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Practicing Informal Leadership (S.3, Ep. 4)

May 4, 2022 @ 8:38 pm CDT

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About This Episode

Our guest for this episode is Lauren O’Donnell (LinkedIn),  a consultant with extensive experience in facilitation, communication, strategic planning, engagement and much more. She’s currently working as a curriculum developer and operations officer at the United States Army War College, where she organized and led the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar (SSLS).

The SSLS is the culmination of a year-long educational experience designed to prepare the spouses of post-Senior Service College military leaders to serve effectively as leaders, community capacity builders, mentors and advocates at the senior enterprise level alongside their service members.

We talked with Lauren about the SSLS, her experiences as a military spouse, and the importance of informal leadership, not just in the military but in our communities and organizations.


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Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. Here to start the conversation are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.

Jessica Beckendorf: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World. I’m Jessica Beckendorf.

Bob Bertsch: I’m Bob Bertsch. I’m super excited for our conversation today. I recently had a chance to travel to the United States Army War College and be part of the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It’s a fantastic program and it was facilitated by our guest today, Lauren O’Donnell, and in just a few minutes, a couple of minutes actually, we’ll talk with Lauren about the seminar, military spouses and former leadership, and just whatever else comes up in our conversation, but first, we want to share an opportunity for you to get our new free resource that Jessica and our colleague Bridget Scott and I have created. It’s called Eight Ways to Cultivate Community in Times of Change.

Jessica: It’s based on our 2021 asset-based community recovery workshops. This booklet is full of practical ideas you can use to boost your community building and deepen relationships. Sign up for our monthly email newsletter, and you’ll get a free copy of this resource. It was developed exclusively for our subscribers. If you’re already signed up as a member of the Practicing Connection community and you’d like to receive the booklet, just email us at [email protected].

Bob: If you need more information on that, you can always find us on our website, Let’s get to our conversation. Our guest on this episode is Lauren O’Donnell. Lauren is a consultant with extensive experience in facilitation, communication, strategic planning, engagement, and much more, and she’s currently working as a curriculum developer and Operations Officer at the United States Army War College, where she organized and led the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar. Lauren, I’m super excited to see you again and to welcome you to the podcast.

Lauren O’Donnell: Thank you so much, Bob. The feeling is mutual and I’m very happy to be here. Thank you.

Bob: Maybe we could start off with you telling us just a little bit about the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar. What is it? How did it get started?

Lauren: Yes, I probably should start by talking a little bit about the Army War College, the US Army War College. This is an institution that senior military officers attend, generally Army because it is the Army War College, although officers from all branches of service attend, and we also have a lot of international partners that attend, so this is just a really stimulating place to be and to work.

I’m really want to give a lot of praise to the War College because they recognize that when service members attend this year of learning, where they get a master’s degree and they learn a lot about strategic thinking and sort of next-level leadership, the War College offers a complimentary program to spouses if the service members bring their spouses with them for the year.

There’s a spouse program that runs the entire year that the service members are here at the War College. It provides a lot of good professional personal development, again, helping spouses to transition their thinking from operational level leadership, informal leadership when we’re talking about a spouse, but operational level to more strategic level, much more big picture thinking, and fortunately, the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar is the combination of what the spouses receive here at the end of their year of training.

It gives them an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve learned, to further synthesize the information that they’ve gained, to further develop the connections they’ve made with the other spouses that are here taking advantage of that opportunity, and also just to add some additional tools to their toolkit as they prepare to go back out into the Army and around the world to serve alongside their service members.

Bob: Can you tell us a little bit about, I think this is something that I was trying to understand when I had the opportunity to join you guys there is how spouses, you know, what role those spouses play, and I understand the spouses choose to play maybe different roles. Maybe the easiest way to ask this question is why is it important to train spouses or to offer this educational opportunity to spouses of military members participating in the leadership program at the Army War College.

Lauren: Yes. I think it’s just an incredibly unique experience, that of a military spouse. Really, they are required, in one way or another, to serve alongside the person that’s actually in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force. Our service members just simply can’t do what they do, especially in recent years, although I’m sure veterans of prior wars and engagements would say the same. The service in the military is so all-consuming that I think the family really needs to be on board.

It involves a lot of moving, a lot of separation, a lot of challenges, a ton of transition, and the Army recognizes that they can strengthen the Army, they can strengthen the soldier, they can strengthen the family, they can strengthen the spouse by providing these opportunities to develop skills that are necessary to be able to navigate this somewhat complicated and complex lifestyle. An opportunity like the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar does provide just a higher level, next level perspective on what’s the best way to do this.

I appreciate what you said, Bob, and it’s so true. Spouses choose to embrace the informal leadership roles in the military in different ways. I also love it that the Army recognizes that we are all unique individuals and so we may show up to do this in different ways and in the ways that are most important to us or in the ways that most resonate with us but it still is incredibly helpful to be provided these opportunities to learn what are the ways that we can step in, what are the ways that we can influence things for the greater good in the Army?

There are so many opportunities to do that. When the spouse is empowered to do that, when they’re given the tools to do that, it really is–I love to call spouse, they’re really a force multiplier because the way that they build up the Army and their own soldier and their own family, it’s incredibly important and significant.

Jessica: How did you come into your role? Tell the story of how you got to where you are today and what interested you in getting involved and what keeps you going?

Lauren: I would say a lot of luck. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be doing what I’m doing. I have been a spouse married to an Army officer for over 30 years. I do need to give a little shout-out to my husband and say that he always really included me. As he grew up in the Army, learning how to be a good leader, I had the opportunity to watch him do that and to be the beneficiary of the Army’s training too. I just feel like, as an Army spouse myself, I just had the opportunity to be a student of leadership and a student of really great leadership, my husband, Dan, so many other service members that we’ve had the privilege to serve with.

He really showed me early on how important the engagement was and the concern for other soldiers and other families, and the opportunities that we had as he advanced in the Army to really be a voice for people that didn’t have that opportunity. I’m not going to say it’s always been easy, but I definitely feel that it’s always been a privilege to serve alongside my husband as a spouse who could benefit from the leadership lessons the Army teaches, explore additional learning on my own, and come to the point where I really felt like I could influence things and I could provide some informal leadership that proved to be an asset to the Army and to other Army families who just won my heart over this 30-year journey. I’m so proud to stand alongside them, so.

My Army spouse experience was one reason that I came into this role. Here at the War College, there’s also a program called the Army Strategic Education Program. It is what the Chief of Staff of the Army is chartered to plan advanced education for the Army’s most senior leaders. I actually got hired into the Army Strategic Education Program to develop spouse curriculum for spouses of our Army’s most senior leaders. In that role, I just have learned so much and have really sharpened my skills as a curriculum developer. When this opportunity came along to have someone develop the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar and they asked me, I considered that an absolute honor.

Bob: Let’s talk a little bit about what you developed. There’s a lot of things that stood out about this year’s Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar, and obviously, things that connected with Jessica and my work, especially dealing with change and complexity and that seemed to be an emphasis for you in designing the seminar. Why do you think that’s important? You’ve already mentioned that military life is complex in general, but why’d you take the approach that you did to designing the seminar this year?

Lauren: Yes, I think it does boil down to that idea that these spouses are really exceptional in their ability to navigate the complexities of military life. I don’t know that it can be fully understood by people who have not walked in these shoes. Again, I’m appreciative that the Army recognizes it, but a spouse in their family, because the service member is showing up for work every day and they get promoted, they may move to a new position, and then they have a title and they have a job to do, there’s a lot more gray area for a spouse.

There’s a lot more, how am I going to help my soldier make this transition, how am I going to help my family make this transition? If they have children, how am I going to help my children? How am I going to find a new job that gives me career progression? How am I going to develop a whole new network of friends and support every two years, especially when my main supporters may be my family or my friends back home that I don’t have as easy access to anymore, at least in a physical sense?

I think that spouses just need to be given an incredible amount of credit for the way that they do hang in there and manage all of these complexities and all of this change alongside their service member. Again, I think spouses do it naturally. I have watched in awe over 30 years as every single military spouse I’ve known figures it out. Certainly, some stumble along the way. Certainly, we all stumble along the way at some point, but they really are incredibly flexible and adaptable and constantly learning, really great at understanding and utilizing their resources.

Again, it doesn’t hurt certainly and is certainly actually very helpful when occasionally they can get some more formalized training and some more formalized education around how to do that, how to navigate transition, how to negotiate change, how to cope when you’re part of a system where much of the environment in which you function in is out of your control, right, so I think that it just makes sense.

At this level, we really are, at the War College, we really are talking about spouses who are going to go out and guide other families, other spouses and other families through those processes as well. Not only do we want them to think about it in terms of how can I apply this learning and these lessons in a way that benefits me, but how can I also guide others through this process?

That’s where the real value of spouses I think comes in that may be underestimated a little bit, is how much they pave the way and reach a hand out to others and help them navigate this journey. I mean, it really is, I say all the time, I never could have done this. There’s no way that my husband would still be serving in the Army if I hadn’t had so many spouses before me reaching out a hand to say, “Come on, Lauren, you can do this. Let me show you how. Let me help you.” That’s really what these spouses at the War College who raised their hands for these opportunities, that’s really what they’re volunteering for. It’s pretty incredible.

Jessica: I got to experience a lot of that firsthand myself just watching my mom get involved in, as a military spouse, get involved in some leadership roles, and years later, I look back at that time and I’m still really proud of my mom for the roles that she took on. I’m glad that you brought up this idea of them serving as leaders among other families because all of the changes that you mentioned are really somewhat specific to military life, but then at the same time, Lauren, you’ve got all of the societal changes happening, the turmoil.

I promise, I’m not leading this up to a question about specific [chuckles] complexities and change within society, but we know, we’ve all been alive in these last couple of years, and we know all of the turmoil that’s been happening. Here they are dealing with all of those changes you discussed, plus all this other stuff is going on and that’s all affecting them as well. What do you think the spouses who go through this program take away from this experience? What have you heard from them?

Lauren: Yes, and I really appreciate you bringing that up, Jessica, because it is so true. A real driving force behind the planning of this year’s seminar, we’ve been fortunate recent years, I think. There are a lot of organizations that are doing a lot more research around military families and military spouses. We do know, both through research and anecdotally, that the isolation of the past couple of years due to COVID has really taken a toll on people.

I think I can just speak from my personal experience. I, unfortunately, have not done or have not read a ton of research, but we know that isolation can really take a toll on people and military spouses who really rely on these networks of support, and these networks of friendship and community, it really impacted them. I just try to even imagine how lonely it is when you move to a new place and you don’t know anybody. Compound that with you move to a new place and you don’t know anybody, and you have no opportunity to get out and meet anybody.

We’ve heard from so many spouses that a lot of our traditions in the Army where we welcome one another, and we gather as neighbors and as organizations or as units and we start to establish our circles of connection and community, and all of that came to a screeching halt. That’s not something that’s unique to the military community, but it’s certainly, I think it made it exponentially tougher to be a military family and to have that isolation that comes from constant transition compounded by the isolation that came from COVID. Yes, it was a huge goal, a great objective of the course, to get people to connect and to be reminded.

I guess I feel a little bit sad about the fact that even for me personally, we need to be reminded that connection is so vital to our survival. That’s pretty dramatic but certainly, our happiness, certainly our ability to fit in and thrive, in even challenging situations, so we definitely wanted to incorporate into the leadership seminar this idea that they are charged with going back out into the military and getting those connections going again.

It’s a tough thing to do. It’s a tough thing I think for people to envision how am I going to get back out there and get people joining again, get people coming out again, get people participating again. It’s going to be an obstacle to their– a new one for this group of spouses that are leaving the War College, and I know that that was a big takeaway.

Bob, you attending really couldn’t have been more perfect. Bob shared the circle guide to give them a step-by-step process for reconnecting with people and helping others be encouraged to reconnect and to overcome some of that awkwardness or that anxiety around stepping back out there. They are so grateful to have something really tangible that they could take with them to help kickstart that rebuilding of community and that reconnection. It was a huge success and a major, major takeaway from the seminar.

Jessica: Oh, that’s really interesting, Lauren. I didn’t even think about the isolation of COVID, and yet, it’s so important to keep that in mind. I do often think about the military families that are somewhere in the communities that I serve in the Upper Midwest because my community has found social isolation to be such a problem in our community that they actually have formed full groups that have been funded by our local hospital system to work on connectedness and weaving connections within our community, and that’s not even a military community.

The extra pressure of moving to a brand new area where you can’t get out and meet people is really important and I think it really speaks to the uniqueness of some of the things that military families deal with. Also, it speaks to the fact that this is actually an even bigger issue, right. People who are not in the military are also dealing with isolation. It’s really interesting. The more we all can be as welcoming, truly welcoming, and open and connected with others, the more that can spread and perhaps more people will feel more connected, and we can do that even with COVID, it’s just not traditional.

Bob: One of the things, when I got to join you guys in Carlisle that really stuck out to me, is we’ve talked a lot about military spouses as military spouses but just the intersectionality of the whole thing is like, these are people also with careers and master’s degrees in public health, and plans for things, community efforts, and organizations that might be in addition to or outside of their role in the military.

I just I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit, maybe in your own experience or people that you have known or know through the seminar about this capacity that I think is gained from bringing that expertise, that education and expertise and experience from the non-military part of people’s lives to the military and vice versa.

Lauren: Yes. It’s one of the, is the right word paradox of military life, and especially as a military spouse is that, on the one hand, you have this incredible opportunity to be an informal leader in the Army or in the military, in general, but that’s not necessarily– For some people, that may not be what really fulfills them. We want to make sure, and I think the Army communicates this well, it’s definitely a choice to step into these informal leadership roles and embrace them. I think what I really like to say though is if people choose to do that alongside their other ask and endeavors, if they choose to do that, then they can really do some powerful good.

Again, I wish I had an answer to your question. I think in my own experience, I can say that because military service is really service-oriented, almost every military family I’ve ever met understands the idea of something much larger than yourself that you’re giving to. I think that, again, in my experience, the spouses that I meet, they really just are wired that way, to think that they can utilize their skills and their associations with their service member, their experience as they move from to place and learn about how to support their family through all of these transitions.

I just have met very few that aren’t very passionate about sharing that, about sharing what they’ve learned how to do and sharing that and being very service-oriented towards others. I hope that answered the question, I would love to know. I’m sure, again, somewhere there’s a study that talks about– I know that they talk about service members are somewhat type-A personalities and they tend to marry, [chuckles] they tend to have spouses that are also very high achievers.

I just do think that this lifestyle, you find a lot of people that are lifelong learners, that are very ambitious when it comes to learning and doing the best they can and really achieving, and they’re people that really believe in serving others. They really believe in using the skills and the talents that they have to make this life a little bit easier for others. It’s really impressive. It’s really special.

Bob: Well, I really appreciated what you brought to the seminar, which I think embraced that intersectionality that there was a lot of information that was military-focused, which is important for these spouses to know what they had to look forward to when their military service member maybe took on a leadership role on a base somewhere, so that was great. I think a lot of what you also brought to it was education that they could use in ways that they could leverage more than just the military part of their experience in their leadership.

Lauren: When we talk about this informal leadership in the military, it’s really all voluntary, which again, I think is notable and remarkable in the most people who do step into these roles, they do it because it’s a calling, again, that service orientation, but you’re so right. Here at the leadership seminar and across the military, we want spouses to be successful and find fulfillment in whatever that really, I guess their why right or whatever it is that really brings them joy.

If we can offer a seminar that provides learning and skills and information around that can be applicable to whatever it is they’re doing, whether that is a career, whether that’s in their role as the help supporting their children. A lot of them do a lot of other volunteering in the school system, yes, we want this information and this learning to be applicable across a broad spectrum of things that they’re interested in and that they’re working towards and that they’re achieving.

Jessica: Lauren, are there things that emerged from the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar experience that might be helpful to other military spouses or really any of us, to anyone trying to practice informal leadership?

Lauren: Yes. I really hope all of it. Some of it was very specific to a military community but I think the things that are relevant across the board, we talked about pro-social behavior and the importance of doing good for others, and how know in the positive psychology, world, how important that is, and how that builds social capital and how important that is. I think that it’s a good reminder.

I think sometimes when we think about, and again, I’m going to relate this to a military community, but I think that it’s relatable in multiple contexts, when you think about taking care of other people or doing for other people in the busy world that we live in today, sometimes maybe that can feel like a little bit of a burden or that can feel like something that we might not have the energy to do, right. If we’re just hanging on by our fingernails or keeping our own head above water, the idea of helping and being there for other people can seem somewhat overwhelming.

Again, in our communities, we were coming off over two decades of war, so the roles that spouses stepped into during that time, it was just the toughest, right? Some of the toughest roles you can imagine, and we have caregivers and again applicable across many, many contexts. That reminder though, that is something that really builds us up, right? You don’t only have the benefit of building up the people that you’re helping, but what an incredible twofer. You get to do something wonderful for somebody else and you also are the beneficiary of the good positive feelings and emotions that you gain from that.

I think that’s an important thing for all of us to remember, again, after a couple of tough years of a lot of contentious narratives. Again, COVID, I just think that reminder of the kindness and doing good for others and how powerful that is for us and for everyone else. I think that that’s an important one. Again, we had some very specific training on, well, we had someone from the resilience director that talked about how do you overcome stuck points and the stories that we tell ourselves that maybe hold us back, and I think the audience responded incredibly well to that.

Some self-assessment about I’m telling myself that this is something I can’t do, or it’s going to be too hard, or I don’t have the talent, or I don’t have the time. A lot of times those are stories that we tell ourselves that if we look at them just a little bit more closely, we can learn that those aren’t necessarily true. Then we can get some motivation and some inspiration to step beyond those stuck points and go after what we want to go after, whether that’s our own personal goals or goals that we’ve set for our family or for our community or our organization or whatever that may be, so I think that was a very powerful lesson that took away from it.

We had a whole day of talking about informal leadership and some amazing presenters that really talked about transformational leaders, and I think a lot of times, military spouses are just in the way that they– because they don’t have an official role, they don’t really have of a leadership platform, they don’t really have authority, they tend to lead by inspiration. They tend to lead by really understanding the people that they’re hoping to help and really listening to their needs. I think there was a lot of encouragement there in how to be a transformational leader.

We talked a lot about adaptive leadership, and again, spouses are incredibly good at that. They may not be the experts on the problem to be solved, but boy, they sure are good at bringing a group together and listening and drawing out the strengths and the skills of the group to get yet to the answer that works best for everybody, and they may not have had that label.

They may have been doing that for years but may not really have understood that they were leading in an adaptive leadership style, so I think it was great for them to hear how successful that is, and how sad it is to be a follower when you’re following somebody that inspires you and that leads you by seeing you and recognizing who you are and what you need. Spouses are so good at that, but it gave them the language and the framework to understand what they’re doing.

Then, of course, Bob, talking to us about resilience, these are some tough cookies. I love to use that term when it comes to spouses. They’re really tough. They’re really brave. They really overcome some very difficult situations, but the reminder that Bob gave us that sometimes life hands you something that takes you to your knees and it may be not fair to think that you have to come out of that really tough situation on your own, that you just have to be such a rugged individual, that you can solve that problem and you can figure out a way at out, how much relief and safety and concern and love comes from recognizing that you can get that help from others.

I really do think that that’s a really, really important lesson for this audience just because they do spend so much time solving problems on their own. They do spend so much time just really gutting it out, some of the tough situations that they face, and that reminder that help is a beautiful thing and that we all need it and that the more you can nurture that connection and that community, that makes it easier for you to ask, maybe gets you to the point where you don’t even need to ask because people are there and they’re connected to you and they know what you need.

I think that that was just an incredible reminder to this group, and I think an incredible relief because they do feel they’re taking a lot on their shoulders if they step into these voluntary leadership roles, and to know that by doing that with this community that wants them to succeed and is going to be there when things get tough, I think that it’s just a perfect way to round out the week and really encourage them that they can do what they’re about to do, whatever that is. Again, whether that’s to step into a leadership role, whether that’s just to make this move, whether that’s to keep their marriage strong in light of separation after separation, after separation. Again, all the context that everyone has to walk through and overcome, and find some success and find happiness.

Jessica: I just want to tag onto something you said, Lauren, because this idea of cultivating some relationships of people who can help you when you need help or who you have thought of specifically, this person could help me with, fill in the blank with whatever that is. I think one extra step that I sometimes forget about is telling that person that that’s what I’m hoping they might be able to help me with at some point, too, right.

So cultivating the relationship, but then also asking for it, not just when I need it but even giving them a little heads up like, “Hey, I’m really hoping that if I’m in a situation, you might be able to help me with X, you might be able to help me with whatever it is you need. Because A, I think that that even helps build and cultivate the relationship even more and it helps build some more trust, but also, I think it helps solidify the idea in your mind that you can ask for that person, right?

It’s not something you’ve kept a secret. you haven’t kept it a secret from them that you’re going to ask. This is not a manipulative relation, you’re not trying to like build this relationship so you can use them, right? You really are trying to cultivate relationships that are supportive of your needs, but also, I think we forget to communicate what our needs are unless it’s in the moment, and even in the moment, I think we can have some shame and maybe feelings of guilt for asking for help in the moment, so tell them ahead of time so they’re going to wait, they’re going to be waiting for you.

Bob: The other part of that is, also you’re giving that person permission to help you because I think that is something that we definitely sometimes need to do, right? We don’t want to offend somebody by offering help where it may not be needed, so I think I’m glad you brought that up.

Jessica: Yes. Good point.

Lauren: Yes, I need to practice that, I love it. That’s great conversation.

Bob: Well, Lauren, I want to thank you so much for joining us for the podcast, for the invitation to come out and be with such an awesome, awesome group of people at the Senior Spouse Leadership Seminar. Thanks so much for being part of our Practicing Connection community.

Lauren: Yes, I feel honored and I’m so happy that this connection has continued to develop, and I can’t wait to continue to follow your work and to continue to plug others in as well because I just think that what you offer here is just really what the world needs [chuckles] right now. Thank you for all that you do, and thank you so much for sharing it in such a personal way with me and with the group here at the War College.


Chris Plein: Hi, I’m Chris Plein from OneOp. I hope you’ll join me for our 2022 Academy series, Family Well-Being: Navigating the Social Justice Landscape. This online learning experience is coming this June. Take advantage of this multidisciplinary approach to a complex issue facing service providers working with military families. This unique blend of asynchronous courses, discussions, and live events will equip you to identify barriers that impact the family’s health and well-being and identify opportunities for social justice advocacy in your work. Find out more at

Jessica: That’s it for this episode. Thanks again to our guest, Lauren O’Donnell, for joining us for this conversation. We’d also like to thank our announcer Kalin Goble, our colleague, Chris Plein, for contributing to today’s episode. Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing, and Nathan Grimm, who composed and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. Finally, thank you for joining us. We hope you’ll join us again soon. In the meantime, keep practicing.


Kalin Goble: Practicing Connection in a Complex World is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense, under award number 2019-48770-30366.

[00:39:15] [END OF AUDIO]


May 4, 2022
8:38 pm CDT
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