U.S. Army Brig Gen Twanda E. Young doesn’t consider rank the sole measure of a good leader. The character that motivates an individual to lead with heart, integrity and respect for everyone is crucial to good leadership, she says.
The Darlington native and Claflin University graduate is currently serving as the deputy commanding general for the U.S. Army Human Resources Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where she assists the commanding general in developing leaders, building Army readiness and promoting and sustaining the well-being of soldiers, veterans and their families.
Young previously served as the U.S. Army G-1 responsible for military personnel management, personnel policy development, personnel accounting and strength reporting and readiness of the Army Reserve.
As one of only a handful of female African-American Army generals, Young said the core values she was raised with have sustained her upward mobility in the military.
She said while it is “pretty cool” to have attained the rank of brigadier general, her values have not changed.
“Sometimes we get caught up in rank. Yes, I am ecstatic … but at the end of the day, my character did not change because I put on a star. My integrity did not change. My work ethic, views and outlook – they don’t change. That’s the person that got me to where I am today,” Young said. “Why would I try to change it to be something I’m not?”
The youngest of seven children born to Willie James Williamson Sr. and Annie Lou Williamson, she said the influence of her parents, who reared her and her siblings to lead by example, has also played a major factor in her success.
“The moral compass is making sure that I’m not doing anything illegal, immoral or unethical so that I don’t shame my mom. My mom said, ‘Don’t shame my name.’ So as long as I keep Mom happy and Dad happy and proud, I’m on the right path. And to do that means I have to make sure that I’m doing the right thing or, as I share with my team, stand on the right side of right," Young said.
As the "baby" of her large family, she said her siblings have sometimes accused her of being spoiled. But she said she takes it all in stride, knowing they have all benefited from loving parents who taught and exemplified for them the value of treating others the way they would like to be treated.
“They think I get spoiled all the time. I disagree,” Young said, smiling. “My parents have always shared with me and modeled in front of my sisters and brothers (the value of) … having good character, integrity, being able to be true to yourself and not allowing circumstances to change your inner standard.
“Both of my parents are very hard working and come from humble means, but what they had, they would share with anyone in the community. They were always seen in the community as a pillar of the community because of their servants' hearts of being willing to serve and help others."
She added, “Mom and Dad showed me what right looks like. Not the rocket science stuff, but just that being humble and having good morals do matter at the end of the day and can set you apart.”
Young signed up for ROTC at South Carolina State University as a cross-enrollment student from Claflin and became the first female commissioned from the ROTC program to earn the rank of brigadier general.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Claflin before going on to earn two master’s degrees from Ball State University and a master’s degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Young said getting into a military career was not something she had necessarily planned.
“Coming out of college, I wanted to have a job. So the Army looked pretty good. At the time when I was here at Claflin, the Army ROTC also gave you a stipend. So that was extra cash that I could utilize to help me get through college as well," she said.
“I got in it, I got ingrained in it and loved it. So when I first started out, the thought process of staying wasn’t the main focus. But as I got into it and experienced having the opportunity to travel, meet new people, have new experiences and meet my husband, I decided to stay."
She met her husband, Tracy Young, at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana while they were both taking an adjutant general officer basic course. They are the parents of two daughters, Lea and Tyra.
“He was exiting out of the class, and my class was coming in. So we got an opportunity to cross paths. The interesting thing is that he initially started out at South Carolina State University, but we had never met. We do remember being at similar events, but our paths never crossed,” she said.
Young is the recipient of several awards, including the Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal. She said her integrity helped her obtain those awards.
Her message to Claflin graduates during the university’s Spring Convocation on Jan. 25 focused on what they would need to become visionary leaders in the 21st Century.
“It’s just back to the core values of integrity, work ethic, being able to persevere through obstacles to meet your goals, having that good, solid foundation of character. I think there is no magic road map that is taken to get to general officer because there are not many," Young said.
“For me, when I came into the military, I came in with the idea to know my craft and know my craft well. When other senior leaders can depend upon you to assist them in meeting their objectives and goals, your reputation is put out there to say that person has strong character."
She added, “By the time that you get the opportunity to even be looked at for general officer, if all those stars are aligned – no pun intended – and it’s within God’s plan for you to make it, then I think you will.”
Young said she is humbled to attain the rank of general officer and doesn’t take her responsibilities lightly, particularly since she realizes people are looking at her even when she thinks they aren’t.
“I know that my actions speak louder than my words. That in itself humbles you. So I think humility is a key component of getting you anywhere in life. No one gets to this point by themselves,” she said, adding that her family is no stranger to the military.
“My brother, SFC Willie James Williamson, served. My sister, MSgt. (Ret.) Elizabeth McNair, served, and my oldest sister, Annie Ellis, served. So I had a little bit of military fever in my bones before I even knew it,” Young said.
She credits McNair and SFC Bobby D. Harris, who served as the first non-commissioned officer who “molded and shaped” her, along with several other senior leaders and junior NCOs, for helping her become a better leader.
“I think it is key for any leader at this level to be approachable. During the time when I came up as an officer, I never spoke to a general officer. When you saw a general officer coming, you went the other way, or you definitely made way," Young said.
“So, to me, it’s very important that I am approachable, that soldiers and civilians feel comfortable about bringing their concerns and issues - being a part of the solution for whatever we’re dealing with. That is only when I can be a good tool in the tool kit of whatever commander or senior leader that I’m trying to support,” she said.
Mentoring is something she has enjoyed doing, Young said, adding that it’s just as much of a learning experience for her as it is for the person she's mentoring.
“We all can learn from each other. ... If I can give you a nugget of information that will encourage you to move closer to your goal, I just mentored you. We may never meet again, but I shared an experience that helped you get to where you’re trying to get to. I think it’s important. It ties back into relationships. Never take an encounter with someone lightly” because you just might make a difference in their lives, she said.
Young also addressed the #MeToo Movement., which has been sweeping the country in the fight against sexual assault.
“I think obstacles, regardless of what gender you are, come with life. Being a general officer and looking back 30 years, I had leaders that did not think that I had the right to be in the military, or the Army was the right place for females. But we have evolved with time and education. Our Army has grown, and I think it’s for the better,” she said.
Young added, “There are some good female leaders and there are some bad female leaders, no different than males. But I think we’re a much stronger Army by virtue of having us both in the ranks.
“I think we can only be stronger and continue to be stronger as we move forward by allowing and ensuring that regardless of your gender, you have the opportunity to lead and excel. To me, that’s extremely important.”