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In an exclusive interview, I had the pleasure of sitting down with U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Telita Crosland, the fourth director of the Defense Health Agency, to delve into her extraordinary leadership journey. Throughout our discussion, she shared personal anecdotes and insights that have shaped her life as a leader, woman and an African American professional. From her humble beginnings in the boroughs of New York City, to her current role as a trailblazer in military medicine, she reflects on pivotal moments and offers invaluable advice to aspiring leaders.

Crosland was born in the Brooklyn and later raised in Queens, where she cultivated a great passion for service and leadership. Reflecting on her upbringing, she described the tightly knit community. Crosland drew parallels to television shows of yesteryear, reminisced about her neighborhood, comprising rows of cozy, free-standing houses, the environment where she cherished the close bonds within her family, including her mother, father, two brothers, and sister — each contributing to the formative childhood memories that shaped her early life and who she is today. 

At an early age, Crosland knew she wanted to become a doctor. “I always wanted to be a physician, since I was about 5 years old,” Crosland said of her calling to the profession. 

Inspired by a childhood book and fueled by her determination, she even wrote a poem affirming her aspirations. Throughout her upbringing, she stayed steadfast in her desire to pursue a career in medicine. She attributes her unwavering determination to her parents, whom she considers her greatest inspiration.  

Values

Her parents and family instilled in her a trio of values she has carried throughout her journey: expectations, accountability and unconditional love. 

“You take those expectations, accountability and unconditional love, and you apply that to who you are as an adult and as a leader,” Crosland said. “As a leader, my job is to make sure I set the conditions so that those expectations can be realized. Absolutely, I see the fingerprints of my parents on the accountability — you’re here to bring value. “You’re here to contribute to this world no matter what, do what is right. ” 

“My sister is a teacher, and my brother is in law enforcement,” she added. “A lot of us serve, but you have to do good for others. That starts with doing good for your family.” 

She explained it as first, they set high expectations, not only for her but also for her siblings. Next, they emphasized the importance of accountability, teaching her to take responsibility for her actions. Lastly, they showered her with unconditional love, affirming her value as a human being and instilling in her a duty to contribute to her family, her community and beyond. 

Framing

Addressing the intersectionality of her identity as a woman and an African American in the military, Crosland said she doesn’t focus her achievements through that lens. 

“I don’t actually frame anything I do day-in and day-out in the terms of my race or my gender. That’s always been a hard question for me to answer,” she said. “It’s not because I don’t understand the responsibility … certainly, there are challenges that come from being a woman in the military, there are challenges that come from being African American and being in the military.”

“As I became more senior, I had a better appreciation of my role and responsibility to be a good role model for the community of women and African Americans and service members,” Crosland continued. “Folks will look at me and they will see different aspects that resonate with them. And I’m accountable and responsible for the parts that resonate with them. Whether you’re a woman, whether you’re African American, and I didn’t always lean into that, but I certainly become more mindful of it and try to lean into that by being more accessible, being more transparent, so that folks understand who you are.” 

Crosland does not frame her accomplishments solely in terms of race or gender. She emphasizes that while she acknowledges the significance of her role in representing these attributes in the military and society, she does not classify her achievements based on these factors. Instead, she focuses on embracing her unique identity and strives to inspire others, surpassing barriers and dispelling stereotypes along the way. 

As a massive advocate for mentorship and professional development, Crosland underscores investing in the next generation. She highlights the significance of mentorship and emphasizes the responsibility of other leaders to share their stories to help contribute to the growth of others.  

“The most significant thing I will do as a director is make sure the organization is positioned to continue its legacy of greatness to do the hard work,” she explained. “The only way you do that is invest in those around you — to help them grow, learn and be positioned to say, ‘We’ve got to invest in our future, and so I’m committed to that for our entire team,’ regardless of your race, regardless of your gender.” 

“I am mindful that if I communicate the right way, authentically, transparently, truthfully, that it will resonate with minorities, it will resonate with women because they’ll see themselves in me.” 

Learning From Experiences

She prioritizes leader development and ensures the Defense Health Agency is positioned to uphold its legacy of greatness. With a commitment to the professional development of her team, she communicates authentically, fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging to all within the DHA. In addition, she offers sound advice to young individuals and urges them to stay present, embrace challenges and never succumb to self-doubt. She reflects on her early days as a medical intern to assuming command as a colonel. Each milestone has shaped her resilience and fortitude into what it is today.

Crosland encourages the next generation to seize opportunities and chart their path to success. 

“When I was younger, everything was a big deal,” Crosland said. “Everything felt intense. Everything felt that this is the moment, and looking back on myself, I would say, ‘take a deep breath. Be in the moment.'” 

She also highlights the importance of taking a deep breath and placing each experience in context. Crosland encourages aspiring leaders to be present, using their current resources and knowledge to do their best. She cautions against focusing on the uncertainties of tomorrow by noting, “Don’t borrow worry from tomorrow; it will find you,” urging individuals not to waste present opportunities due to worries about the future. 

“You don’t need to squander opportunity because you’re worried about tomorrow,” she said. “So, I would say don’t blow things out of proportion. Do your best at what is at hand. Value how you do it with the people around you, make it a positive experience; you control that. Don’t cede that control to anyone else.” 

As a dedicated mother, Crosland shares the importance of family in her life. She dotes on her soon-to-be 14-year-old son, describing him as a good-natured and well-adjusted individual who has already surpassed her height. Above all else, motherhood is the highest priority for Crosland, and she notes that the military has never forced her to choose between her career and her family. 

“The military does not make you sacrifice your family. We must sacrifice to be in the military, but we are not made to sacrifice our families,” she said. “I’ve always had room in my career to balance.” 

While acknowledging the sacrifices inherent in military service, she affirms that she has always found room to prioritize family in her career. She stresses her commitment to being present for her son, ensuring she is there for him during significant milestones and experiences — just as he is there for her. Her dedication to family stresses Crosland’s approach to leadership, one that values personal fulfillment alongside professional achievement. 

Additional Reflections

Crosland shared several milestones in her career that she considers groundbreaking. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1989, she highlighted the significant growth she experienced as an intern in medical training, which allowed her to grow, learn and mature. She touched on a moment when she assumed her first O-6 command, learning how to lead a team beyond simply driving it forward. She recalled guiding her team while trusting them to navigate their paths, even when they encountered challenges. 

As she rose to the rank of general officer, Crosland faced a steep curve of increased responsibility and fostered deeper insights into leadership. Despite initial discomfort with the perceptions others may have had of her, she now embraces her role as a visible figure. She strives to ensure that the script others write for her reflects the reality of her leadership and life journey. 

“When I took my first O-6 command, learning how to be part of and lead a team versus being the one who gets to do it and drive it,” she said. “It’s a different skillset and the Army at the time, the Army, needed something different from me and learning how to bring a group together.” 

Sports has been integral to her life, and as a young girl, she was called “She-Ra, Princess of Power.” But if given the chance to master one skill or endeavor, Crosland expresses her desire to learn to play the piano. Music holds a special place in her heart. She finds joy in listening to music and enjoys attempting to play the piano. Looking ahead to retirement after decades of military service, she envisions dedicating time to piano lessons exploring deeper into her passion for music. 

If allowed to possess a superpower for just one day, Crosland expresses her wish to suspend pain and suffering worldwide, imagining a day when nobody experiences anguish or distress. Her desire for this power goes beyond personal gain and reflects on the deep-rooted values instilled by her upbringing. From her parents’ teachings of expectations, accountability and unconditional love, Crosland learned the importance of caring for others and contributing positively to the world. Her choice of superpower aligns with these values, highlighting her commitment to alleviating suffering and fostering compassion on a global level. 

In the essence of leadership, Crosland stands as a testament to the power of resilience and unwavering determination. Her story is a personal triumph and a testament to human potential. As she looks toward the future, Crosland remains committed to her dedication to service and is optimistic that she will leave behind a legacy of empowerment and inspiration for all.

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