Being a Strong Leader Takes Courage, Practice

Adm. Michelle Howard, a retired Navy admiral, spoke at GW about her experience as a leader and trailblazer in the armed forces.

Michelle Howard
Adm. Michelle Howard speaks to members of the 2019 graduating LEAD cohort and other members of the GW community as part of the LEAD Distinguished Speaker Lecture Series. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
April 08, 2019

By Kristen Mitchell

Distinguished retired Navy Adm. Michelle Howard said her mother taught her everything she needed to know about what it meant to be a leader with a single match. As a child, her mother instructed her and her siblings how to light a fire and tested their abilities during family camping trips.

One by one over the years, the children were given one match and told to light a fire. If they failed, they wouldn’t be able to cook dinner. The task was an exercise in teamwork and accountability, Adm. Howard said, and it provided a valuable lesson in overcoming obstacles.

“Success can be sweet, but it’s sweeter when it’s done with a team,” she said. “You never know when your challenge is going to be thrust upon you, but you had better be ready.”

Adm. Howard spoke in the Marvin Center amphitheater Wednesday as part of the LEAD Distinguished Speaker Lecture Series, presented by the Department of Organizational Sciences and Communication and the LEAD Division at the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA). The George Washington University LEAD program is an interdisciplinary curriculum leading to a Master of Arts in leadership education and development for a cohort of junior officers who will serve as company officers at USNA and continue to provide service in the Navy and Marine Corps.

The lecture was an opportunity for these military leaders as well as other GW students and faculty to hear from a trailblazer. Adm. Howard, who joined the GW community as the Elliott School of International Affairs’ J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Visiting Professor of International Affairs in August, served in the U.S. Navy for 35 years. During her time in public service she became the first female four-star admiral and the first woman to be appointed to the position of vice chief of naval operations. She was also the first woman to reach the rank of three stars and four stars in the U.S. armed forces.

Clay Warren, the Chauncey M. Depew Professor of Communication and director of the LEAD program, welcomed the audience and introduced the speaker. He said Adm. Howard has experienced an outstanding number of firsts in her career. It was an honor for the students to have the chance to hear her words of wisdom, he said. For leaders, answers are temporary but the questions are permanent.

“The LEAD program at GW is all about helping you find better ways to frame your questions about leadership so you will be better able to discover an appropriate answer for yourself,” Dr. Warren said to the 2019 graduating LEAD cohort.

As women climbed the ranks in the Navy, Adm. Howard and her female peers often faced discrimination from their male counterparts. When naval ships were slowly being integrated in the1980s, there was a time when several women came to Adm. Howard with complaints about prejudice from a captain. They asked her to speak to him—an uncomfortable task—but she took on the responsibility.

She was shocked to see that the captain listened to her explain the women’s concerns and was unafraid of having individuals from the outside come in to evaluate the situation. Leaders should always listen and absorb feedback, she said.

“I took away so much from that experience, most of all that there are going to be times in your life where you’re going to have to be courageous, to do things you don’t want to do but you really should do if you’re a leader,” Adm. Howard.

A leader should inspire others to dream, learn and become more. They should set high standards, hold people accountable and help others get back on their feet when they make mistakes, she said. Individuals can become better leaders by identifying the traits they admire—like strength, stamina, good communication skills—and making time to practice those every week.

Experts say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, which means it takes hard work to become a strong leader. The challenge is identifying which particular skills to work on, and how to grow them, she said.

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