IT WAS ON A CROSS-COUNTRY GREYHOUND BUS TRIP that Shoshana Chatfield first envisioned the path that would eventually lead her to become a U.S. Navy rear admiral and president of the Naval War College. The trip, from her native Garden Grove, California, to Boston, allowed her time to consider the opportunities that she—the first member of her family to go to college—would have, and what had made them possible. Even though her family had limited economic means, she had been able to attend great public schools, to play sports, to take part in extracurricular activities, to be accepted to an institution like Boston University.

“While I was on the bus for four days, I thought a lot about what I would do,” Chatfield says. “You think about how awesome it is to have those opportunities, to be able to make something of yourself—to graduate from college, to enter the workforce, to be an adult—and that’s when I decided I wanted to serve my country.”

a woman in a US military uniform seated at a control center looking up

Chatfield is now more than three decades along that path of service. In that time she became a highly decorated Navy helicopter pilot, earned a Harvard Kennedy School mid-career master’s and a doctorate in education with a focus on leadership, taught as an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and commanded a helicopter squadron. Today she is the first woman to lead the U.S. Naval War College (USNWC), a graduate school that develops leaders at all stages of their careers and from all the U.S. armed services, U.S. government agencies and departments, and international navies.

A focus on the seas is vital for national security and international relations, Chatfield believes. “We’re a maritime nation,” she explains. “We live on goods and services that arrive on our shores and are exported from our shores; they travel on sea lanes and under water. Digital tech and financial transactions are carried over the sea, so security on the ocean and having relationships with other nations that depend on the global commons is really important.”

“Quite a significant portion of our faculty and staff are working on behalf of the Navy and our joint force to help decision-makers understand different aspects of the tough choices they have to make,” Chatfield says. “We do a lot of research on behalf of the Navy on war-gaming and strategy and operations. We also do a lot of experiential learning by working through rigorous analysis of applied research.”

As head of the Naval War College, Chatfield is guided in part by her experience at HKS—both what she learned and how she learned it—and her broader experience as someone who returned to education after years of operational involvement. “I’m fortunate to have been an adult learner who was well supported at HKS,” she says. “We have different kinds of learners [at USNWC] and different environments for them to learn in, where they can really explore intellectually and touch new ideas and concepts to help enhance their critical thinking.”

Shoshana Chatfield speaking to a colleague with U.S. Airforce plane in background

“In the end, I guess I found the Navy, or the Navy found me.”

Shoshana Chatfield

Like every other higher-learning institution, the USNWC has had to navigate the difficulties posed by the pandemic. “We’ve had two years of constant change,” Chatfield says. “We’ve seen a focus on incorporating technology to deliver the education, which required a big change in how people presented the material for students. There can be lots of desire to go back to how things were before the pandemic—but that would be taking a step backward. We have incredible technologies for connection, giving us a huge boost in how to reach learners. We have more attendees at our conferences and symposia, including people who normally wouldn’t be able to travel or access our content. This is a tremendous opportunity.”

In her current role, Chatfield is constantly thinking about the nature of the organization she has devoted her life to—especially the nature of its leadership.

“The Navy is about enabling people to work together in high-performing teams,” Chatfield says. Recent studies on the culture of leadership in an organization have been especially important in framing her thinking. “People come in with different perceptions about what a good leader is,” she says. “There’s been some work done that really shows that it’s not the leadership at the time but the legacy of the leader organizationally that endures.”

Now 34 years into her service, Chatfield remembers a conversation she had with her HKS advisor, IBM Professor of Business and Government Roger Porter, about what she should consider if she wanted to move to a new career. He offered three broad questions she should ask herself: Are you excited about doing it and do you wake up and want to do this thing? Do you think that it matters that it’s you doing it and that you bring some perspective that’s important? And are you in an environment with people you respect and admire?

The answer for Chatfield was always there. “In the Navy it’s a robust population of people who are striving, achieving, inspirational. We find it in our junior ranks and our senior ranks,” she says. “In the end, I guess I found the Navy, or the Navy found me.”

Images courtesy of the U.S. Navy

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