Humility at heart of superintendent's career

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson remembers where she came from.

Before she was a she was a Rhodes Scholar, she was a cadet. Before she was one of Air Force's top-scoring women's basketball players, she played at a high school in the northwest corner of Iowa. And before all of that, she was a kid on a farm.

Johnson's sense of humility has stuck with her since those high school days, and it's taught her valuable lessons.

"My dad had been a farmer but moved to town by the time I came to be," she said. "He wanted us to know what life was like, though -- hard-working -- so I walked soybean fields and cleaned horse stalls and fed cattle just to know what it was like to be a farm kid."

The family moved around for a few years before settling in Spencer, Iowa, population 11,181. Johnson was a sprinter and hurdler on the track team, which was one of the best in the state. She also played on the Tigers women's basketball team, where she was named all-state honorable mention.

An Academy liaison officer came to Spencer High School on a career day in 1976, Johnson recalled.

"I was getting applications from Ivy League schools and other big schools and thought I might go on to become an engineer somewhere, but I was inspired and intrigued by the opportunity to serve," she said.

President Gerald Ford signed legislation in 1975 allowing women to attend the military service academies. Johnson would join the Class of 1981, the second graduating class to include both men and women.

"It sounded like a great challenge and a great opportunity," she said. "I thought, 'What a great opportunity to serve.' And no matter what happened after that, what a great grounding."


Johnson embodies the Class of 1981's "Second to None" motto. She still holds Academy records for average points per game with 17.6 and career field goals with 689, and her name is one of six in the inaugural class of Academy Athletic Hall of Fame inductees. The Falcons went to two Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournaments during her four years. She was also an Academic all-American and said she's most proud of that accomplishment.

It was on the court that Johnson, a team co-captain for three years, gained her first solid leadership experience.

"One of the most practical applications of leadership we have is on the sports teams, including the intramural teams," she said. "I think we learn from it in terms of holding one another accountable. You correct a teammate: If they're throwing a pass at your feet, you say, 'This is not helpful, can you pass so I can catch it?'"

Johnson proved no less comfortable in military and academic areas. She took command of the Cadet Wing during the spring semester of her senior year - becoming the first woman to hold that position. In addition, her academic mentors encouraged her to compete for a Rhodes scholarship, which the British Parliament made available to women in 1977.

"That's what's unique about our education: People really, really try to help you stretch," Johnson said. "That was the case, certainly with my air officer commanding and my instructors."

Johnson said she didn't think she could win a Rhodes scholarship, so she was relaxed when she met the Rhodes committee.

"I approached the competition with a sense of humility: 'I'll do my best, but I really don't have high expectations,'" she said. "It's a little bit like sports. If you're a little bit nervous but relaxed enough to think, 'You know what, I've got nothing to lose,' you go out and actually do well.

"So in the interviews, it was really fun. I kept my sense of humor and had the committee laughing with me and also thinking with me," she continued. "It was a great experience, and when they chose me, it was a delightful surprise."


Fast forward to 1996. Johnson, who had already spent two years with the 9th Air Refueling Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., as an instructor pilot, flight commander and operations officer, assumed command of a squadron. The responsibilities at that level broaden greatly and encompass training, professional development, support and discipline.

"People have families. People have lives. They have health problems, they have hopes and dreams," she said. "You address those very personally but still focus on the mission."
The mantel of command, Johnson said, changes people.

"We hope here, at the Academy, we can somehow start planting those seeds for people to have a sense of what that feels like," she said, "so when cadets become lieutenants who become commanders, they're mentally ready to take that on."

Johnson's first group command came in 2000, two years after she left Travis AFB. In June 2002, she assumed command of the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell AFB, Kan.

"Being a group commander or a wing commander and beyond, you're leading institutions," she said. "It's executive leadership, and that's a different adjustment to make."

Group and wing commanders must rely on their subordinate commanders to communicate their intent through every level, Johnson said.

"We're hierarchical. If you don't have the hierarchy worked out so there's teamwork vertically and horizontally, then you can get stovepipes, and the stovepipes sub-optimize what people are trying to do," she said. "You're not benefiting from what others bring to the game."

The key to removing those stovepipes -- and one of the keys to leading an organization -- is to listen, she said.

"If you listen to somebody, you can tell if something's weighing on them," she said. "You can tell if they're hurting. You can tell if they're doing well. That's part of leadership, too: understanding where your people really are, and when they say everything's fine, that everything might not be fine."


Johnson used her first superintendent's call to focus Academy staff on producing lieutenants for the Air Force and the nation. She praised the cadet cadre and staff who led the Class of 2017 through Basic Cadet Training and encouraged the freshmen to build on the challenges they've already overcome.

"When you suffer reverses, keep your perspective and say, 'I can turn my predicament into an accomplishment; I can overcome this,'" she said. "I think that's why people come here: to be challenged and see how resilient they can be, to overcome adversity. And those kinds of life lessons are very real. This is a very real leadership experience because life brings adversity."

Overcoming challenges through humility ties back to the Academy mission, Johnson said.

"At the Air Force's Academy, we produce lieutenants for our Air Force and our nation," she said. "Our officers will experience challenges throughout their career but here at the Academy, we try to give them everything they need to successfully overcome those challenges and lead by example."