Admiral Michelle Harris is the first woman and the first African American to be promoted to a four star role in the US Navy, and the first African American woman both to command a ship, and later, to reach three-stars. She was recently appointed to be the US Navy’s vice chief of operations – its second-highest-ranking officer. She was also the officer who masterminded the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates – later dramatised in the Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips.
Michelle Howard was born in 1960 to an American father and British mother. Her father was a Master Sergeant in the US Air Force. She graduated from the US Naval academy and then earned a master’s degree in military arts and sciences in 1998 from the Army’s Command and General Staff College. When she took command of the U.S.S. Rushmore in 1999, she became the first African-American woman to command a ship in the US Navy.
Howard was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) – equivalent to Commodore in the UK’s Royal Navy – in 2007 and to rear admiral, in 2010. She was promoted to vice admiral in 2012, and then, on 1 July 2014, she was promoted to four-star admiral with President Obama’s nomination (since unanimously confirmed by the Senate) to become the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.
From her earliest days as a junior officer, Howard was recognised as an outstanding leader. On only her second posting, aboard USS Lexington, she received the Secretary of the Navy/Navy League Captain Winifred Collins award for the one woman officer a year showing the most outstanding leadership.
But it has not always been easy. Howard said in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1999 that, in the course of her career, she encountered ‘individuals who didn’t want me at the command, or didn’t want me in a particular position.’
Speaking about the obstacles she has faced as an African American woman, she said in a 2010 talk about women and minorities in the Navy: ‘This is not for wimps. You have to keep a sense of humor. You have to develop stamina because there’s going to be tough days. Like the pioneering women of old, you have to let some things go.’
But, for this blog, the most valuable interview is the one that she recently gave to Forbes Magazine, which you can read in full, and watch extracts below.
The five leadership lessons that Howard offers are powerful indeed, not least because of the authority and careful consideration she brings to them.
- If you want to innovate, first take a hard look at yourself–and be flexible about making changes.
- Create space for creativity–you never know what could result.
- A morning routine can boost observation, not just efficiency. (my own personal favourite)
- An appreciation for the lessons of the past will help you better craft the future.
- Create an environment where employees can meet personal goals and they’ll strive that much harder for the professional ones, too.
I shall not give more detail, because you can readily read it on the Forbes website. Please do.