01 Jun 2015

The Military and the MBA: Maura Corby Sullivan (MBA/MPA 2009)

Taking lessons learned in Iraq to HBS and Washington


Maura Corby Sullivan (MBA/MPA 2009) served as a Marine Corps captain in Iraq. She was recently named assistant to the defense secretary for public affairs.

When my high school guidance counselor in Evanston, Illinois, suggested I apply for a ROTC scholarship, I thought she was crazy. I was raised with the ideal of service to others, but I was a woman. I had blond hair. I lived in the suburbs. I was also a three-sport athlete and did well in academics and leadership activities—not unlike anyone else who went to Harvard Business School with me—but my words, as I recall, to her were, “I’m not the military type. I’m not at all what they’re looking for.” To which she, being a lot wiser than 17-year-old me, sort of chuckled and said, “Actually, you’re exactly what they’re looking for.”

I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 2001, and I chose logistics because it was one of the best opportunities for women. You can lead a line platoon and have command. I went to Iraq in 2005. I questioned whether we should have been there, but I was so inspired and humbled by the Marines and sailors I served with, most of whom were just 19. It was the greatest leadership challenge I’ll ever face. You had to ask them to do things you couldn’t believe you had to ask them to do. And they did it because you asked them, as their lieutenant.

I left there with a very deep resolve to take care of the men and women of the US Armed Forces. I saw the impact on the ground of policy decisions that were being made in Washington. And I saw that the best way for me to make an impact was to leave active duty and go into policy. I had been back from Iraq for just over two months when I visited HBS. I had a friend from the Marine Corps who was in Section I, 2007. She introduced me at the beginning of class, and the entire class not only clapped, as you know we do, but also stood up. They stood up, and they clapped.

For me business school was about acquiring a very critical management skill set. Having the ability to lead and run highly performing organizations is how I think I can make a difference for our country.

Next: Chris Howard (MBA 2003) — A case study in responsibility—in business or the military »

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Class of MBA 2009, Section I
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