In April 2009, Admiral Michelle Howard had been in her new job as commander of an anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden for just three days when Captain Richard Phillips was kidnapped by Somali pirates after they hijacked his cargo ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. “The pirates were using the fuel in the life raft to steer toward shore,” Admiral Howard recalls, “and it was obvious that if they got to shore [in Somalia] with Captain Phillips, we were probably not going to get him back.”
The goal was to get the pirates to stop moving, without stressing them into desperate action. The kidnapping and subsequent dramatic rescue became the plot for the 2013 movie, Captain Phillips, but the backstory, and Admiral Howard’s role, was far more complex. Over four days, her team employed hostage negotiating tactics, came up with a way to push the life raft away from the Somali coast using waves from the USS Bainbridge, and ultimately brought in Navy Seals to kill the pirates.
Last July, Admiral Howard, who was the first African American woman to command a Navy ship, became the first four star woman in U.S. Navy history. She has learned a thing or two about leadership and the power of diversity over the course of her 33-year career in the military. In honor of Memorial Day, Fortune asked her share some of those lessons. During an interview, she talked about everything from her role as the commander of Task Force 151, which devised the plan to rescue Captain Philips, to a life-changing conversation with her mother.
- Diverse teams generate better ideas. When assembling the task force that would come up with solutions to rescue Captain Phillips, Admiral Howard says she “realized we needed to have folks outside the immediate problem to give us different perspectives.” Among others, she called upon the ship’s meteorologist, a Somali interpreter who advised on culture, a former FBI agent, and “a couple of Marines because I thought they’d bring an offensive aggressive mentality.” Admiral Howard also insisted on including enlisted sailors on the task force “because they’re the people who make things happen on deck.” The result: the task force came up with a solution that used the power of water to get the life raft to stop, ultimately allowing Navy SEALs to kill the pirates and free Captain Phillips. Diverse perspectives, Admiral Howard says, contributed to generating lots of ideas quickly. “I often quote Dr. Linus Pauling who talks about how it’s not a matter of having a good idea, it’s a matter of generating a lot of ideas and then picking the best one. If you have homogeneous teams, you end up with very similar solutions.”
- You need to preach the diversity gospel. Admiral Howard is now a sought after speaker on diversity, but that wasn’t always a role that she relished. She recalls that when she was a lieutenant commander, she “was on the phone with my mother and I was griping about the fact that I had all this extra work to do that was not necessarily related to my day job, that was more related to gender integration.” Her mom took her to task. “She told me that I needed to embrace the role I was in or quit the Navy. She said ‘you are where you are historically and until you quit, there’s not going to be anybody ahead of you’. She was absolutely right.” Being first means you have a responsibility to pay it forward, so Admiral Howard studied up on gender integration, diversity, and inclusion, so that she could speak about those issues with authority from both a personal and historical standpoint.
- To lead, you need to let go. As a trailblazer, Admiral Howard has learned the value of traveling light and letting go of mental baggage. “A lot of times I was one of very few women and sometimes I was the only minority,” she says. “If you are one of one or one of few, it’s easy to become self-isolating and just presume that people aren’t engaging with you in a normal way. And I realized, boy, that’s going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have to let go of your own biases and negative experiences you’ve already had and continue to try to be the successful person you want to be.”
- Mentors don’t need to look just like you. “You can’t be what you can’t see” has become a popular mantra for those who bemoan the lack of female role models in positions of power. But what happens when you’re a trailblazer and there is no one who looks like you? “At some point, you come to the realization that it’s about people who have the same purpose and motivations in life,” says Admiral Howard. “What is it you want to accomplish, what attributes are you trying to gain in yourself, what do you see as the paragon of success in your field or in character? Go find the person who has those attributes.” For her, that person was Rear Admiral Gene Kendall, who became the 12th African American in the history of the United States Navy to achieve the rank of Rear Admiral.
- Meet resistance head on. As an African American woman with talent and ambition, Admiral Howard faced her share of resistance as she rose through the ranks. “What it comes down to is, it really isn’t a conspiracy,” she says. It’s generally “knuckleheads,” she says – individuals who have preconceived notions about women and minorities. “You probably can’t just go through life saying ‘I’ll ride through this.’” Her advice: find a trusted battle buddy – someone who will confirm your suspicions that you’re truly facing discrimination and be your ally against it; or have a direct conversation with the offender. She’s done both. “There have been a couple of times in my life where I’ve had to be the person to go in and have the conversation,” she says. “And the first time that happened, I was a junior officer. I came to the conclusion that if I couldn’t get the courage to speak to someone about what was a difficult situation, I was probably never going to get the courage to lead people into combat.”