Ms. Flournoy’s résumé may seem correct for the moment. She first served in the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton and was Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012 – the highest role for a woman in the Pentagon at the time. She removed her name from the competition for the top job in 2014 when Mr Obama initially considered her to succeed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Instead, she became a senior consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and subsequently founded the consulting firm WestExec Advisors. Her second shot at work was sunk when Hillary Clinton – who was widely expected to be named – lost the 2016 presidential election.
Ms. Flournoy was known for moving seamlessly between the civil and active sides of the Pentagon, bridging the often impenetrable gap between uniformed men and suits – a skill that may be lost in the role of a retired general. She did this, her fans said, by translating the political imperatives of the civilian population into the active military world and carefully helping the civilian side understand the practical needs and limitations of the military in order to see through the political goals of the elected officials.
“She’s tremendously talented and the last thing I think about is that she’s a woman,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff at the time of the Afghan boom, for whom she campaigned for the Obama White House. “From my point of view, that’s a great thing.”
The transition of the president
Among women who work in the national security trenches, an area in which men – and what Ms. Flournoy often refers to as their “mini mes” who follow them – have historically dominated, Ms. Flournoy is widely viewed as an essential mentor.
“She was used as a role model for navigating a male-dominated job by an entire generation of national security women,” said Michigan Democrat Representative Elissa Slotkin, who also worked for Ms. Flournoy. “The lesson she taught for women is that you always have to be well prepared in the room. I literally learned that from her and now I’m passing it on to the young women who work for me. “
Celeste Wallander, President of the US-Russia Foundation, is one of a multitude of women who consider Ms. Flournoy to be central to their successful career. Ms. Wallander recalled a time in 1989 when both were academics at Harvard when Ms. Wallander, very young, was usually removed from the invitation list for dinners and other events with key players in her field. Mrs. Flournoy had them added quietly to the lists. “I met people because I was at the table now,” said Ms. Wallander.