Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force, U.S. Department of Defense


On effective mentors:

  • A good mentor has to be willing to give their time, to be a good listener and hear the other person’s story and goals
  • A good mentor should be willing to use their position of authority to introduce mentees to new experiences, people and opportunities
  • A good mentor knows their own career field and is able to provide appropriate advice so the mentee is thinking about the right possibilities

On personal development/growth:

  • Maybe it wasn’t your original plan, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fantastic plan. So you need to go for it, and walk through that door and seize that opportunity
  • Pursue what you’re interested in currently, instead of following a job that is years down the road from now. You can’t predict the future, and when you try you probably predicted wrong.



Can you share a time where you experienced an unexpected or tremendous failure and how you overcame that?

I had always wanted to be a diplomat. So after graduating from Duke University with a degree in Comparative Area Studies and a minor in Spanish, I pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University in International Affairs.  I then moved to Washington and applied for a diplomat officer position in the United States Foreign Service.

I thought I had all my ducks in a row and would be a top applicant. But that was not the case…I was not offered the position. I was devastated and literally cried for 3 or 4 days. I believe I was 22 years old at the time.  After my “pity party”, reality set in.  I needed a job, a means of livelihood, and a paycheck. I needed to start looking for whatever was next. So I applied everywhere else I could think of in the federal government because I still wanted to work in public service.

My first job was with the United States Department of the Army as a civilian. Although it wasn’t my dream job, I was grateful to have a job.  And I soon grew to love it because I was doing important work, and I felt like I was making a contribution and my work mattered. I was working on National Security matters that were way bigger than just myself.

How did your career experiences prepare you to be Secretary of the Air Force?

While working in my first job at the Department of the Army, I had a wonderful boss who gave me advice, was a sounding-board, and introduced me to new experiences and opportunities. That led me to my second job, as a staff, for 10 years, on the House Arm Services committee. I later worked in the pentagon as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs during the Clinton administration, for 5 years, and the defense industry for about 14 years.

So by this point I had seen defense issues from the executive branch, the legislative branch, and now from private industry. And finally, the experience of a lifetime occurred two years ago, when I got a call concerning the possibility of becoming Secretary of the Air Force.

While my entire 34 years in the workforce have been devoted to national defense issues, this trajectory all started with a failure. When one door closed, another door opened, something I had no real interest in or really even thought about. The more I got into it, the mission, purpose, people, and the mentorship, all of these things have become my life.

So I look back on it now, and I’m actually grateful that the foreign service didn’t pick me so many years ago, because if they had done so, I can’t imagine that I would have had a better career than the one I’ve had in Defense.

How do you create the same conditions for others so that they are surrounded by mission, purpose, people, and mentors?

In my role as Secretary of the Air Force, an important part of my job as a leader, is set the tone from the top by setting expectations, using my position of authority to launch new initiatives, and trying to move the Air Force in a certain direction, particularly when it comes to diversity.

While diversity typically refers to demographics like gender, race, and ethnicity, I am actually talking about much more. Diversity is also diversity of thought, which comes from different experiences in life, different backgrounds, and different educational perspectives. All of this wrapped up together, equals diversity.

And it’s important for the future of our Air Force, to have as much diversity as possible. We have to have a continual in processing of really smart young people into our service, and we need to draw from all of the talents that America has to offer: from all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and genders. Once we get all those fantastic young people in the door, we need to develop them, reward them, and make them feel like they’re growing. If we do it right, we will retain them into our service, and they will become the senior leaders of tomorrow.

Diversity is important because we have to be top notch in innovation. We are a high tech force that is facing enormous challenges around the world. We need people that can handle ambiguity and work on their feet. People that can make split second decisions with life or death consequences.

These young people grow and become leaders, not by just telling them what to do, but by getting them to all march in the same direction and take on a mission.  All of which, comes back to diversity of thought, innovation, and problem solving.

How do you connect the dots between diversity of thought, innovation and problem solving?

I’ll give you an example. If we have 5 people with the same educational background, say they are all scientists, or humanists, and they are trying to solve a problem, but have similar experience, education and career track, chances are they are going to have only one approach to that problem. That approach may or may not work in today’s 21st century, given the complex nature of the problems we face.

However if we have people from different backgrounds, experiences, education and career tracks, say a pilot, a cyber-expert, and someone who understands space and how it applies to the military, they’ll probably come up with several different approaches and be able to solve that same problem.

Conversations about mentorship often shift to the creation of formal programs, or are focused on how to find a mentor. But I believe cultivating a mentoring mindset is critical also for organizational continuity; it’s the sharing of values, perspectives, skillsets, and professional norms. What makes for an effective mentor and how do you cultivate a heart for mentorship throughout the organization?

Throughout my life I think I’ve had about five different mentors, but none of them came from a formal program. My mentors have come from people I have seen in the environment whom I admire, and whose path I may want to emulate one day. Connecting is as easy as approaching somebody, introducing yourself, explaining what you’re interested in, and asking if they’d be willing to have coffee and talk about their story. I think this works with about 90% of people, who are willing to tell their story and help others who are trying to come along in their footsteps. You just need to have the nerve to go up to somebody and ask.

But just because you’re successful, doesn’t mean you’ll be a good mentor. A good mentor has to be willing to give their time, to be a good listener and hear the other person’s story and goals. And finally, a good mentor should be willing to use their position of authority to introduce the other person to new experiences, people and opportunities.

My mentors have opened doors for me, which doesn’t guarantee I get the next job, but they made that connection and gave me opportunities I may not have had on my own. A good mentor knows their own career field and is able to provide appropriate advice so the mentee is thinking about the right possibilities.

How do you integrate work and life?

It comes down to priorities. When I had young children, I also had my husband and my career, so there were the three priorities. This automatically meant that other things weren’t as important as those three things. I did my job, and when I would come home I focused on my husband and children.

So what didn’t I do? I didn’t cook, clean, do the food shopping, or do the household chores. My husband didn’t either, so we contracted all of that out, which costs money. However it was worth it to me to spend the money in order to have the freedom to pursue my career and free up time to focus on my children and husband. The tradeoff may have been that my husband and I didn’t go out to dinner as much as other couples that were similarly situated, because part of our income was going to contracting out chores, but that was okay because we had time for our priorities.

I think where people get in trouble is when they attempt to do it all. People should do the things most important to them, but let go of some of the other things. Because, by definition, not everything can be as important as everything else.

What advice would you give the 20-something year old Debbie, or to your children?

Pursue a field of study that you love. Half of parents will advise their children to do a business degree or become a doctor, something with a particular job at the end of the road. However, I’ve always said that it’s better to do what you love. You will be much more invested and earn better grades. College is about critical thinking, research skills, and learning how to write well. Plus the social aspect, with some fun attached to it as well.

My children pursued their interests, majored in Political Science and studied abroad in Latin America and Spain much like myself. However when they graduated, neither worked in the government sector, they both went into the private sector. Recruiters had come to their respective schools, and they became interested in things they hadn’t originally thought about. The advice I gave them in the early years was follow what you’re interested in currently, instead of following a job that is years down the road from now. You can’t predict the future, and when you try you probably predicted wrong.

Is there anything else you wish I had asked you?

Life lessons. The first life lesson I share with young people is: be prepared to zigzag. Life will not turn out as you plan or as you wish. You will be thrown curveballs, both personally and professionally. The most important thing is if you do fall down, make sure you know you can get back up again. You may need a period to grieve, where you need to cry or feel regretful, but you need to keep going. Whatever door shuts here, another will open up over there. Maybe it wasn’t your original plan, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fantastic plan. So you need to go for it, and walk through that door and seize that opportunity.



Deborah Lee James is the Secretary of the Air Force, Washington, D.C. She is the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force and is responsible for the affairs of the Department of the Air Force, including the organizing, training, equipping and providing for the welfare of its nearly 660,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve and civilian Airmen and their families. She also oversees the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $139 billion.

Ms. James has 30 years of senior homeland and national security experience in the federal government and the private sector. Prior to her current position, Ms. James served as President of Science Applications International Corporation’s Technical and Engineering Sector, where she was responsible for 8,700 employees and more than $2 billion in revenue.

For nearly a decade, Ms. James held a variety of positions with SAIC to include Senior Vice President and Director of Homeland Security. From 2000 to 2001, she was Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Business Executives for National Security, and from 1998 to 2000 she was Vice President of International Operations and Marketing at United Technologies.

During the Clinton Administration, from 1993 to 1998, Ms. James served in the Pentagon as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. In that position, she was the Secretary of Defense’s senior advisor on all matters pertaining to the 1.8 million National Guard and Reserve personnel worldwide. In addition to working extensively with Congress, state governors, the business community, military associations, and international officials on National Guard and Reserve component issues, she oversaw a $10 billion budget and supervised a 100-plus-person staff. Prior to her Senate confirmation in 1993, she served as an assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs.

From 1983 to 1993, she worked as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, where she served as a senior advisor to the Military Personnel and Compensation Subcommittee, the NATO Burden Sharing Panel, and the Chairman’s Member Services team.

Ms. James earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in comparative area studies from Duke University and a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs.