Real Leaders

Female U.S. Military Leader: How I Won in a Male-dominated Culture

Dysfunction abounds in America in so many ways: from a continuous turbulent change in the business environment to a U.S. federal government polarized by an inability to compromise and fulfill its historic missions, to deeper and darker levels of dysfunction within our society. Can any of us survive and thrive against such a backdrop of unsettledness and anxiety?

Deborah Lee James, author of Aim High, wants to help us try. As the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force (only the second woman to lead a U.S. military service) and a successful business leader, her formula for success includes using challenges to grow stronger and staying true to herself and her goals.

Real Leaders: What inspired you to write Aim High?

James: Change and dysfunction seem to be everywhere today — in business, in governments, and in our personal relationships. All of us lead busy lives, and sometimes the sheer magnitude of the challenges we face is overwhelming. Moreover, life can throw some pretty unpleasant curve balls our way. I have experienced all of this in spades — and I did so as a woman in a heavily male-dominated culture. I was able to break through, survive, and thrive in my life. If I can do it, so can others. The advice in the book is universal, but I hope it will be especially impactful for women.


What do you hope is the biggest takeaway?

First, you must always have a plan for your career and for your personal life, but you must also be prepared to zig-zag and adjust. The plan will never work out exactly as you hope. You can learn as much — even more — from failures and disappointments as you can from successes. The key is always to bounce back.

Second, relationships and teams are everything. Your professional life should be all about teamwork — and your family is a team, too. Playing to your strengths within the team, speaking up, and listening deeply are crucial skills that everyone should develop. The third takeaway is to get things done. Don’t let change and dysfunction paralyze you and prevent you from being active.

What would you tell a woman struggling in a male-dominated profession?

Seek out a man whose path you admire and ask him to have a cup of coffee and share his story. Then ask to check in with him from time to time to discuss strategies for overcoming challenges. Before you know it, you may create a mentor/advocate relationship that will help you. The “cup of coffee” approach worked for me. If you’re in a hostile work environment or if you believe unethical practices are happening around you, I urge you to report the matter. Organizations today are much more willing to listen, investigate and take action than they were 35 years ago when I started in the workforce.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Make life a process of continual learning. I like to say: learn, evolve, reinvent. Just because you’ve completed a certain level of formal education, don’t stop there. There are many ways to keep expanding your knowledge: Take a short course, accept a new work assignment, or listen to the stories and experience of others. If you stop learning, you’ll be disadvantaged in your professional and personal life.


About The Author

Deborah Lee James has a three-decade track record of leading, transforming, and driving lasting change in the U.S. government and in private industry. As only the second woman in history to lead a branch of the male-dominated U.S. military, she faced high-stake challenges as Secretary of the Air Force – the CEO equivalent of a $140 billion enterprise. For three years, she led the effort to recruit, train, and equip the premier air, space, and cyber force on the planet, sending forces forward to combat ISIS in the Middle East and reassure European allies against a resurgent Russia.

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