WATCH: How Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson Went from Being the ‘Other’ to Being a Trailblazer

February 22, 2016, 12:23 PM UTC
What does it take to be the first?
On Monday, Fortune Most Powerful Women launched “Trailblazers,” a new video series featuring conversations with women who have paved the way for others in their fields.
The first woman featured is lieutenant general Michelle Johnson, the superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Johnson was the first woman ever to lead a U.S. Department of Defense service academy, and since taking on this role has been particularly vocal about issues pertaining to women in the military, particularly sexual assault.
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While Johnson doesn’t see being a woman as what ultimately defines her, she explains that being seen as the other (and being in the second co-ed class in a service academy definitely qualifies as being the other) has shaped her career in many ways.
“It was a bit of a shock to be in the second co-ed class in a service academy and to suddenly feel like the other. Probably the crucible of going through that when I was 18 to 22 years old helped fortify me for other times when I’m other for other reasons,” she says.

Johnson was the U.S. Air Force Academy’s first female Rhodes scholar and first female cadet wing commander before becoming its first superintendent, but it’s not just hard work that got her there — it was her willingness to break away from what was expected.

Even her own father could not imagine that his daughter would one day be a pilot. Not because he doubted Johnson’s ability, but simply because he couldn’t imagine it.

“People often say women have to work harder and try harder, but I think often it’s just overcoming other people’s expectations,” she says.

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