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Rich Morales

Rich Morales ’99


Admiral Loy Institute Leader in Residence, U.S. Coast Guard Academy; Professor of the Practice of Innovation Management and Design, Brown University

As a high school student in El Paso, Texas, Rich Morales ’99 received a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, where he planned to major in mechanical engineering. Then he fell behind in his classes as a freshman and lost funding.

Instead of writing him off, however, a military science professor penned him a letter of recommendation for the United States Military Academy, where Morales had been waitlisted the year before, writing that Morales “will make a good Army officer if he can get out of his own way.”

The professor was right. In 1989, Morales graduated with distinction and a degree in aerospace engineering from West Point. He led soldiers as a platoon leader, United Nations peacekeeper in the Balkans, tank company and task force commander in Iraq, and in command of a brigade distributed across seven states. He served two stints in the White House under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and was the chair of West Point’s Department of Systems Engineering. In April, after 34 years in the Army, the Purple Heart recipient retired as a brigadier general.

And he isn’t done yet. Next, Morales will start two new positions as leader in residence at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and professor of the practice of innovation management and design at Brown University’s School of Engineering.

“That might not sound like retirement,” he says, “but it’s a real page turn.” And yet, he adds, there is a familiar focus on “teaching and learning while trying to make a difference.”

Morales may be starting a new chapter, but the story of his life has consistently been centered around a few themes, including family, leadership, and impact—on students, fellow soldiers, and at the highest levels of government.

That his story started in part with a substantial setback is a lesson Morales says he regularly shares. Losing his scholarship as an undergraduate student “was my first, big outside-of-the-nest failure,” he says. “It was a great lesson for me, and one that no one else could teach.”

West Point was a second chance, and Morales made the most of it. He loved the academy and the challenge of serving in the Army. Not long after he graduated, he was sent to Iraq, where he participated in the first ground contact of the Gulf War. A decade later, during the Iraq War, he spent more than three years in the country, at one point commanding more than 1,000 soldiers who were responsible for one-third of Baghdad. He says he learned a lot about leadership as a young officer. Being a leader “is not about the rank you wear on your collar,” he says. “You’re going to be given power, but you have to earn it through your competence.”

The Army first exposed him to the importance of embracing everyone in order to build a team. “I’ve met a lot of good people who didn’t see the world the way I did,” he says. The important thing is that “most wanted to make the unit better.” Good leaders, he adds, create a culture in which people of different backgrounds can speak their minds and know that what they are hearing from others is “their ground truth.”

A young Rich Morales in uniform
A young Rich Morales in uniform with his wife

In 1997, Morales started the MBA program at Yale SOM. He embraced the chance to learn in a new environment, he says, taking classes at Yale Law School and enjoying the curriculum at SOM, especially economics courses with the late Professor Sharon Oster and operations management courses with Professor Emeritus Arthur J. Swersey. He also loved the community he found on campus. He remains in touch with many of his classmates, including Laszlo Bock ’99, who led People Operations at Google before founding Humu and

“I developed these strong relationships—this strong, almost Army-like connectivity with people that are super authentic,” he says. “When I was in Iraq, on a tough day I could pick up the phone and call classmates like Laszlo, Scot Bemis, or Chris Granger.”

When he became a professor at West Point, Morales—who has also earned a PhD from Cambridge University and master’s degrees from the U.S. Naval War College and National Defense University—borrowed plenty of ideas from his SOM instructors, he says. He invited cadets to his home for breakfast, the way Professor Emeritus Douglas W. Rae did; he started his classes with stories in the style of Swersey. At the academy, in addition to his teaching and his mentorship of cadets, Morales directed a multi-million-dollar research effort focused on improving performance across public- and private-sector partners.

In 2001, Morales was selected as one of 12 White House Fellows in the Executive Office of the President. He worked with the Office of Management and Budget and as an aide to the head of NASA and, after the fellowship ended, on a team that helped create the Department of Homeland Security. In 2013, he returned to the White House, this time as executive director of Joining Forces, a national initiative that supports employment, wellness, and education for servicemembers, veterans, and their families.

“Outside of leading in combat, Joining Forces was probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” remembers Morales. That role was a culmination of his focus as a commander on the balance between the mission and the well-being of his troops and their families. “It was so personal to me.”

Rich Morales at the White House
Rich Morales in uniform with a young local
An older Rich Morales in uniform with his wife

In each of his positions, Morales says, he has tried to do what he has felt is right, even when it is difficult. “When you’re a commander—or a manager—you can choose to do whatever the last person did and just try not to get fired,” he explains. Or you can try to make things better.

Throughout, he has relied on the love and support of his family—which he calls his “center of gravity”—including his wife, Christy, and his son, Matthew, as well as “life-changing” friendships forged at places like Yale SOM.

“If everything froze, at any point—if I was only a lieutenant, and my career was cut short by a decision or circumstance, but I was doing what I thought was the right thing—that’s fine,” he says. “My wife still loves me.”