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What more than 30 years in the military taught Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson about leadership

October 13, 2015, 9:15 PM UTC

Though she excelled in most disciplines while at the Air Force Academy, Lieutenant General Michelle Johnson distinguished herself in sports—particularly basketball.

“In sports, we all just wanna win so it doesn’t matter if you take the shot or make the pass,” she said on Tuesday at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. “You see that when people have the same vision, they can bring their talents in to help you win. Sometimes you just don’t see that we’re on the same team.”

Johnson has served in the military for over three decades, and if there’s one thing she’s learned makes for an effective leader, it’s understanding. “In the last 10 years of my career as an officer, I’ve found myself to be a little bit of a generalist,” she said. “I think it helps me empathize better with my colleagues.”

Understanding is also key to tackling some of the military’s most devastating issues, said Johnson. This is especially the case when it comes to sexual assault. The problem isn’t so much that the Air Force Academy and its faculty and don’t care to make the environment safe for students, but rather that there’s a lack of information and understanding. For example, the academy’s athletic department wasn’t directly connected to the school’s resources for assault victims when she took over as superintendent. (Johnson is the first woman ever to lead a U.S. Department of Defense service academy.)

Most assaults happen one-on-one situations, which aren’t easy to identify and stop. “[The academy] hadn’t been made aware of what was happening,” Johnson said. Because of that, she has been working to integrate training and resources across the board to make it clear that safety is a priority.

“When the faculty is on board and the coaches are on board, we can create a climate where when the predators do come out, they stand out” and can be stopped, she concluded.

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