Profile with Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson (Iowa & Brasenose 1981) is currently the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Intelligence at NATO headquarters in Belgium. She has been promoted to Lieutenant General and will take over as Superintendent of the Air Force Academy - the first woman to occupy this post. She holds an MA in Politics and Economics from Oxford University, a Master’s in National Security Strategy from the National War College, and a BS in Operations Research from the U.S. Air Force Academy. She is the mother of twin boys.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Michelle Johnson: Wherever my family is – we’ve been living in Mons, Belgium.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Michelle Johnson: I grew up in Iowa and Illinois, so I was sort of a rural latch-key kid. I would climb up on the roof of the barn, and in the Midwest you can see the land against a big horizon and even the curvature of the earth. I’d look out and say, “You know, that’s a big world. I just want to be out in it!” I did not have a particular position or dollar figure in my aims – I wanted to see what I could do.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Michelle Johnson: I walked a soy-bean field and pulled the weeds.

Rhodes Project: What’s the best part of your job now?

Michelle Johnson: The best part is the hardest part. I liaise on operational matters between a strategic military headquarters and the political headquarters of NATO in Brussels, and I explain- -not just the NATO operations that are going on in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean, off the horn of Africa, air policing over NATO and our NATO support to the African Union but also why certain resources are needed. So it’s like working in Washington DC times 28! It’s one of those things where victory doesn’t come with a marching band or an announcement, but you have the satisfaction that you pulled something together that hadn’t been together before.

Rhodes Project: What piece of advice would you give to a young woman just starting her career?

Michelle Johnson: The core of everything is to be competent at what you do, and to have your confidence come from your competence. Problem solvers are valued, especially those who earn respect through results and the way that they get results. Integrity matters. So does resilience because not every idea is a winner. Not every audience, or boss, is receptive to new ideas. But it’s hard to argue with expertise and results, especially if you consistently do things the right way, with confidence—and a sense of humor helps! If you can be a problem-solver in an integrative way, then that is valuable no matter what you do – whether your work is technical-, or engaged with people-, or policy-related. Being able to see complexity, confidently knit it together, listen so you can be effective – I think that’s really rewarding.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any one issue, global or local, what would it be?

Michelle Johnson:  I’d want to help the experts go the rest of the way to understand and counter auto immune diseases, especially multiple sclerosis.  We might even find that these are linked to broader global factors like carbon dioxide levels or toxins in the environment.

Rhodes Project: If you could do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?

Michelle Johnson: I would reduce some of the gnashing of teeth and doubt about how things would turn out and about meeting a standard of so-called perfection.  I made it harder on myself than necessary. I’d have been more sanguine.

Rhodes Project: What do you do for fun?

Michelle Johnson:  My husband and I have 10-year-old twin boys – they’re like a minor barrel of monkeys!  Thanks to them, I’m quite an accomplished LEGO builder. We travel as much as we can in Europe to see historical and beautiful places. We just took them to Denmark a couple of months ago, and in between seeing historical castles, we went to the mother-ship of LEGO and rode rides with the kids—that’s fun.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Michelle Johnson: Within weeks of moving out to Colorado Springs to become the Superintendent of the Air Force Academy, I’ll be promoted en route. But I think it’s a pretty historic time for our service academies and for our military, and how we work together and help make sure that next generation is tuned in on how to treat each other and how to lead in a confident and respectful way.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Michelle Johnson: My children and my husband, foremost – those guys come to mind first. But in terms of work life satisfaction, it’s when you can pull together disparate pieces and be focused on a purpose. When disparate groups of people with different talents can focus on a purpose, that’s when you can feel it. I was a basketball player in college- and we weren’t the greatest - but we were the best when we were all focused and didn’t care about who made the shot, who made the pass, and who sat down for awhile. Later, I flew cargo and tanker aircraft; when the whole crew is focused, you get through these compelling missions in a way that’s successful and safe. It’s pulling together a team for a common purpose.   I just think that’s joyful. 

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