Army linguist learns language of leadership as an MIT Sloan Fellow

Lynne McCann


Lynne McCann served as chief of the Army's Foreign Language Proponency Office before she came to MIT Sloan, and the M.B.A. student (Sloan Fellow 2007) had seen a lot of the world. But, she recently said, she found a world within her classrooms and among her classmates--one that has already widened her perspective on the role to which she will return.

Thanks to the "diverse group of students here at MIT Sloan, I'm learning about their countries, cultures and working environments, while gaining experience working with a multinational group," she said.

While working at the Pentagon, it was McCann's responsibility to provide linguistic support to the military. Today, there are approximately 8,500 Army linguists needed for dangerous areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and even in places such as Germany and Italy. Linguists are generally civilians, although some are former military members.

Learning the mother tongue

Under McCann's leadership, the first group of contract linguists was shipped to Iraq on Jan. 2, 2002, and some of them are still working there. When she left the Pentagon in June, there were approximately 7,500 linguists in Iraq, and the number was increasing by a rate of 100 to 200 a week, she said. The need for linguists has amplified as U.S. forces continue to stay in Iraq.

Currently, McCann says there's a dire need for Arabic speakers as well as Pashtu speakers, which are especially difficult to find. Pashtu is the native language of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and very few Americans speak it. The Department of Defense's Defense Language Institute, which originated during World War II, offers 90 different foreign language courses for military and civilian department personnel. Arabic training spans 63 weeks, and once completed, most novice Arabic speakers will still not be tremendously proficient, McCann says.

"We try to recruit people who have Arabic language skills. We train some. We have a multifaceted approach in trying to solve this problem," McCann says.

In her current role, McCann has been to Iraq twice and Afghanistan once to meet with the linguists who are deployed there. She is still in the Individual Ready Reserves as a chief warrant officer four and has never been deployed, but could be at any time.

McCann, a Florida native, never planned on having a military or government career. She has a background speaking Russian, which she learned in high school and college during the Cold War years. She joined the Army Reserves in 1984. She went through basic training and some additional language training and was hired as a Russian linguist. Her undergraduate degree is in humanities and fine arts from the University of Central Florida, in Orlando.

She worked at the American embassy in Moscow from 1989 to 1991 as a contractor. She was there during the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. "It gave my mother some gray hair," she said.

Called to serve

In 1996, McCann received a call from her reserve unit offering her a position at the Pentagon. Her son was 9 months old, so she called her nanny, and then her husband, before she accepted the six-month position in Washington. Before she knew it, six months had stretched into 10 years, and the family is now happily settled in Hamilton, Va. McCann's husband, Bob, works in the computer industry, and their son is now 11.

She was offered the opportunity to join the MIT Sloan Fellows program after she was awarded the 2004 Pace Award, in honor of former Secretary of the Army Frank Pace. When she's finished at MIT Sloan, she will return to work at the Pentagon but will be reassigned in order to use her newly acquired business and leadership skills.

In her free time, McCann has completed 23 marathons, one ultramarathon and one distance triathlon. She has run the Boston Marathon twice and intends to run it again in the spring. She is also an expert Irish stepdancer.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 22, 2006 (download PDF).


Topics: Business and management, Linguistics, Students

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