such as having a baby or going to back to school. Once one gets out of the military, there is no coming back in.

This rigid and linear system has caused too many highly talented service members — men and women — to give up on a full military career. The system not only makes it hard for women, it forces talented men married to talented women with careers to also give up the dream of a military career.  As one Navy admiral put it, “High-powered people marry high-powered people, and we want to keep them serving in uniform.” 

For the next generation coming up the ranks, as well as those of us on the outside who want the military’s personnel system to compete with the much more adaptive private sector, Michèle Flournoy’s appointment is a sign that help may finally be on the way. It has been a long road for women in defense and Michèle has been a steady voice for change.  She is also a military mom who understands what we are asking of America’s families in uniform.

As a leader, Ms. Flournoy has demonstrated she is not afraid to advocate for what women need. When she was a DASD in the Clinton administration and one of a small handful of senior civilian women in the building, she pushed the Pentagon leadership to build out spaces for nursing mothers. When she became defense undersecretary for policy, she promoted a philosophy of “work-life balance” that had not been seen before in those halls. As defense secretary, her perspective on these matters would be a “force multiplier;” and she will be uniquely positioned to implement a number of personnel recommendations that are long overdue.

The military needs more creative career pathways that allow people to move in and out of service along their careers — a concept known as “continuum of service”. They will need remote work policies, competitive maternity and paternity leave, leaves for educational advancement, and much more. Such changes are even more important in an era where the military needs more and more people with high-demand, high-tech skill sets in numbers greater than ever before. Detailed recommendations like these, which would help the services better compete with the private sector for talent and make our military stronger, are already out there but have been largely ignored for decades by military leaders for whom the old system worked just fine.

As women break ground across the military, in conventional and special operations forces, it is high time for a leader who has broken her own ground and crated a path for all those who will follow her in this and coming generations. The appointment of Michèle Flournoy to lead the Defense Department would be an enormous step forward for our nation and our national security.

Janine Davidson is president of Metropolitan State University of Denver. She served as the 32nd undersecretary of the Navy.