Reaching for Horizons

In a broad-ranging talk, Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson invites you to think about leadership, breaking barriers, moral courage, collaboration, and capitalizing on opportunity. Throughout her education and career, Johnson has been no stranger to firsts, experiences that have been greatly beneficial as well as challenging, perceived by many as the unwelcome ‘other’ as she took on roles few or no women had before. Johnson asks us to consider that learning happens best while we’re uncomfortable, and the necessity of a team-based approach and commmon ground. Johnson continues to defy odds as Senior Vice President and Head of Referee Operations at the National Basketball Association.

thanks so much it's a privilege to be here and not exactly in uniform anymore so it's a little uncomfortable it's been about a year and a half Eric and Tom have laid out challenges that are external to us and from Tom's perspective how internally he's concerned about the Navy and I'm not privileged anymore to attend the classified briefings in the Air Force on what the status is but I hope I can give some perspective on this and that we all have our different duties Eric laid out a fairly comprehensive slide about the layers of challenge and the Navy's is concerned by the sea and that domain the army the land the Air Force space air in cyberspace and all of us work together in cyberspace to try to deal with the threats that we face we could go into
some detail even about space and how philosophically we've tried not to militarize it but if someone said about airplanes in World War one they were just reconnaissance planes and so someone pulled out the first gun and took a shot and said oh maybe there's something else we can do in the air and likewise that can happen in space and with anti-satellite weapons and nations who would want to put out our eyes as dependent as we are in cyber were actually vulnerable right so if someone could put out our eyes or keep us from communicating with each other it would really hurt our ability to operate as an Air Force or as a partner with our colleagues across the other services and in fact across the government because we're on the same side and there are a lot of instruments of national power that are not military if we look at it that way but we also are part of a democracy in a democracy we have laws about privacy and we have rules about militarizing situations the founders
were very concerned about quartering troops in our country we had a little revolution about that and so that explains why the federal military authorities aren't enforcement that's left to the National Guard's of the states because we're a republic and that's how we operate we don't have national police which is wonderful for the principles that we hold dear but it's difficult when other actors want to get in between that if the CIA detects something inside where they have to throw it over the transom to the FBI if it affects the internal United States affairs so some of the things we hold dearest are a little bit blocking to some unitary efforts at other countries I don't care about privacy and freedom take on so that's one of the complications for us so all those threats that Eric described that Tom talked about are really crucial for all of us and in the air especially in a
practical level and some of you know this I think there's actually a huge pilot shortage in the country right now not just for military pilots but on Airlines right there we had a huge retirement and a few years ago some of you are executives and airlines and can explain it better than I but it's it's real and so it forces us as Tom said to think differently and innovate and how we get pilots how we train them we can't take so long to do it we can use simulation more we can be more creative but in that Halcyon period of the 90s when we thought we had a peace dividend we also closed air training bases so the base where I went to pilot training Williams Air Force Base in Gilbert Arizona is not an Air Force Base anymore in fact I think they were driving that automated car around at Chandler really nearby so what have we done we haven't had a strategy so these are the kinds of challenges we face but I think you know maybe my background is so eclectic that
I owe you an explanation you know explain myself and maybe I can go into a little history of how we got here how I got here and in the course of the telling maybe make some sense of it or at least there's this sense that that I see so if I could have my colleagues in the back throw up I'm gonna be very low-tech here so I think we're we're gonna be very complementary we had some really cool high-tech presentations from my college from the Army and and then we had this beautiful automations and these are gonna be on the other hand since I'm in the NBA now I don't have aids to do my presentation so this is my stickman version of a PowerPoint if you'll forgive me so this is the imagination solutions conference and so I thought I'd show you a picture of myself and my dog in about 1970 you may ask why was the dog on the roof with
me and I said I'll be honest with you it's because the horse wouldn't do it I used to climb up on the rooftops this happens to be in Illinois to be technical if we go to the GPS coordinates but I grew up in Iowa my dad was a farmer and moved to town and worked for a farm service company so I was sort of a rural latchkey kid the youngest by many years and so on my own left my own devices and I crawl up on the barn roofs and the hog barns were easier because they're lower but this was not a hog barn and I could see you know in Iowa you can almost see the curvature of the earth over the sea of corn and soybeans and the big horizon and the big sky and I used to wonder how can I get and in that big world my window to the world was a library not the internet and those were the that's just how it was and I couldn't know what was happening really in the 70s that in 1973 the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg
had her first equal rights case front arrow versus Richardson I didn't know that front arrow was an air force officer who asked kind of a crazy question why am I not paid the same as the men well because women in the armed forces weren't in the same promotion scale and in fact didn't have the privileges of women could not have children she could not marry a man with children if she did she had to get out you were not in the same promotion scale she could not go to pilot training I didn't know that in 1975 Gerald Ford signed legislation that changed the status of women the Armed Forces and opened up the possibility to even attend a service academy so I entered in 1977 in the second co-ed class not everybody was thrilled about that and so I got my first awakening into hate mail and being told how much I was lowering standards and how dare I ruin an Academy and it's really a shock tactic that was a crucible that actually helped me as a leader later because I
learned early what it's like to be treated like other and I may not know everyone's journey but I know what that feels like and it helps me empathize better with my colleagues and and go forward I didn't know that Parliament changed the language of social wields wrote the social roads will to take out the words manly quality so that women could be rode scholars so I was a Rhodes Scholar and I went to Oxford in 1981 in about the fourth class that was co-ed so I didn't know I was just trying to imagine how to go out into the world and there was a career day at high school and I hope that all of you can be part of these opportunities for kids to have them understand what's possible even if someone that doesn't look like them is in a job that maybe I could do that hopefully there'd be someone who looks like them but if not they could at least say I could have a chance so a career day in Spencer Iowa in about 1976
someone from the Air Force Academy talked about what's possible and I did not realize also at the time that we were in fact poor because when you have food and could go to JC Penney's when when needed that you're doing okay we didn't have the resources to go to college so I was a good athlete I was a good student I was a National Merit Scholar and I thought I can serve my country for a while it'll be like outward bound right so if I can do that anything else so fall into place and when I went to the Academy I had wonderful teachers ten inspiring teachers for every one detractor and people mentored me out of my comfort zone because that's how you learn you don't learn in the safe spaces I mean safe in terms of respect yes but not safe in terms of ideas you'd only learn by being uncomfortable and having to do something new and so I've spent most of my life learning to be uncomfortable and and gaining from it I was inspired to be a pilot by an army helicopter pilot had
been a prisoner of war in Vietnam and he saw me in the hallway one day said I can't make my voice go low enough I'll try good at Johnson I've seen you play basketball you were a warrior notice he didn't say I'm as fast or graceful or accurate he said I was a warrior I did get on the loose Falls but but he said why aren't you flying and I said I didn't know I didn't even know was here Force Academy I wore glasses so I thought your eyes had to be perfect mine were close and close enough and so I wound up being able to do that and I went to Oxford I was undergraduate in operations research so technically an engineer the core curriculum oldest of all the circuit service academies is 50% humanities and 50% stem and that's important for this conference to what how modally just talked about and frankly what eric wesley talked about before if we want to think differently where does creativity come from not just them not just humanities both if you're
technically cognizant you're not intimidated by the math or the engineering you you inspired by it but if you can I lead humans need to understand the human condition and understand history how did we get here why did the founders make the choices they made and yes they were dead white men but they did okay and we've been able to via a civil war perfect the Constitution by expanding rights as our nation grows perfect the Constitution and to understand where that comes from gives us our shared sense of purpose and so it really mattered to me a lot then and when I was a superintendent of the Academy that core curriculum not stem at the expense of the humanities or vice-versa and I'm glad some of the earlier speakers alluded to that we need to know what we believe in and that came from that opportunity now in the early 80s women were not allowed to fly all aircraft we could fly tankers trainers
or transports and not fighters or bombers because that didn't happen until the 90s so I've been living on this sort of bow wave of change as opportunities come up so the kinds of airplanes I flew were these the Casey kc-135 is is getting ready to every field at 1:41 I spent most of my time and 141s that means cargo airplanes that we're on the ground in Africa Asia South America Europe a little bit in the Pacific I didn't fly as much there but I had a crew of people 4 to 10 people we did cargo and Khartoum Nairobi Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean through Saudi Arabia where when I went to dinner after the flight I had to be served last and wear a scarf over my head in a different country which I think we've we've had to kind of contend with as we work across the world the kc-10 the three engine jet every feeling a fighter I was a squadron
commander in that aircraft and I spent most of my time in the 90s in Abu Dhabi United Arab Emirates because as again as my colleagues alluded to our forces didn't come home after Desert Shield Desert Storm we stayed we flew southern watch watching Saddam Hussein we deployed constantly through the 90s so when you hear the services weary is because our people from all the services have been deployed constantly since the end of the Cold War when this so-called peace dividend the giant c5 you see on the ramp there I was an instructor in that aircraft when I commanded a group that trained all the are the air crews on all big jets in your mobility command and then on the other side's a c-17 you might recommend recognize it replace the 141 and it's been a workhorse all along so here's the weird connection with the NBA what on earth does that have in common with being in the Air Force well
a lot as it turns out referees are professional people they have to study a deep not just rulebook but the implementation manner and get the experience to be able to know what to do on a mom it's known as in a bang-bang play make a decision it's not that they're blind you say Ralph you're blind and no they see fine it's processing cognitively what rules apply to this thing in this moment with seven-foot 300-pound people running around at high rates of speed and a lot of times people don't know what generals do I mean I find a lot of times now they'll say well the military and you military people and I go what do you think we do disorder people around and they said yes you just tell them what to do when they do it and I'll be awesome it doesn't work that way commanders generals organize train and equip people with specialized knowledge to do really hard jobs now I will say except for six months at
the beginning of my tenure at the Air Force Academy I didn't understand hate me all the way I referees do and so I'll make a pitch now and I'll make one later please tell your kids to be nice to your grandkids refs you know we're losing referees across the country people don't want to do it people say vile things to them they hate them guess what they're like real human beings and they have families there are a lot like air crews in fact and my analogy is of being a pilot on a crew having to have this body of knowledge having to make decisions in a moment hope you don't have to be Sullenberger and lay out at land a plane on the river but hope you could do it if the situation called for it they get that NBA referees and there are about 70 of them right now we have some injured work over between 60 and 70 games over a ten-month period so they're on the road constantly and studying and after every game they're graded by several entities
and we needed to bring together the program that scouts them develop some evaluates them because it's been kind of oral and right now the NBA is so global we need to codify it to have actual processes and and make it more rigorous and and and write down what the criteria are and capture the mission all the kinds of things that I know how to do and I can spell basketball so it worked and it worked out but I think what I've also learned in my retirement is we can see beyond our stovepipes there are things that just apply that's why jim collins and simon Sinek and marty Lenski write books on leadership and change management because regardless of whether you're in uniform or not there are certain things that prevail with people and organizations they need to understand why are we doing this what's our shared purpose what's my role in this what standards do I need to meet do you care about me those things matter
and for leaders across the board so I bring it up with the airplanes because really that's the connection in a kind of a strange way but it makes sense to me now so along the way um I taught actually political science with Tom Mowgli at the Air Force Academy when in the time he talked about and he had that approach to teaching mine was at the end of class I would ask him do you want to talk for five more minutes do you want to do push-ups and to show you how unpopular I was they would rather do push-ups but but but being part of Education and learning has been really important to me as well I wish I had had that job after this one but I was fortunate enough to be selected to be the Air Force aide to the President of the United States for President George HW Bush for the last year of his his term and the first year of President Clinton's and so this is a picture of me at Camp David on Christmas
of 1992 and he was asking me where are you gonna celebrate Christmas and I said well my husband and I my my husband and I had been married two years at that point I said well we declare out a date in February Christmas because I've got to go to Mogadishu tomorrow to advance your trip to Somalia and I will add that the Secret Service used to ask me how come you're always in Minsk and Mogadishu in the Coast Guard aids in Paris and Prague nested because he's the scheduler but anyway but it was a real privilege to work for President Bush and when I came into the job of course because of the newness of women into some of these roles there's a retired three-star Army general hood fought in world war ii Korea and Vietnam and when I met him I thought retired three-star generals look pretty old now and now I don't think so but but he he brought up a couple of things with me that really stuck and one
was about Barbara Tuchman speaking to army generals in 1972 she's a famous historian especially around World War one era and she talked to the generals and she said two things one that command senior command in battle is a unique role in that it requires an equal exercise of judgment on the physical intellectual and moral scale and so when you're carrying the football which is about the order of succession and a 25th amendment and the nuclear codes to connect the president to the National Command Authority having a sense of that really matters and again going back to why are we doing this what do we stand for what's the morality of this we could do it should we do it what's the best thing to do and that the courage that's required to do that isn't just physical courage its moral courage and general Trevor II said to me and he
would know that when the bullets are flying training and adrenaline take care of a lot of things if you ask a Medal of Honor winner to a person they'll say anyone else would have done it I didn't think about it I don't know about anybody else doing it but they didn't think about it they just did it and we're grateful to them it's harder in the cold light of day to look somebody in the eye and say that didn't work out so well you need to not do that anymore I don't stand for that that is moral courage and so as we think about artificial intelligence or networked airmen and sailors and Marines and soldiers how do you bring about moral courage how do you teach that does that come from literature and drama does that come from just training it's the combination of all those things so I think I've lost the I've got a couple more for you so this
was my last day working for President Clinton that's my husband that was 26 years ago we were much younger and cuter then um he is he is phenomenal so we've been married 28 years now and our twins are 16 so you can tell we didn't live together too much for those first 12 years and I was very grateful for this for this opportunity to serve that at that level again sometimes I don't think people think about what generals doing I was a major then and I went back to flying and then I had as a journal officer of their opportunities so I was on the Joint Staff and I had as a part of the upper route personnel system which I'll mention a little bit every two years I was moving on to someone else and I something else and I asked they had a bear force personnel I said I feel like I'm cramming for the final every two years I was head of personnel for a Mobility Command for two years I was head of Air Force public affairs for two years I said could I do something normal so they put me on the Joint Staff they put me in charge of detainee policy
at Guantanamo Bay I said okay thanks that's awesome really love that but that wasn't really actually a Marine three-star called me and he goes no we want you to do something else now we want you to help start Cyber Command I said I can barely log into the computer but that wasn't the point what I had learned was to bring people together especially at get people at the table to bring the experts together to try to accomplish something greater and one of my meetings I had when I was a one-star general I was with the Comptroller of the the Pentagon and the Department of Defense mr. Hale and then dr. Christine Fox who was basically there was a real person that modeled the kelly mcgillis character and Top Gun and that was dr. Christine Fox she doesn't look exactly like kelly mcgillis but she's tall and smart and that's awesome but the two of them asked me they said what are you you like a general officer with a lowercase
G because I had this eclectic background but what I picked up along the way is how to bring people together and dr. Fox noted that you can bring experts in and say you are the expert detail of this now how would you organize yourselves to maximize your impact and interact with others and very few experts at that level of depth can really do that that's a different thing but if you can get them to the table they can make sure you're not making foolish short-term decisions but they also then can be optimized because you pull them together and so that's what we did so I spent a lot of time at the NSA explaining to intelligence people that cyber can be operational not just for intelligence gathering that you don't have to be covert up into the you know if you're about ready to drop a bomb on them in two seconds or you might need to be but this is the different kind of tactic of warfare and operations that you need to think about it's not just intelligence its operational and then in
NSA's case they actually do a lot with industry and business for cyber defense and security and and so they're not the bad guys they're portrayed to be but it was a real privilege to get to work with them following that job I wound up being head of policy for US Transportation Command and spent a lot of time in Central Asia making sure the trains could get through Kazakhstan to Afghanistan again what do I know about trains but people are people and you haven't lived until the Minister of Transportation of Kazakhstan has scolded you through a translator because someone used the word retroactively we wanted to get stuff out of Afghanistan not just to go in they thought that meant we were insulting them so we took about 45 minutes to work through that but but again bringing people together to say what are we trying to do what's your role in it and how does this work and so my last assignment before I was a
superintendent the Academy was at NATO and I was the two-star general and I worked for the four-star commander Admiral stavridis but I did a lot of the legwork and was his obsolete operations officer so from Afghanistan to the counter piracy in the corn Horn of Africa to counterterrorism in the Med to peacekeeping in the ball in the Balkans and then Air Policing over the Baltics we had quite quite a bit especially air operations over Libya in 2011 but this pictures in the Kremlin and the Russians are very worried about Afghanistan because they didn't want terrorism and drugs coming out of there and admah savita's had promised the Russians we'd brief them quarterly and they were as dubious about me because I was an airman is because I was a woman and the people at NATO figured out I was this the type a American at a certain point I would yell with them is just like anybody else would but to have the privilege to go to Moscow to brief the general post the cop
struts off who was a the depth effect the vice chairman of their General Staff so I had my my British Colonel and my German Lieutenant Colonel and my American colonel and a translator in Norwegian Admiral with me in the Kremlin and it was the same thing it was the same thing to be able to acquire we hear what how does it affect you and to be very professional about it and still be that kid who sat on the roof of the barn kind of shows the trajectory of a life that maybe people aren't that familiar with and so finally so I wound up at the academy and again with the core curriculum fifty-fifty we still have people really pushing you know stem stem stem but what my counterparts have told you is the world's changin we have to think change the way we think and the Millennials and now Gen X just as people have said earlier today really care if you explain why you're doing something and have been be part of that they will
pull themselves together and come up with very creative solutions and so we tried very hard there to pull that together and have education and training happen there so that they be more prepared to go out and serve in the field and so for instance if they're building satellites which they do it wasn't just the astronautical engineers building it we had the business majors and granted this is the Air Force Academy not wharton so we're not they're not that specialized but to bring a different thought process management because that's how you work in teams to get things done you don't do technology in isolation and so we we really built toward that and it was just a real honor loved doing that I miss doing that I love being around the young people and to see what they can do it's phenomenal so I'll leave the pictures there but as I retired and then came out into the world and the NBA called me and said would you come and do this was like okay you know the colleges weren't beating my doors down to to come out there and I
called Greg Popovich who was an Air Force Academy graduate coach of the Spurs and said why are they why would they want me to do this he said because the NBA stands for something they could stand for social justice they want talent wherever it comes and they're trying to you know to grow and to professionalize what they do and so I've been shuttling between New York and Colorado Springs worth with our kids who are now 16 and they're band kids for the last year and a half and I started reading again you know you start reading the books have been piled up for a while and I went back to Barbara Tuchman and was reading about the guns of August and the war plans of World War one and the zeitgeist of the 1890s and it's not the same as now but think about it the societal changes technology changes what was happening in the world the militarism of some of the nation's social movements the changing of the composition of parliament in England
allowed the world to stumble into a world war a conflagration that they thought would be over in a month and it took millions of lives they lost a generation we have to be mindful or not allow ourselves to fall into that again and to think about what's required Barbara Tuchman spoke to army generals in 1972 and talked about courage and judgment and to be able to entertain different thoughts in your mind at the same time and all the interdependencies of them so that this technology that we're developing can serve our aims not vice-versa one of the things that troubled me as I learned more about cyber on the Joint Staff and then at the Academy was think about this a little bit and I'm not trying to vilify Zuckerberg but think about what he said ten years ago there's a psycho and a sociology to the technology and we sort of naively allowed someone to change our behavior
Tom oddly brought up the Russians trying there and and also Eric I think to interfere with our elections to change our behavior to cast doubt on facts to cast doubt on data if our data becomes unbelievable what does that do to our markets our business markets the stock market what's it do to navigation in an aircraft that's part of a network this is really key stuff and when when I started as a superintendent that chief of staff told me make this program relevant for this generation in the modern profession of arms and the modern profession of arms is a networked joint that means we work together since goldwater-nichols 1986 except in Washington where we fight for resources but in the field we work together we have allies allies matter so even people who aren't allies the Russians but the allies in NATO mattered we work with them we have interoperability with them
to come up with a defense on common interests the modern profession of arms and we have to explore ideas about valour people behind a screen in Nevada holding a target at bay in Afghanistan don't just do it for a day and then go home to the pool with their kids they'll track the pattern of life of a bomb maker for months and creates new challenges for people and their mental resilience so we had for instance an RPA remotely piloted aircraft by the way the Air Force calls him remotely piloted because they're not really unmanned it takes about 40 or 50 analysts for every orbit so we don't call them unmanned anymore they're remotely piloted when one Operator was following this bomb maker for months but he the bomb Marek could always put one of his kids in the back of his motorbike before he went over to the bomb making place and finally one day leaders said you know we're gonna have to take him out we can't wait for him to not have his kid there and one of the young
operators said I can't do it I've been learning this family for months and they brought someone else in and thankfully the one day the guy didn't put his kid on the back of the bike they could take him out how do we measure valor in this setting is it proximity to harm or is it like from movies that you have you have one lone hero no this is a this is a challenge mentally and morally for our future leaders and that's a challenge for us so I hope you can get a sense of what our challenges are that we face that many of them their existential in some ways many a more our technological a lot of them really test our fiber every one of the services has code of values in the Air Force we say integrity first service before self excellence in all we do the other services have different words but it's the same thing can we trust each other in this sacred duty that we have I know
what I believe I think as a nation we all need to find some ground where we can disagree respectfully and have that be part of what we believe to thank you for your time today [Applause]