Author Interviews

Aim High: Chart Your Course And Find Success

Honorable Deborah Lee James, 23rd Secretary of the Air Force, Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success (Post Hill Press, 2019, 224 pp)

The Honorable Deborah Lee James served as the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force. Her book, Aim High: Chart Your Course and Find Success shares lessons and wisdom gleaned from a career in public and private service. From her Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) framework to the countless personal stories of challenge and success, they will appeal to any leader.

Secretary James’ resume is impressive. She rose through the ranks first as a junior Army program analyst and later became a congressional intern. After that, she was Assistant Secretary of Defense. Next, she became an executive at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) before her nomination and confirmation as Secretary of the Air Force in 2013. She candidly shares her experiences as a single mother balancing career and home, overcoming disappointment and loss in her personal life. Facing doubts, she led in larger and more complex organizations. Fierce, yet humble, she credits her success to three simple actions: chart and navigate your course, lead and inspire teams, and get things done!

Aim High is a well-organized, easy-to-follow leadership guide with tools that can be applied at any level.

What led you to write Aim High; has this always been a goal or did someone push you to share your experiences?

I always aspired to write a book once I left full-time work. I developed a rhythm and lessons learned while giving speeches, particularly as an executive at SAIC where I led the women’s group that served as a framework for the book. I had many people tell me that I should write a book. Over time, I realized that if I put the stories down on paper, I could reach more people and expand that mentoring network.

This is not a “women’s” leadership book, but you do address many topics that may appear to be of greater concern to women and minorities. What would you say to male leaders on why they should read Aim High?

I do think the book is full of good, commonsense advice that would help any leader who is trying to advance personally and professionally. If I had one point to foot stomp for the men, it is that this book is all about putting PEOPLE first. People are the engines behind the technology and the organization. If you can get the people part of the equation right in the organization, everything else will fall into place. Self-awareness is important; play to your strengths but embrace the strengths of the team as well.

I love the BLUF (and the BLUF revisited in Chapter 18)! How did you develop your BLUF: Chart and Navigate Your Path, Inspire and Lead Teams, Get Things Done?

I developed the BLUF during the David Letterman “Top Ten List” era, but a ten-item list felt too long. I narrowed it down to three “buckets” or actions. Chart your (and your team’s) course, lead and inspire team (give context/vision), then get things done (that’s what it’s all about). My “top ten” are the strategies under the top two buckets. Get things done includes five repeatable steps to help stay on track.

Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. You discuss preparing to zig-zag and developing resilience, which gets right to this point. What was the most impactful zig-zag in your life?

I always dreamed of becoming a diplomat. I prepared; learned a second language and did everything I thought I needed to do but the State Department did not select me, and I was devastated. I had to zig-zag. I needed a job and landed one as a program analyst with the Army. It was just a job and not what I wanted to do, but it turned out to be an incredible opportunity. That job set me on a different career trajectory that led to becoming the second woman in history to lead a military service in the U.S.

In your introduction, you mention having doubts about being considered for SECAF. What you describe sounds a lot like imposter syndrome. Did those feelings ever subside or did you continue to doubt yourself throughout your tenure as SECAF?

I have experienced imposter syndrome throughout my career, as I feel most women do. I think if you can believe, intellectually, that this is something we all go through, then there is safety in numbers. It has always subsided with me once I have established my plan, have become agile enough to pivot, and have spent time getting to know the team. It usually takes a few months, but then I am in good shape. But, for a while, I might have to fake my confidence until it comes to me naturally.

You discuss balance in career and family life and share some great wisdom on how to achieve this, specifically to “let go of the guilt”. You mention that this guilt seems more extreme in millennials than in your generation. Do you think it has become more extreme due to technology and social media?

I think every generation feels guilt at one level or another. I certainly felt it. In my generation, women were able to go directly from graduate school into professional positions. Women in my generation stood on the shoulders of the women in previous generations who, despite having graduate degrees, may only have been able to find work as administrative assistants. For me, it felt wrong to not take advantage of the opportunity to lead a professional life. We believed we could have it all. The reality is, you can have it all, but you cannot do all of those things all at once or perfectly. Guilt is unhealthy and gets in the way of personal fulfillment. Some women say they cannot do both: be a good mother and a good professional. In order to find balance, you have to recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. You have to establish priorities at home as well as on the job, then focus your time on the things that are most important to you. You have to have a good team at home, too. The team could be family, friends, coworkers, a nanny, or a childcare provider; look for that posse of people to help you and outsource some duties if you can afford it. I do believe that social media makes things worse. Once you realize that everybody’s life is a hot mess, despite the picture they paint on social media, it helps to let go of the guilt by psychologically accepting that perfection is impossible.

In Chapter 8, you mention the “likeability penalty” which you call a “particularly insidious form of gender bias”. I would argue that nearly every woman in the military has been warned, at some point in her career, about being “too nice” or “too aggressive”. Can you share more about your experiences with the likeability penalty?

I have received feedback throughout my career that I was too loud, or my choice of words was poor and I felt like I could not do anything right. There are times when it is appropriate to reflect on that feedback and possibly recalibrate, but it is also important to be authentic and true to yourself. I ask myself as a leader, “what do people want from me” and “what do I want from them”? The magic happens if I can bring those two things together. Generally, people want to be heard, they want to be valued and recognized, they want to know the “why” and if I can provide these things, even if I disagree with their recommendations, they will give me what I need which is mission execution.

One of the issues you attacked as SECAF was the ban on transgender service members. DoD lifted the ban during your tenure, but subsequently, reinstated it during the last administration. Do you remain hopeful that we will continue to move forward with diversity and inclusion in the ranks?

There has to be a persistent focus on diversity and inclusion in the ranks – both in the military and in the corporate environments. This is crucial. All of the services are working to remove gender and racial biases and to bring attention to these issues. There may have been some lost ground under the past administration but I believe we will regain that ground over the next few years. At some point, we will not have to focus so much on these issues but I think we are a long way from that day right now.


Interview courtesy of Lieutenant Kristi Gordon

Secretary James can be reached via the website www.deborahleejames.com, LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/deborah-lee-james-39660732, or Twitter: @HONDeborahJames. Her book is available through all of the major outlets and online through Amazon.com.

About the Interviewer: Lieutenant Kristi Gordon is a U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps Officer currently assigned as the Director of Facilities Engineering and Acquisition at the Naval Air Station Meridian, Mississippi Public Works Department. She received her Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Louisiana State University and her MBA from the Naval Postgraduate School. 

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