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Gazette Premium Content AFA superintendent says communication is key in leadership role

By Tom Roeder Published: August 25, 2013

The Air Force Academy's new boss isn't worried about handling the pressure of the job.

In her 20s, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson was flying planes to fields in Africa, where charts and spare parts proved problematic.

In her 30s, she was the Air Force aide to two presidents - George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

In her 40s, she commanded an aerial refueling wing in wartime and gave birth to twin boys.

"The beauty is wing commanders don't sleep anyway," she said of the experience.

In her 50s, Johnson led planning for North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Libya, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The key to thriving in those pressure cookers? Talking.

"Trying to lead is trying to communicate," Johnson said Friday in an interview.

Since taking command as superintendent of the academy Aug. 12, Johnson has been communicating at a furious pace.

She has met with cadets, officers, sergeants, cooks, alumni and community leaders. Addressing crowds, questioning focus groups and quizzing her top leaders, Johnson is working to lead while learning about the school, which she attended 32 years ago.

"Being head of your alma mater, I can't say I would have imagined it," Johnson said.

An Iowa native, Johnson was a patriotic farmer's daughter in 1977 when she enrolled at the academy. She was inspired to serve while seeing the world outside Spencer, her hometown of 10,000 residents.

The idea of attending the academy was delivered to her during a career fair at Spencer High School. She was worried about paying for college. A recruiter told her the academy was free and had a fledgling women's basketball team.

Johnson said Iowa equipped her for the world ahead. People were honest and forthright and hard-working. They were tough, innovative and resilient.

"I fed cattle," she said. "I learned to drive on a tractor."

The National Merit Scholar headed to Colorado Springs, joining the second class of women admitted there.

"It was an amazing time of change that I couldn't appreciate at 18," she said.

There was little time to ponder it all anyway.

"It was a crucible," she said. "Everyone has their own kind of pressure."

In four years, she set basketball records that still stand - Johnson remains the team's second-leading all-time scorer with 1,706 points.

"We were fit, we were a team, and we scrambled for every loose ball," she said.

Johnson also climbed the cadet ranks quickly, assuming command of the cadet wing in her senior year - the first woman to hold that title.

She earned a trip to Oxford, England, as a Rhodes scholar and pilot's wings.

She led flight crews of men on overseas missions, supplying far-flung American outposts.

Most recently, she has led an international cast for war planning at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, a job that required diplomacy and bridging communications gaps.

"Working at NATO was like working in Washington times 28," she said, citing the number of nations in the alliance.

In that job, she mapped out plans that led to the fall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi under the weight of NATO airstrikes and a naval blockade.

"When you do an operation, you can protect the greatest amount of civilian life possible," Johnson said.

It was a tough job.

"A lot of that work comes down to communication," she said.

She sees that working at the academy.

Her first target: sexual assault.

Johnson has met with cadets and discussed sexual assault in the ranks, looking for a way to get cadets to understand the consequences.

"When the boundaries are crossed, there's a human cost," she said. "I want to make sure they get that."

Johnson is also looking at how to best prepare cadets for an uncertain future.

The Pentagon is facing $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade, and America's role in Afghanistan is winding down.

The military's role is being re-examined, and fundamentals of the Air Force, including the need for pilots aboard aircraft, are shifting rapidly.

Johnson said the academy's emphasis on science and partnership with the wider Air Force on space and research projects are a key.

"We want to build on this," she said.

She said science, math and engineering are building blocks officers need in an Air Force that's increasingly dominated by computer and space technology.

"They need to lead people who understand the technology," Johnson said.

The biggest goal, she said, is building officers who can enter the Air Force and do it right the first time.

"We don't have time for practice rounds."

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