(This article appears in the November 2019 edition of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
Former Air Force Secretary Deborah James worked to set herself up for the job she thought she wanted — a diplomat with the State Department. She learned a foreign language and completed a coveted internship with the State Department. She graduated, submitted her application, and waited for a job offer that would never come.
That’s when James took a different direction. She got a civilian job with the Army. More than 30 years later, she reflects on the national security career she grew to love, ascending the ranks to become the 23rd secretary of the Air Force — the country’s second woman to do so. Her book, Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success (Post Hill Press, 2019), is available now.
Q. You worked hard to get to the State Department, but that didn’t happen. What’s your advice for overcoming disappointment and forging ahead?
A. Always know where you want to go in life, but be prepared to pivot. I wanted to be at the State Department. I wanted to be a diplomat. I didn’t get selected. I had to recoup and rebound. ... I never looked back at the State Department. What originated as a failure early in my life launched me into what became plan B. ... You learn a lot from failure.
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Q. What’s your leadership advice for military officers taking command?
A. In addition to always having a plan and preparing to pivot, I’d say another key thing is lead to inspire. It’s about being able to get other people on board. In order to do that, you’ve got to do several things. Speak up and listen deeply. Listening is where empathy comes from. ... Double down on your people issues. For leaders, they need to play on their strengths. Recognize they’re not strong in everything.
Q. How do you work through ethical dilemmas?
A. I’ve had a front-row seat at a number of unethical events. One [story] that I tell in the book happened to me when I was at [Science Applications International Corp.] SAIC. ... We were given kudos for being transparent about the bad things that happened. I applied that experience to the Air Force.
Q. Young people rely on mentors to learn. Can older leaders also learn from younger servicemembers?
A. The older we are, sometimes we suffer from failure of imagination. Younger leaders have grown up all these ways and can see the art of the possible better than older leaders can. Watch how younger leaders interact with people their own age — we can take cues from that. I think things are a little bit more casual. There’s still the importance of the chain of command, but if you go back 25 years, there wasn’t this phenomena of younger people speaking up. They’re willing to speak their minds. There’s this whole phenomena of selfies with older leaders. I think that’s a good thing.