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Of the more than 3,500 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, Mary Edwards Walker is the first and only female recipient. It’s a stunning statistic that well lags the numerous other social advances in our country over the past 150 years.

But the story of how this woman earned the armed forces’ highest recognition is an impressive study of both courage and compassion.

Born in 1832 as the youngest of seven children, Mary grew up on a family farm in Oswego, New York. Alvah and Vesta Walker were industrious and intelligent parents with progressive and nontraditional approaches to education and child rearing that planted seeds of independent thinking, equality, and a sense of justice that would soon blossom.

Walker became interested in medicine from leafing through her father’s journals and went on to earn a medical degree, graduating with honors from Syracuse Medical College in 1855 as a doctor and the only woman in her class.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln accepted his party’s nomination for president and war loomed. At a time when women weren’t considered fit to serve on the front lines of military service, Dr. Walker worked as an unpaid civilian surgeon, serving in several battles and at a field hospital set up in front of the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. She continued to speak her mind and challenge authority as she cared for Union soldiers wounded in battle.

In 1862, Walker wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton with an unusual request: She wanted to be deployed as a spy. Stanton wasn’t interested, but Gen. George Henry Thomas took Walker up on her offer and dispatched her to spy in Northern Georgia.

On April 10, 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops and arrested, just after she finished helping a Confederate doctor perform an amputation. She was held as a prisoner of war for four months in a Richmond prison before her release as part of a prisoner exchange — for a male Confederate surgeon, ironically.

Walker went on to earn a paid contract as Acting Assistant Surgeon with the Ohio 52nd Infantry, becoming the Army’s first female surgeon. After the war ended, she was awarded the newly created Medal of Honor for devoting herself “with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers … to the detriment of her own health.”

After the war, Dr. Walker became a writer and lecturer, supporting issues like health care, temperance, women’s rights, and dress reform for women.

She lived out the last years of her life as an ardent supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. She died at home in 1919 at the age of 86, one year before the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, which guaranteed women the right to vote.

Fast  forward to the 21st century. Common buzz-phrases like “thinking outside the box” or “disruptive innovation” feel woefully anemic when compared to Walker’s grit and determination and lifetime of challenging the status quo.   

We want our teams to generate ideas and solutions to problems in our industries and communities, and yet we are sometimes underwhelmed by the results. How do leaders create an environment where unconventional thinking, approaches, and roles are embraced and celebrated? This requires a steady devotion to instilling a culture where risk-taking is not only tolerated but encouraged, where mistakes are not career-limiting but career-enhancing.

For me it can be boiled down to one word: Safety. When leaders resist the urge to “shoot the messenger” when things miss their marks, and instead create an atmosphere that’s free from fear of failure and its consequences, then we begin to truly get outside that box.

Try this: Praise team members who push against norms. Allow some of those unorthodox ideas to be tried in earnest. Adopt a mindset of “why not” instead of “probably not.”

Only then will your organization’s potentially groundbreaking work get off the cutting room floor and become something of real consequence — not only for your company or your industry, maybe even the world.

Kurt Greene is president and owner of Arrow G Consulting, LLC, a Knoxville-based leadership advisory firm that companies turn to when their people and team processes are no longer keeping up with where they’re trying to go. He’s also a Chair for Vistage Worldwide, Inc., serving as a coach and confidant to CEOs and senior executives who are members of one of his three private peer advisory groups in East Tennessee. You can reach him at kurt.greene@arrowGconsulting.com.

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