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Michelle D. Johnson Service, Respect and Leadership

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It’s the rare individual who can hold a candle to all that Lieutenant General Michelle D. Johnson has accomplished in her career with the United States Air Force. However, what sets her apart even further in those accomplishments is her engaging, upbeat and approachable personality. Yes, she will speak her mind and enjoy the results, and, yes, she does have a strong presence that commands respect, but, at the same time, beneath the highly decorated uniform is a compassionate and down-to-earth woman who has always had her feet on the ground even when reaching for the skies.

While her current role as the 19th Superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy requires strict attention to detail, Lt. Gen. Johnson all but glosses over her curriculum vitae. She gives the appearance that she has emerged from her achievements relatively unscratched, that what she has gained and solidified over the course of her career is a long-standing respect for her country and those who proudly serve it, while simultaneously giving a strong nod to people around the globe who stand in solidarity for peace and goodwill.

Raised in the Midwest in the 1970s, Lt. Gen. Johnson hailed from a“roll up your sleeves and wipe the sweat off your brow” farm girl mentality. As a young girl, she scaled the rooftops of the Iowa farm buildings and looked out at the seemingly endless horizon, pondering the possibilities for her future. She instinctively knew there was a great big world out there and she had to grab hold of the courage to defy her presumed limitations and claim her stake in it. It was a mighty task for such a young girl, but from the beginning she was always up for a challenge.

On one particular career day while in high school, she heard a presentation from a liaison officer with the Air Force Academy that opened the first door to her dreams. “I realized that there are so many aspects of service, and this man’s presentation intrigued me because of the education one is provided at a service academy, incorporating both liberal arts studies and STEM classes while at the same time equipping students to be leaders and technologically cognizant. I realized that I could serve for a while and then get my education. When I showed up at the Academy in 1977, I never would have thought that in 2016 I would be where I am today,” she said.

A National Merit Scholar in high school, her knowledge of the armed forces was limited at first, but, excited about exploring more than just the corn fields, she decided that serving her country was her passport to the world. President Gerald Ford had signed a law in 1975 that opened doors for women within the military arena, and Lt. Gen. Johnson lost no time taking advantage of that opportunity. In June 1977, she entered the Air Force Academy as a member of the Class of 1981. While there, she grew from within while proving her worth in a male-dominated organization. She received extensive military training balanced with a solid academic program that allowed her to experience studies in both technical fields and the humanities. She also played intercollegiate sports and developed her leadership style.

Lt. Gen. Johnson embraced a lot of firsts as she emerged beyond the glass ceiling. She was the first woman Cadet Wing Commander and the first woman Rhodes Scholar from the Academy. Those successes served as the springboard for her continued contribution in her service to the nation.

Upon completion of her studies at Oxford University, she transitioned to pilot training, earning her wings as a C-141 cargo pilot. That experience took her to all points of the world, from Africa to the South Pacific to the Middle East, as she flew transport and provided air refueling aircraft to assist global operations, often with little notice and in places that would strike fear in the bravest of soldiers.

For Lt. Gen. Johnson, however, she was embracing a cornucopia of life experiences while serving others throughout the world. She was an ambassador to the world, and today she maintains that sense of duty and commitment to her country in her role as Superintendent to the U.S. Air Force Academy, a role about which she is quite serious and for which she is highly suited. At the same time she bears no qualms when noting she is still earning her wings with respect to professional growth within this honored capacity. “I see myself as a work in progress,” she professed. “Being a change agent takes determination and perseverance, and as you move toward more of a senior position, that is amplified. I have a tremendous leadership team to make this institution even greater. I am trying to grow as a leader by becoming less hands on and assuming more of a coaching role.”

One of the things about service academies that can both intrigue and terrify someone is the means by which students are mentored to move
beyond their comfort zone, and Lt. Gen. Johnson was no exception.“I remember a professor of mine suggesting I should compete for the Rhodes Scholarship, and at the time I thought that was a crazy idea, but I did it anyway,” she noted. “And the idea of my becoming a pilot was equally crazy. I mean, I wear glasses, but I did it. At service academies like this, we expose people to things and give them a sense of responsibility and of something that is beyond their age or even their range of thinking.’

Lt. Gen. Johnson certainly understood this when she first began her academic career at the Academy. “I had to grow up quickly as a woman minority,” she recalled. “When I entered, there was a 12 percent cap of women who were admitted to the Academy. That alone is something that gives you an education on how people do or do not accept change.” And while being a woman in a primarily male-dominated arena was one of her initial challenges, over the years she has seen that perspective evolve. “Now, the acceptance or lack thereof comes more from my specialty and not necessarily my gender or race or where I am from,” she explained.

While many of her experiences, accomplishments and accolades contain page-turning stories and anecdotes, Lt. Gen. Johnson referred to a few with grace and humility. “When I arrived in Belgium at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (S.H.A.P.E), we were in the midst of the air operations over Libya in August 2011. It was my job to brief NATO on what happened, and it was an honor to be part of that effort. I could not imagine something like that sitting out on that barn roof when I was a child,” she reflected.

Another memorable moment was when she attended a S.H.A.P.E. dinner in Mons, Belgium. She was seated next to General Sir Alexander Richard David Shirreff, a British four-star general. “He inquired of me how I found my way all the way to Belgium doing the work I was doing, and when I told him my story, his reply was, ‘Only in America could something like that happen,’” she mused.

Outside of the Academy and in her civilian clothes, Lt. Gen. Johnson enjoys spending time with her husband, a retired Air Force pilot and their twin sons, age 13, who were born when Lt. Gen.

Johnson was a base commander. Her husband, a VMI grad and electrical engineer by trade, retired after 20 years of service to become a stay-at-home dad. “That’s how we survive,” said Lt. Gen. Johnson. “Plus, he’s a better cook than I am.”

Now in her third year as Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Johnson is on full throttle and continues to grow in her role while continuing to stretch herself beyond her comfort zone. “In leadership, you sometimes have to learn when to let go,” she asserted. Her commitment to improving the Academy and creating future leaders is undeniable, and she leaves no stone unturned when it comes to her duties. “We have to be secure here, but open,” she said. “We have more than 400,000 tourists a year, and it’s a significant burden to ensure everyone is safe. We have to be creative, mindful and flexible in a world where threats aren’t always obvious. We have to use best practices by being wary, but not grim.”

She also hopes to continue the legacy of giving women and men the best opportunities they can achieve through their years of military service. “The modern profession of arms has become a network of operations,” she emphasized.

“In military service, there are so many dimensions of what we can do. Just being exposed to big operations helps you understand the country and how big organizations work.

We have a very diverse population at the USAF Academy and are exposed to all walks of life. As such, we must trust each other’s competence and integrity. Under the uniform, we are still Americans, but with a different kind of respect for others and for ourselves. There is a strong sense of family and camaraderie here.”

Having moved 19 times to date throughout her career, from that farm house in Iowa to her post at the Academy, Lt. Gen. Johnson has put many pins on the map, but for now she seems to be right at home as she assists with the continued growth of this most revered military academy. HLM

For more information on Lt. Gen. Johnson and the USAF Academy, go online.