Smartly Student Spotlight: Michael Morales

Smartly Executive MBA student Michael Morales

Smartly’s student body is incredibly diverse, bringing together learners from around the globe and across industries. But for all the unique experiences and perspectives each student brings to their cohort, there are a few defining characteristics that embody what Smartly stands for: the passion to keep learning and the drive to push oneself to the next level. Perhaps no one better embodies this mentality than Air Force veteran and White House Fellow Michael Morales.

Mike’s accomplishments range from mentoring fellow veterans, being a TEDx speaker, and holding a delegate post for an international leadership program. How is one person capable of doing all of this? Mike has an answer: curiosity and work ethic.

Curiosity and work ethic have always been major characteristics that have guided Mike throughout his life. As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, he dreamt of being an astronaut, but in order to be one, he would first have to become a pilot. To do that, he worked extremely hard, taking the SAT starting in the 7th grade and set his sights on attending the United States Air Force Academy. He soon achieved this goal, and at the Academy, Mike earned his B.S. in Legal Studies, but his education did not stop there. His curiosity propelled him to earn more degrees, including an M.S. in Logistics from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, a Master of Divinity, a Master of Arts in Religion from Liberty University, and then finally, he earned his Executive MBA from Smartly Institute. Clearly, Mike believes that having a broad knowledge-base is important for a successful career and fulfilling life.

“There’s a lot to be said for cross-discipline approaches to leadership, career, and the way we problem-solve,” said Mike. “I think that by being hyper-focused, we’ve closed off potential avenues of wisdom, intellect, and so on.”

Later in life Mike became a speaker for TEDx in Tysons Corner, VA where he talked about the importance of curiosity. He believes that curiosity is something that can drive people to make the most of themselves and that can also be an antidote for the fast growing epidemic: loneliness. “At the end of the day, curiosity can be a scary thing,” said Mike. “You have to be willing to consistently put yourself out there, and that’s not something that’s easy to do. But it’s worth it.”

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Mike spent another 20 years serving as an Air Force pilot, flying over 200 airlift missions into Afghanistan and Iraq. He worked his way up, eventually becoming the Commander of the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan where he led a team responsible for developing the fledgling Afghan Air Force. Throughout his multiple positions in the Air Force, Mike learned a great deal about leadership that would carry over into the rest of his career.

This photo took place when Mike was the Commander of the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is standing next to his Afghan Squadron Commander counterpart.

Mike believes that energy, positivity, and work ethic are some of the most important qualities that a leader can have, but he says there’s no one way to becoming a great leader — there’s value in doing things differently and in your own way. In fact, Mike says that some of the best leaders are those who surround themselves with people with diverse strengths, ideas, and perspectives. “In the military, we have this saying: ducks pick ducks,” said Mike. “People pick leaders that look just like them, think just like them, and act just like them. I think if you can be humble and intellectually curious enough to not pick people who are all of those things, pick people who are different than you, which means it might frustrate you, you have a better organization because of it.”

Through the Veterans in Global Leadership program, Mike put his understanding of people and teams to good use by mentoring other veterans. Mentorship is something that is very important to Mike who said, “If I’ve achieved anything of value, I attribute it to two things: work ethic and to the people throughout my life who have given up their time and wisdom to teach me things I wouldn’t have learned on my own.”

He went on to say, “One of the most powerful leadership qualities that any human being could have is intense self-awareness. I think when we’re young, there’s a really great divide between who we think we are and who people see us as. I think as we grow and mature, we realize that the truth is somewhere in between. But mentors help us get to that in-between place much more quickly, because they are giving us that outside perspective.”

Mike went so far as to say that negative feedback is a “gift”, as it is vital to growing in one’s career and becoming a better person. He encourages people to be open to feedback and take it in stride. “If you are one of those people who doesn’t take negative feedback well, then that mentor may never give you that gift again,” said Mike.

Towards the end of his military career, Mike applied to the White House Fellowship and was one of 16 extraordinarily accomplished professionals selected for that prestigious program, where he served as a Senior Advisor to the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration. While there, Mike ran a public-private partnership called the Small Business Technology Coalition, which partnered with 30 tech companies to help small businesses feasibly leverage technology to grow and become more efficient. This initiative held events around the country and reached over a million small businesses in the first year alone.

Mike was also tasked with developing policies to kickstart the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Puerto Rico. At the time, Puerto Rico’s $74B debt crisis made the island a difficult place for entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses. Mike worked with the federal and local governments to try to solve this challenge.

Mike’s deep curiosity and desire to expand his horizons led to even more avenues where his abilities could shine. He was a delegate to the United States-Japan Leadership Program, he was selected as a French-American Foundation Young Leader, and he is an advisory board member for The Factual, an organization with the goal of identifying biased news and exposing readers to high quality journalism. All of this he’s done while simultaneously earning his Executive MBA with Smartly. 

Mike’s advice for up-and-coming leaders is simple: “don’t take yourself too seriously.” By having a sense of humility, it allows people to empathize and see situations from another perspective — it helps keep us honest and open to other points of view. Though Mike always tries to remain open-minded, he values the power of having a plan. “Have a plan, figure out where you want to go, and be as detailed about that plan as possible, but also know yourself enough to be willing to deviate from that plan when other opportunities come your way, both forced and voluntary.”

Mike now lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife and his four sons. He recently started a new job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. as an Executive Director in their Performance Consulting practice — yet another station where Mike is fulfilling his innate curiosity, exercising his leadership skills, and using his Smartly Executive MBA education to push himself to the next level.