The first woman to lead a branch of the Armed Forces said she is focusing on building a Coast Guard that looks much different than when she graduated from the academy more than 37 years ago.
Adm. Linda Fagan made history when she was sworn in as the 27th Commandant of the United States Coast Guard on June 1, 2022. She said being the first enables her to promote the value diversity brings to force readiness.
“Being first, there’s a lot of ‘We want to talk about you,’ which is my least favorite thing to do,” she laughed. “But with that, there’s been access and doors opened because I am the first and it allows me to pivot to our incredibly talented workforce and advocate.”
Working her way to the top was never a plan, Fagan said. In fact, she applied to the Coast Guard Academy because she just wanted to drive small boats.
She grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Weekends were for boating, and Fagan loved watching the Coast Guard cutters and small boats going in and out. As a sophomore in high school she discovered a pamphlet for the Coast Guard Academy.
During her extensive career, she has served on all seven continents – from the snows of Ross Island, Antarctica, to the heart of Africa, from Tokyo to Geneva, and in many ports along the way, according to her official biography.
“I’ve never looked back. It’s just been the plan that I wanted to serve, I wanted to serve as a commissioned officer. I really didn’t have a plan beyond that,” she said. “My daughter is a lieutenant, and she would tell you one of the cool things about me now being commandant is she looks across an organization and it sees women serving at every level.”
When Fagan began her Coast Guard career, there were no women in senior leadership roles.
“Diversity was definitely not there when I entered into the service,” she said. “The reason it’s critical is because diverse work teams outperform homogenous teams. They’re just stronger, more resilient, have better perspective and deeper strength of thought.”
Over the past decade, the service has received hard-won support for budget increases and the vital acquisitions it has long needed for its mission. The COVID-19 pandemic and a shrinking population qualified to serve has impacted recruitment for all branches, but for the ones already struggling to fill positions, the cost could be devastating.
“The reason I’m laser focused on the workforce is because if we don’t turn the corner on recruiting, it doesn’t matter that we’ve got the icebreaker or fast response cutter we wanted. We need to be able to operate it,” Fagan said. “Once you show people who we are and the value proposition that we offer, they will come and they stay. I bring my best self to work every day to advocate for this workforce and for the organization. I would not have encouraged my daughter to join if I didn’t believe in it.”
This means taking a hard look at rigid requirements for advancements and frequent moves, she said, while also recognizing that accepting the status quo is far more risky than trying new things that may not work.
Another point of importance for the new commandant is staying engaged with the force. This means frequent trips across the globe to meet with coasties and hear about their needs firsthand.
“Front-line touch points are really critical,” she said.
One of her most influential mentors is retired Adm. Thad Allen, whom she credits with bringing her out of her comfort zone and challenging her.
And though she has a large volume of information to process and read in her role, Fagan looks for opportunities to keep learning.
“I’ve been reading ‘The Storm Before the Calm’ by George Friedman,” she said.
“It talks about this sort of American exceptionalism and the great betrayals as well as our role as a global power.”
She is also reading “The Long Game” by Rush Doshi, but tries to mix up these educational books with some more fun fiction reads.
“The other leadership book I really liked is Marshall Goldsmith’s ‘What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,’” she said. “It goes into detail about how some of what made you successful up to this point is now counterproductive for you and the need to develop new skills.”
Her role is a serious one, but Fagan makes time for fun, too. The military is known for humor (albeit inappropriate at times) and coasties are no exception, often nicknaming their new leaders. So, what does Fagan really think of being called the “Mommandant”?
“It’s pretty funny; they weren’t mean and could have said a lot worse. I actually got a text from Thad Allen after he saw it and he told me it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. He signed that text ‘The Thadmiral’. He told me he used to hate his own nickname and now accepts it,” she laughed.
Her daughter mailed her “Mommandant” koozies not long after the moniker was given.
“That’s what you get when you have a millennial in your life,” she said.
As for what advice the new commandant would give others pursuing their goals, it was to the point.
“Don’t take the easy way. You need to take the hard jobs … There’s no growth in the comfort zone,” Fagan said. “To the women, particularly junior women, I would say you’re far stronger than you realize. When you find yourself with a seat at the table, use your voice because you’re there for a reason. Never come to the table unprepared and do not be somebody other than who you are. Bring your passion, abilities and lean in.”Read comments