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Admiral Michelle  J.  Howard (Retired)

Admiral Michelle J. Howard (Retired)

First Female U.S. Navy Four-Star Admiral


A ground-breaking leader during her 35-year career in the U.S. Navy, Michelle Howard was the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star admiral and the first woman to be appointed to the position of vice chief of naval operations (the second highest rank in the Navy). She was also the first African-American woman to reach the rank of three-star and four stars in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and the first African-American woman to command a ship in the Navy. A veteran of operations that included NATO peacekeeping, Indonesia tsunami relief, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, she was thrust into the international spotlight in 2009 as leader of the counter-piracy task force that rescued civilian Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates. The rescue was later depicted in the film Captain Phillips. Read More >

Admiral Howard is a former visiting professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where she focused on the cyber domain and associated issues in strategy and policy. The appointment highlighted a distinguished career in national defense within the areas of operations, readiness, and strategic planning.

Admiral Howard led Sailors and Marines multiple times in her career as the commander of a ship, an expeditionary task force and a naval theater. This culminated in her final post as Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Africa, in which she simultaneously led NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples with oversight of missions from the Western Balkans to Iraq. Admiral Howard is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. She is the first woman graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy to become an admiral.

On Admiral Howard's appointment to the IBM board, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said in a statement, "Admiral Howard is a groundbreaking leader with a distinguished career in military service. Her leadership skills, international perspective and extensive experience with cybersecurity and information technology will make her a great addition to the IBM Board."

A gifted speaker, Admiral Howard instantly connects with audiences with warmth and humor. Her keynotes address leadership, cybersecurity, diversity, innovation and team building. To each, she lends experience gained from three decades on the front lines and highest levels of national defense. Bringing the empowering insights of an African-American woman who spent her career shattering glass ceilings and breaking new ground, she continues to motivate others with her highly inspirational presence. Read Less ^

Speaker Videos

Change, Diversity & Success

Leadership, Change & Cyber


Strategic Schoolmarms

Speech Topics

Leadership Lessons from the Highest Ranking Woman in Naval History

When asked if she “adjusts globally” when she is in countries where the status of women is different, Michelle Howard replied, "No. People adjust to me. I’m an Admiral." Born when female participation in the military was legally capped and women were not allowed to become generals or admirals or to attend service academies, Admiral Howard shattered every glass ceiling. Among the first women graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy, she was the first woman Annapolis grad to reach the rank of admiral, the first African-American woman to command a ship, the first African-American woman in any of the military services to reach three stars, and the first four-star female admiral in the Navy. Famous for her leadership of the task force that rescued Captain Phillips from Somali pirates, she went on to become vice-chief of naval operations. As the second-highest ranking officer in the Navy, Howard had oversight of more than approximately 600,000 active/reserves uniformed, and civilian personnel. In this inspiring presentation, she shares valuable lessons learned as a woman in an overwhelmingly male world. Known for her empowering leadership style, Admiral Howard lends actionable insights on defining your mission, leading by example, creating innovative teams, embracing cyber technology, keeping people committed, fostering creative problem solving and developing the next generation of leaders.

Diversity: The Not-So-Secret Weapon

Admiral Howard was only a few days into her new role as head of a counter-piracy task force in the Arabian Sea when a U.S. ship was hijacked and its captain taken hostage by Somali pirates. The successful rescue, chronicled in the movie Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, wasn’t the result of technology, weapons, or military might. According to Admiral Howard, diversity was the “secret weapon” that won the day. Facing a scenario unlike any the Navy had trained for, Admiral Howard assembled two highly diverse teams and gave them 40 minutes to formulate a plan. "When you have a diverse team, you get different perspectives that help you to succeed," says Howard. "It’s about having a team that has lots of ideas and grabbing the best one – that’s what diversity brings you." In this illuminating talk, Howard makes the case that diversity—both inherited and acquired — is essential to innovation. She shares examples from teams that she has led and those that she has admired, including the original Star Trek crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Cyber & Security

As vice chief of naval operations, Admiral Howard placed a special focus on cyber culture and information security in the digital age. Now, as a visiting professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, she teaches a course on cyber and policy. In this essential briefing, Admiral Howard provides an overview of the cyber domain’s impact on international relationships and the development of security policies.  Detailing modern cyber events that generated diplomatic, informational, military, and economic reactions by governments, international organizations, and alliances, she addresses the strategic challenges and opportunities with partners, allies, and adversaries in the “wild west” of the cyber domain. Predicting that all threats that now exist in the physical domain will one day also exist in the cyber domain, she challenges our thinking with various alternative futures.