What One of the Highest-Ranking Women in the Military Learned about Leadership

Michelle Howard

It seems fitting that Michelle Howard—famous not only for being the first woman to become a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy but for facing down Somali pirates to rescue Captain Philips—has this as one of her favorite quotes:

“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”

So, how do you cross the sea—or, more to the point, lead in challenging times?

Here is one of the experiences Howard had early in her career that she says taught her some important things about leadership.

She was a junior officer, largely working below deck, when some female officers began complaining about a new captain they said was biased. Then one of them stepped up to her and said:

“Michelle, it’s time someone talks to the captain, and we voted that you should be the one.”

“I was stunned,” Howard recalls. “I wasn’t sure I was up to it.”

But she thought about it. “Then I realized the problem was mine. I was afraid. And then I was disappointed in myself.” She was afraid that if she spoke to the captain about her colleagues’ perception of bias, she might sink her career.

Her next thought was: “I need to get the courage up. If I can’t talk to my skipper about something hard, how will I ever get the courage to lead sailors in combat?”

So, she got an appointment, put on a clean uniform, and went to see him. She talked for 15 minutes while he listened without interruption.

Finally, he thanked her for coming to see him and added: “I don’t necessarily agree with what you said. But I’ll be the first to say, let’s get an equal opportunity team out here. Let’s assess the crew. Let’s have some training, and I promise you I’ll sit in the front row.”

It was an important experience Howard says, that taught her that leaders listen and have confidence in themselves. They also, she learned, have to self-motivate.

It’s not always easy, of course. “But some days, you’ve just got to get your warrior on and take that first step,” she says.

“And when you do, bring everybody behind you and don’t care what they look like –because the diversity of the team is what will allow you to lead through change and surprises. They’ll get you to the right place and the right ideas that will allow you to be successful, allow the team to be successful, and allow the organization to be successful.”

Michelle Howard spoke at the 2020 Massachusetts Conference for Women. This article is based on her talk.

More from the March 2021 Newsletter