Addressing the Corps of Cadets, faculty, staff and a multitude of visitors on the 180th anniversary of Virginia Military Institute’s founding, former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James shared her blueprint for success in a speech in Gillis Theater in Marshall Hall Nov. 11, 2019.
James, who served as the 23rd secretary of the Air Force from 2013-17, is the author of a newly published book, “Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success.” She used the occasion of her Founders Day speech at VMI to highlight the leadership lessons she learned over decades spent in a career that spanned the military, government and private sectors. It was a career that appears seamless from the outside – but as James admitted, it was one that she never planned.
James told her listeners that from the age of 15 on, she’d dreamed of a career with the State Department. All of her decisions were made with that goal in mind, and after graduating from Columbia University with a master’s degree in international affairs, she moved to Washington, D.C., and went through the State Department’s oral and written interviews, all the while almost sure she’d be hired.
And yet, she was not. At the age of 24, James related, “I remember crashing.” That crash led her to stay in bed for four days, but on the fifth day, she got up and began to apply for other jobs. Soon, she was offered a job at the Pentagon as a program analyst with the U.S. Army.
That job led her to a position as a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, and then to another as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs under President Bill Clinton from 1993-98.
At the time of her confirmation as assistant secretary, James was only 34 years old, but as she told her audience, “I had built up a portfolio of knowledge.” What’s more, she added, she’d developed a network of mentors and colleagues, which sustained her as she worked with people whose backgrounds were very different from her own.
“I was learning leadership on the fly,” she commented. After 17 years in the government sector, though, James transitioned into the private sector, and there, she admitted, “I had a semi-crash.” Bad bosses played a part, she noted, as did the transition away from government.
Things got better, though, when she accepted a position with the defense contracting firm SAIC as head of communications and public affairs – even though the company was enmeshed in a scandal at the time, and on top of that, SAIC was in the midst of splitting into two companies, as well.
“I had a front row seat to crisis management,” she said. “I learned that if you don’t bring the entire team along on your change journey, if you leave certain segments behind, then all of the other parts may well crumble.”
James was still working at SAIC in 2013 when a phone call she never expected came through: a nomination by President Barack Obama to become secretary of the Air Force. Even though she’d been working for 35 years at that point, “There was plenty, plenty I didn’t know,” James admitted.