For Michelle Howard, Saving Captain Phillips Is Her Least Impressive Accomplishment

Meet the first female vice chief of naval operations.

Admiral Michelle Howard is the vice chief of naval operations. (National Journal)

In April 2009, Michelle Howard was just three days into her new job as head of a U.S. Navy task force charged with countering piracy in the Arabian Sea, when a cargo ship sailing under a U.S. flag was hijacked by pirates. Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, was taken hostage in the waters southeast of Eyl, Somalia, and transferred to a small life raft; it was Howard's job to get him back. She did (the incident later inspired the 2013 movie Captain Phillips), which was no minor feat. "There certainly wasn't anyone I could turn to and say, 'How do you rescue someone from a life raft? How do you do negotiations with pirates at sea?'"Š" Howard recalled in an interview last year. "It had never been done before."

Adm. Michelle Howard is the vice chief of naval operations. (Chet Susslin)Howard, however, is no stranger to firsts. She was the first woman to graduate from Annapolis and reach the rank of flag officer, the first African-American woman to command a ship, the first African-American woman in any of the armed services to reach three stars, and the first four-star female admiral in the Navy. And this  past year, Howard, 55, became the first African-American and the first female vice chief of naval operations.

When I visit Howard in her office in the outermost ring of the Pentagon, she seems perfectly relaxed; she may now be the second-highest-ranking commissioned officer in the Navy, but at least her day-to-day doesn't generally involve pirates. What it does involve is assessing the Navy's war-fighting requirements and capacity, and making sure the sailors have what they need to do the job. It also entails looking at the business end of the Navy, and that, Howard says, means "sitting down with the providers, working our way through their budgets, what their missions are, and whether they have the right resources to meet their missions."

Born in Riverside, California, Howard and her family moved frequently when she was young because her father was in the Air Force. (She considers Colorado her home state.) In 1982, she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and began to distinguish herself quickly; during her initial sea tours, she received an award given to one female officer each year for outstanding leadership skills. From there, she reported to the USS Mount Hood as chief engineer and, in the summer of 1992, assumed duties as first lieutenant on board the USS Flint. In 1996, she became executive officer of the USS Tortuga. Two years later, she graduated from the Army's Command and General Staff College, and the year after that, she took command of the USS Rushmore. Commanding a ship, she tells me, has always been the job she enjoyed the most and the one that "resonated."

All the while, Howard was moving up steadily through the ranks. By 2007, she was a rear admiral (lower half) and a senior military assistant to the secretary of the Navy. In 2009, she led the task force to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean. In 2010, she was tapped to be chief of staff for the director of strategic plans and policy. Two years later, she made vice admiral, and became deputy commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. In July 2014, she was promoted to admiral and assumed her current position.

Howard knows exactly how far women have come in the world of defense over the past half-century. At the Leadership Summit for Women in National Security Careers in Arlington this April, she told the crowd that when she was just 12 years old, she knew she wanted to go to a service academy, but at the time they didn't accept women. Her mother—whom Howard cites as her greatest role model and source of leadership inspiration—told her not to give up. "If you still want to when you're old enough to apply, and if they're still closed to women, we'll sue the government," she recalls her mom saying. (As it turned out, they didn't have to: The Naval Academy began accepting women in 1976, two years before Howard graduated from high school.)

She credits her success, and the successes of today's armed forces, at least in part to a secret weapon: diversity. After the Captain Phillips incident in 2009, Howard noted that the advisers who helped her design the rescue plan had a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and she emphasized the value of both inherent diversity—gender, race, and ethnicity—and the acquired diversity of learned experience. Good leadership, she told her audience at a conference in Boston this fall, wants to hear from a broad range of voices: "We harvest their good ideas. We empower them. We listen to them. And we are successful as organizations."