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Women's History Month: Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michelle Howard

Navy leaders and pioneers

From the Revolutionary War to current conflicts, women have played a crucial role in the security of our nation and the success of the U.S. Navy. Join us as we celebrate Women's History Month by profiling women leaders and pioneers across the Navy.

Admiral Michelle Howard is currently serving as Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Q: Why did you decide to join the Navy?

A: The first step was actually making the decision to apply to a service academy and it turns out that was not an easy step. I saw a documentary and thought, "Well, that is what I want to do." I went and talked to my older brother who made it pretty clear that women were not allowed to go to service academies. It was against the law. I was in shock. That was just hard for me to think that there was a world where girls weren't allowed to do the same things as boys.

So I went and talked to my mother and she confirmed that it was the law. Service academies were closed but then she made a great statement; she said, "Look you're only 12, and you may change your mind. But in a couple of years if you still want to go, you can apply and if they are still closed to women we'll sue the government." Luckily, the academies were opened when I turned 16. A law suit was unnecessary.

In deciding which service academy to attend, I did some research. I looked at West Point and I looked at what women were allowed to do in the Army. Then I looked at Air Force and I looked at what women were allowed to do in the Air Force. And then I looked at Annapolis, and out of the Naval Academy you could go to the Marine Corps and women could do in the Marine Corps what they could do in the Army. And then I looked at what women could do in the Navy, and at the time, women could do in the Navy what you could do in the Air Force. And so I asked to attend the service academy that I thought gave me the most opportunity after graduation. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to have choices.

VCNO when she was a Midshipman at the Naval Academy in 1980

Q: Who have your role models or mentors been that have influenced you or helped to guide you?

A: Without a doubt, my parents were my first and most important role models. When I was growing up they were constantly giving us things to read. There were a couple of iconic characters that caught my attention: Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and, as a group I would say, the Buffalo Soldiers. I was fascinated by that group of soldiers, and what they had to go through in post-Civil War society to gain acceptance.

When I was a lieutenant commander I heard the former Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral Zumwalt speak. When he was CNO, Alene Duerk became the first female admiral in the Navy. Admiral Zumwalt promoted her. He helped create diversity in the Navy. He set the foundation for that. He was a very charismatic person and he was in fact, the youngest CNO the Navy has ever had. It was just unbelievable to hear him speak, mostly about leadership. After that he became one of my heroes. One of the big takeaways from him was that leaders have to have this sense of persistence in obtaining goals and to make culture change in an organization.

Two photo collage (L-R) Being promoted to four star by SECNAV Ray Mabus; Speaking with Sailors at All Hands Call

Q: Please tell us a story about someone, perhaps in your family or otherwise, who has influenced you or challenged you to become more than you ever thought you might.

A: Years ago, I was a lieutenant commander and I had just rolled ashore. I was having challenges with requirements (beyond my day job) for me to engage as a spokesperson and conduct outreach. Additional demands were coming my way because of my profile. I was venting to my mother on the phone, and she said, "You are where you are historically; you had better embrace it or leave the Navy. It's not going to change. Until you quit, you're probably going to be the first at whatever you do." And I thought, wow, that is really great advice. I just need to embrace the journey and be gracious to the American public. These are the people who support our military.

Q: Please tell us which past assignments are the most memorable to you and why.

A: I took command of USS Rushmore (LSD 47) in March of 1999. I was part of the first group of women commanding officers to go to combatant ships. I think I had a wonderful crew and still believe that to this day. The excitement I felt on that tour was everything that you would expect.

There is a tremendous sense of pride in your Sailors and Marines when they make things happen. When I have been in command I've been in some great operations: tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia, counter piracy efforts off of Somalia. Some very challenging and satisfying work! In the end, I think we were successful in the missions and that's a good day at sea.

Three Photo Collage (L-R) deployed to Middle East; shaking hands with female enlisted Sailors; as CMD on USS Rushmore

Q: What does being a leader in the Navy mean to you?

A: Each of us brings something new to the table when we become a leader. Our past work experiences, personal preferences and our own innate habits all combine to form a unique style of leadership. Over the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to work with and for some truly gifted and talented leaders. I hope that I have been able to bring some of those experiences with me to my leadership positions.

Being a leader is also about being willing to drive change for the organization to flourish. Whether it is changes in procedure or technology, or culture, a leader needs to have the tenacity and vision to see their goals across the finish line.

An important part of being a good leader is developing subordinates and being a good mentor. Our Navy is healthier and more effective when we have leaders who are driven, determined and doing the right thing on a daily basis -- we as leaders owe this to our Sailors.