Former Air Force Secretary Shares Lessons Learned from an Unexpected Career

Deborah Lee James speaking from behind podium.

Former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks in Gillis Theater in Marshall Hall on Founders Day 2019. VMI photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

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.

“The central charge for the Keydets of today will be to lead us into the future, a future where you’ll be asked to solve complex and multifaceted problems... a future where technology and change reign supreme, but as always, our most valuable resource will remain our people.”

Deborah Lee James Former Secretary of the Air Force

Today, James serves on corporate boards and is thinking of launching her own nonprofit, one aimed toward the betterment of women and girls. She’s also had some time to think about strategies for success, which she outlined in her book and went over during her speech in Marshall Hall.

The first strategy, she noted, is to chart and navigate your own course, as no one else can do that for you. “Everybody … ought to have a Plan A, but prepare to pivot to Plan B,” she commented. “You don’t know what you’re going to like until you expose yourself to different kinds of jobs and opportunities.”

James encouraged the audience to find mentors and mentor others – and not only during youth and young adulthood. “Keep that up for your entire life,” James counseled.

Other strategies James mentioned include hanging on with positivity during times of transition, trying to understand what drives difficult people, and having a mindset of always needing to learn, evolve and reinvent oneself.

James also stressed teambuilding as essential in today’s business world. “No one is an island these days,” she said. “Today it’s all about teams.” To thrive in this environment, “speak up and listen deeply,” she advised. “At least half of communication is effective and deep listening.”

But all of the above is just buzzwords and empty talk, unless a leader can effectively get things done and solve problems. To get things done, James recommends a five-step process of investigation, so the problem can be fully understood; communicate, in order to build a case for action; activate, by means of new initiatives and programs; iterate, as adjustments to the plan will be necessary; and follow up relentlessly.

In closing, James turned her attention squarely to cadets, most of whom will soon enter either the military or business world.

“The central charge for the Keydets of today will be to lead us into the future, a future where you’ll be asked to solve complex and multifaceted problems,” she stated, “… a future where technology and change reign supreme, but as always, our most valuable resource will remain our people.”

James also took the occasion to note that in addition to Founders Day at VMI, an occasion marked ever since the first 23 cadets arrived at what was then a state arsenal in Lexington Nov. 11, 1839, is also Veterans Day – and exactly 100 years ago, the world was observing the one-year anniversary of the armistice which brought World War I to an end.

On that anniversary, James said, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in which he remarked, “Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert. The war showed us the strength of great nations acting together for a high purpose. And the victory of arms foretells the enduring conquest which can be made in peace when nations act justly and in furtherance of the common interests of man.”

  • Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing