With February being Black History Month and the recent, stirring delivery of President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union speech, I was motivated to further examine the state of the union within the Black American community, more specifically, the state of the leadership within this community. I did so by asking a variety of local defense and civilian federal employees in leadership positions within the black or African-American community some questions about their past, present, and future thoughts on the subject. The sampling was a senior military officer; a senior NCO; a young Soldier; a retired military officer and someone with no prior military experience who works outside the DoD. All of these people have great success in their journey to become the respected leaders they are today.

I began with a senior military officer’s point of view and spoke with Col. Michelle D. Mitchell, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Belvoir commander. She was an NCO and has continued to take her responsibility to guide, develop and mentor her Soldiers, and now civilians, very seriously. She said she hasn’t had very many setbacks or obstacles, but has had to struggle with maintaining the proper work/family balance in her life.

“With the passing of my brother, I had to examine my priorities. Am I putting enough time into building and maintaining my family relationships?” was one of the things she considered during that time. Because of this, her family and her faith are what keep her motivated.

Her advice for those coming behind her is “remember the importance of relationships. You never know who or when you will need someone so, never burn a bridge. Also, always be aware there may be someone watching you. Therefore, always be mindful of your words and actions.”

When asked about what she would go back and tell her younger self, Mitchell said, “Get ready for the blessings that are coming your way.”

She says her leadership journey has been one blessing after another, so she constantly gives thanks.

She would like to see more people step up to leadership roles within their communities and returns to her home community to mentor, volunteer and do whatever else may be needed.

Garrison Command Sergeant Major Scott Guillory was the next person to answer my questions. According to him, “As I got promoted and progressed to higher levels of responsibilities, I continued to work hard, but honed my skills as a leader and mentor. I went from worker to supervisor to senior leader.”

He described his obstacles as not taking advantage of some opportunities the Army provided to succeed.

Much like Mitchell, family is very important in his life. So, put them first, is what he would tell those coming behind him. He would also tell that to his younger self, and stress the importance of saving and investing in the future.

He concluded by stating, “The last piece of advice would be to take care of your body, because you are not as invincible as you think.”

Since Guillory values education, in the next five years he would like to see more Soldiers take advantage of those opportunities the Army offers.

“One of the biggest voids in young Soldiers is their lack of higher education. Most come into the Army with just a high school diploma or limited college,” Guillory said.

He does his part to make this happen by coaching and pushing Soldiers to pursue higher degrees and follow the lifelong learning model.

My next interviewee was Kristin Walker. She is a young Army Reserve Warrant Officer (WO-1) who also works in the Pentagon’s Army Budget Office as a civilian. From her point of view, stereotypes have, and sometimes continue, to be the main obstacle she faces.

Her strong desire to prove that stereotypes are not “the rule” is what motivates and pushes her to work harder. She advises people to never forget where they come from or where their family/community has come from as they move forward; develop pride in yourself; and, if you know the way, it is your responsibility to show the next person coming behind you.

Stephan DeVille gave me his insight as a retired officer. As far as how his leadership roles evolved, his response was, “When I first joined the military, I was young and naïve, with visions of doing four years and pursuing a civilian career. But, because of the sense of brotherhood, my leadership development with strong mentors, and my ability to adapt to change along with the landscape, caused me to stay.”

He says he hasn’t had any setbacks, just situations he’s had to overcome. His advice? “Believe in yourself, not the naysayers. Be humble and pay it forward for the current and next generation.”

My final interviewee was Robert Straughter. He is the director of the Office of Grant Management and Administrative Service Office for the National Endowment for the Humanities. His obstacles were overcoming the educational requirements of the government for advancement.

According to Straughter, “When I became a civil servant (as a GS-4 mail clerk) the need to have an undergraduate or graduate level degree was not as stringent as it is today.”

To overcome this education challenge, he remained competitive by being “an adult learner and ambitious career civil servant.”

Becoming more financially prepared for retirement is what keeps him motivated, since he is in the latter stages of his career.

To his younger self he advises “Spend less and save more. Much of what we spend earnings on are long forgotten or no longer useful in a post-work environment.”

These leaders gave me some excellent insight about their leadership journeys and hopes for the future. Each are doing something positive to influence and inspire upcoming leaders to also become great leaders. After the interviews of such a diversity of individuals, I feel comfortable concluding that the State of “Our” Union is strong, like our president concluded.