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'You're in the room for a reason': How to stop doubting yourself at work, says Linda Fagan, first woman commandant of the Coast Guard

Admiral Linda Fagan.
Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Admiral Linda Fagan, 59, did not plan on a lifelong career in the military.

She knew she'd join the Coast Guard as a teenager, but "my long-term plan was graduate, be an officer," she says. "That was it." Forty years later she's leading the organization, having made history in June 2022 when she was appointed the first woman commandant of the Coast Guard — and the first woman to lead any of the U.S. military branches. She oversees 42,000 active-duty, 7,000 reserve and 8,700 civilian personnel, as well as tens of thousands of volunteers.

Throughout her decades-long military career, Fagan came to realize that "it's not a job," she says, "it's so much more than that. It's lifestyle. And it's a calling. It's serving something greater than self."

Here's how she built her legacy in the Coast Guard, as well as her advice for any woman doubting herself at work.

'You shed your civilian persona'

The Coast Guard is responsible for protecting U.S. waterways and ports by enforcing U.S. laws and serving as a first responder at sea. Fagan discovered the organization while sailing with her family in Massachusetts as a kid.

"You can't be on the water in New England and not notice the Coast Guard," she says. As a sophomore in high school, she learned there was a Coast Guard Academy where she could receive a bachelor's then serve in the Coast Guard herself. She decided that was her path.

Fagan got in, but learned that the transition to military life can be a sharp one. "You shed your civilian persona," she says. "For us as an organization, our core values are honor, respect and devotion to duty. And you begin to embrace those values as not just the organization's values, but your own."

It does "start sort of precipitously" though, she says, "literally with haircuts and uniforms on day one."

'Do I feel like I can make a difference?'

Fagan's timing was fortuitous. Women had only begun to be let into the Coast Guard Academy in 1976, just five years before she herself would attend. And the novelty of seeing women in the organization throughout her service was a constant. But she never let that get in the way of her path forward.  

Fagan's first posting was in 1985 on an icebreaker in Antarctica. Icebreakers are boats tasked with research in the region and with clearing the way for supply ships.

Admiral Linda Fagan.
Courtesy U.S. Department of Defense

Going forward, every couple of years, she'd be presented with an opportunity to take on another role. "And I just kept asking myself questions like, 'is this something that I'm excited about? Do I feel like I can make a difference? That the work is meaningful?'" she says. "And I was able to answer yes to all those questions."

"My internal dialogue was never, 'Oh, I don't think I can do this because I don't see a lot of other women,'" she says. "It was just more 'hey, this work looks really interesting and that's something I want to do.'"

'I am in this room for a reason'

She did, at times, find herself in awe of the positions she was in.

Working as the executive assistant to then-commandant Admiral Thad Allen in 2009, for example, she remembers thinking, "I can't believe I'm here. I'm in this room. I'm listening to this level of leadership and conversation," she says. But it was in those moments when she also realized, "I am in this room for a reason."

Women can be especially susceptible to negative self talk, she says, and worrying whether or not they deserve to be where they are. To any women out there doubting herself, regardless of what career you're in, Fagan would remind you that "you're stronger, smarter, more capable, more courageous than you believe."

"When you find yourself in the room, don't second guess that," she says. "You're in the room for a reason."

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