Saluting a Female Trailblazer

You don’t have to look hard for stories that tear down leaders in the public eye. Rarer though are stories of the trailblazers, the role models that pave the way for the rest of us. Colonel Jennie Carignan is one of those leaders. But she’s not doing it in the boardroom, she’s doing it on the battlefield. Her inspirational story, however, has lessons for us all.

Carignan was featured this month in Macleans as someone who detonated the glass ceiling. She was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General and Chief of Staff of Army Operations. Sure, there have been other female leaders that rose to the rank of General; Carignan is the first in Canada, and possibly the entire world, that did it via the ranks of combat arms trades.  We can only imagine the danger and the biases she would have encountered along the way.

As I read her story I caught myself thinking some stereotypical things of my own. She’s probably not very feminine is she? She probably doesn’t have children, how could she? Wrong. She’s a mother of four and she loves to put on a dress and ballroom dance!  Carignan is inspiring a new generation of women that they can serve their country and be themselves doing it. In fact, recruitment of females spiked during the years Carignan spoke with women and their mothers at open house events.  This 'Jennie Effect’ will be one of her many legacies.

Carignan also puts into perspective for us the struggles of a working mom by smashing the premise of what constitutes a normal household today. Most of us contend with a few nights away at a Radisson hotel in some city away from home. Her business trips were months at a time in Bosnia or Kandahar. It was her husband who stayed home as the lead parent. To Carignan’s family that was normal. It couldn’t have been easy by any stretch, but that was their normal. We know this to be true because some of her children, male and female, are following in her footsteps.

I took this lesson to heart when my daughter recently asked me, “mom, why can’t we be a normal family? Why can’t you stay at home and walk me to school?” I’m not sure where she got this notion of normalcy, but I knew I had to expand her thinking around what normal was. We talked about moms and dads both working and both staying at home. We talked about parents who do shift work and parents who go away for long periods of time like Col. Carignan. I also told my daughter that I was working and helping leaders so that she could enter a world that allowed her to become whatever she wanted to. While it was clear she still wanted me to walk her to school every day, I could see the wheels turning around what she considered 'normal'.

Thank you Colonel for blazing the trail for females in one of the most male dominated career paths. Thank you for reminding us that when you love what you do, and you believe in why you’re doing it, you are blazing trails for everyone.