National Press Club

Former Air Force Secretary urges flexibility for thriving in difficult environments

May 30, 2019 | By Lorna Aldrich | lorna2@verizon.net

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James tells about her experiences and interactions with uniformed military personnel in the Pentagon at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap on May 30.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James tells about her experiences and interactions with uniformed military personnel in the Pentagon at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap on May 30.

Photo/Image: Alan Kotok

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James offered a guide to thriving in difficult work environments using examples from her own life at a National Press Club Headliners Book Rap Thursday as she promoted her new book, "Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Your Success."

Although James's first important step to thriving is to chart and navigate your course, she stressed flexibility and accepting new things.

“Wherever you are in life, you need Plan A..., but be prepared to pivot to plan B,” James said.

James contrasted her history of staff work for the House Armed Services Committee, jobs in the Pentagon, including Secretary of the Air Force, and private-sector success with the collapse of her original dream when she was not selected to join the State Department and took a job with the Army. Keep a positive attitude and learn something positive from every negative experience, she advised.

In her own case, James discovered national-security issues working for the Army and liked working for something bigger than herself, she said. “Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship,” as well as networking are important to charting and navigating your course, she added.

Working for the Army, James found her first mentor, which led to her work in Congress.

James's next two steps are learning to lead and inspire a team and, finally, to get things done. Leading and inspiring is about people, learning to speak up and listening at least half of every conversation.

Reveal a little of yourself to people, James said. In her talk, she acknowledged she had been divorced twice. “I had difficulty getting it right until I found Frank, my husband,” she said.

James listed five more steps required for her third big step: getting things done. First is to get the facts, including how much time is available. Then communicate the reasons for an action and implement the action. Repeat these steps if necessary because the first try will not always work and follow up.

“You have to keep at it,” because people may not understand the action or may resist change, James said.

She mentioned using the five steps when asked about controversies over handling nuclear material and drones. These were mainly people issues, she said.

James knew when she took the position of Air Force Secretary that people issues were going to be very important, including sexual assaults, and recruitment and retention, all of which could affect men as well as women, she said.

In response to a question, James acknowledged that suicide statistics were unacceptable. The best approach is one, implemented by Air Force special forces, of embedding people with mental-health training in units, she said. It would be very expensive and difficult to expand the approach to all units, she pointed out.