As the former commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM, retired Air Force General Lori Robinson—whose 36-year military career included four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan—knows a thing or two about how women can become top leaders.
She’ll share her experiences—including, as a wife and mother, how she handles the work-life balance—at our next Women in Leadership online session on November 9 (join us!). Following, General Robinson provides insights into the subject, along with her path to the top ranks of the military, how she handled detractors along the way and why she does all the laundry now. Comments have been lightly condensed and trimmed for clarity.
You’re the highest-ranking woman in U.S. military history. As a girl, did you imagine yourself in this role?
When you do retirement ceremonies in the military, they have this montage of your life. So when I worked with the team to put the montage together, I looked at those pictures of me as this little kid, and I thought just that: my gosh, did you ever, ever think that you were going to do what you did? And the answer is no, absolutely not. But at the time when I retired, I was the most senior military woman in the Department of Defense.
What year was that?
2018. I was the most senior military woman in the Department of Defense, civilian and military. There are now two women that have the same level of job that I did when I left. So while I was the first, I’m so grateful I’m not the last. But no, [young] Lori Robinson had no intention of going into the Air Force. Lori Robinson had no intention of anything, and yet she found a passion.
Inherent in noting you were the first is the idea that it’s still hard for women to achieve positions of power. What helped you get there?
All of my mentors are men. All of my mentors were fighter pilots. I was one of the first women in our Combat Air Force. I had people that believed in me, independent of my badge, my wings, my sex, my gender, my race, my background, but believed in me and my capability and my potential. And they put me in places that women hadn’t been before. And of course, the biggest thing I try to tell people is, I still had to perform. So this wasn’t a given.
[At a recent awards ceremony] they didn’t say she needed to do this because she was a woman. In fact, this four star says it: She didn’t get it because she was a woman, she got it because she was the best. And that’s what you want. All of us want that. None of us want to get something because we’re quote, unquote a girl. We want it because we’re good at what we’re doing, and somebody believes in us.
The military is a very results-driven place. Are there opportunities there that you don’t always get in business?
It’s interesting. If you go on YouTube, you can see a speech I gave in 2017, possibly 28 at a women’s summit organized by President Obama. I was the only military person they asked to speak. Now I do have to set the stage for a moment: I spoke, but after Oprah interviewed his wife—and I’m like, Michelle, seriously?
She’s a powerhouse speaker. That’s rough.
Obama, Mrs. Obama and Oprah. But one of the themes of my message was, the military is a meritocracy, and a lieutenant is a lieutenant is a lieutenant. We start out together. Now is it perfect yet for women in the military? No, it’s not. But we’ve come so far since I was a lieutenant in 1981, that I don’t want to just unilaterally disregard that. In fact, seven years after I was an instructor, at the fighter weapons school, the first female fighter pilot came through. We have to claim our victories and recognize that we’ve done a lot of good stuff. When Secretary Carter said that a woman can compete for any job in the military, then we have to claim that. We have to perform; we have to claim the successes that people have afforded us.
What got you interested in the military? The idea of flying?
My dad was in the military. Five kids in my family with six years between us—I’m the oldest. My dad says to me, so, Lori, what do you think about going to the Air Force Academy? And I said, hey dad, that’s not happening.
I’ve been doing this Air Force thing for 18 years now, and I’m done. He’s like, okay, well, where do you want to go to college? How about University of New Hampshire? Because it was our state of residence. My grandparents were there, my family was there, my dad and mom were getting ready to go back overseas. And I’m like, okay, fine. I really wanted to be a teacher. But then I realized that they wanted me to go to a fifth year to get my master’s. And I’m like, yeah, that’s not happening.
Four years is enough.
So I decided to join ROTC and I said, I’m just going to do this for four years so I can get outta my parents’ hair. They’ve got other kids to worry about. And after four years I’ll figure out what I want to do when I grow up. So 37 years later, how did that work?
Sometimes these things are just serendipity. What would you say were your biggest challenges along the way, as a woman and or just generally?
I’m a very optimistic person. The glass is always half full for me. We oldest kids, we have to lead the way. We always dive into things headfirst, and we don’t worry about what’s happening behind us. But I would tell you, and I don’t say this often, sometimes it was very frustrating to be the only woman in the room.
You know, it wasn’t a challenge, but it was something. But here’s the other side, the positive part of all that, it made me so self-aware. It made me understand who I was. And later in life, I would say to the men that work for me, you’re not self-aware, you don’t pay attention what’s happening in the room around you. You don’t understand when you walk in the room, everybody’s watching you, you know?
You can’t imagine when you walk into an auditorium and it’s all new fighter pilots that are there for the fighter weapons school and you’re the only female instructor and they’re all watching you. ‘Who’s that?’ ‘How did you get the patch?’ You’ve got to be confident in yourself. So I learned about that. It was hard sometimes, but the real lesson I learned was how to be self-aware. How to really sit back and go, who are you? Everybody’s watching you. When you take your trash out, they’re watching you. I mean it, you know, all that kind of stuff.
Women are used to being watched, period, even just walking down the street in a way men aren’t.
Right. And I don’t like to compare. I just like to say, so the challenge was understanding, understanding that I was the first, and I did a lot of first things. I often say, I was a commander, I was a general, I was an airman—and I just happened to be a woman.
If I make the woman the most important part, then, you know, I may degrade the institution. But I also realize I did something different. I realize I’m a role model. So I have to take that on too. Through all of those things, there were challenges. Sure. But what I like to focus on is how I move my way through it.
I think that’s something women in any kind of field can relate to. How do you deal with those challenges? What tips might you have?
The biggest thing I tell people is, that’s their problem. Not mine. As long as I can look in the mirror and I can believe in myself and I can be confident in what I’m getting ready to say or do, that’s their problem, not mine. Yeah. To heck with them. I had blogs written against me and all that kind of stuff. And I kind of go, they’re the problem.
The blogs and that kind of stuff, it hurts me because it hurts my family. But at the end of the day, I kind of sit back and go, that’s their problem. Because other people believed in me. Other people said she can serve in this office just like you. Other people put you in a place where they trusted you to do the things that they’ve asked you to do. They saw your potential.
So it’s about being aware of the challenges, but not letting them overtake you.
Exactly right. When you grow up with fighter pilots, you know, when you watch “Top Gun” or “Top Gun Maverick,” you see that attitude, that you really have to trust yourself. And you learn if you’re going to live in that world, and I’ve lived in that world, then you have to say, it’s okay. I believe in myself.
Is that part of why you speak to other women about leadership?
Yeah, passing it on. But there’s another story I would tell you. When I got nominated for my fourth star to go to the Pacific, there was a lot of chatter out there and one of the people that came up [to defend me] was a male four star. And his point was, hey, she’s the most qualified person to go do this. We need to do this together, not just women empowering women—which is important because we can be wicked witches of the west. But it’s also important to have the public support of men.
Let’s talk about finding work-life balance.
I wasn’t very good at it. Because there’s never a daily balance, you know? Especially when your spouse works. And then if you’ve got kids… My husband and I are both type A overachiever control freaks. What we ended up having to do, because at a point he got out and went to the Air Force reserves and flew for the airlines, and I was still an active duty kid, you know, is we would have weekly calendar meetings.
You mean scheduling time together?
We still have weekly calendar meetings, to say who’s going to do what and, and how do you break down all of that. But that doesn’t change the fact that there was a period of time, I would say 10 to 12 years, when he was working two jobs. I didn’t see him very much and I didn’t, I didn’t care.
That sounds harsh. I don’t mean it like that, but it was what it was, is probably a better way to say it. You have to decide how you’re going to work it out within the husband-wife thing. Here’s the only thing I try not to harp on too hard, but I harp on a little bit now, is we’ve got to get over these social norms that the woman has to do x, y, z—pick up the kid, go to the store, cook the food, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s a team. My husband David is a general officer also. And, so instead of signing things General Robinson and General Robinson, we sign things, Team Robinson.
I can’t tell you how many years he did laundry in the house. I do laundry now. It’s a team effort. And that to me is the most important part of how we deal with all that in the work-life balance. Because he would be gone seven days a week. So he’s gone, I’m home, but then I’m gone and he’s home.
It really helps to have a co-pilot who understands that and works with you on that.
To raise a family. And at the end of the day, what’s important is raising our family, right? If you’re blessed enough to be married, because this is my husband’s and my second marriage, how do you do that together? We’ve got two boys and three grandchildren. They’re the future. And you have to invest in that too.
It’s really about choices, right?
I think your word is perfect. It’s about choices. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We just all have to sit back—all of us, not just women—and figure it out. One of the things that I used to do all the time, I would have couples come talk to me and I would look at their records and I’d go, okay, let me tell you who has more potential than the other.
Sometimes it wasn’t the man. But I’m going to tell you that and what you choose to do with that information is up to you. It’s a really hard thing. In my era, we would have kids younger. Well people are having kids older these days and so how does that affect decision-making? Because having children older can allow them to focus a little more on their career when they’re younger.
Get established first.
Yes. [Those cultural shifts] allow people to make strategic decisions, not tactical decisions.
What are some of the parallels between the military and business worlds?
I have been amazed by the business world. Holy smokes, this is a totally different life. But I think the thing that is really encouraging is that there is this notion of thinking about how do we do long-term succession planning? How do we build our future leaders? How do we think about who’s going to be my replacement?
We’re part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s about the institution. I’m on the compensation committee on a couple boards I sit on, and I look at it like, yeah, [in the military] Congress made my decision. I didn’t even get a vote. My shareholder was the nation. So comparables aren’t there. But really this notion of, you know, thinking about long term, who are we going to pick? Who are we going to groom, who are we going to make sure is given the capabilities to be the next x, y or z? That’s one of the most important things you can do for an institution of any kind.