Three decades of experience in defense-connected leadership taught Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James that face-to-face engagement is the best way to get the pulse of an organization. As the Air Force’s department head, direct contact has become the center of the secretary’s three-prong communication process: visiting bases around the world to gather information on issues that matter to Airmen on the front lines executing the mission; meeting with commanders and staff for decision making; and collaborating on policies with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Leading the smallest and busiest Air Force since its inception in 1947, James is responsible for 664,000 Airmen and their families, as well as the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $139 billion.
“It’s been my experience that the best way to find out what’s really going on in your organization is to lead by walking around,” James said. “I do this as an important supplement to information I receive in briefings at the Pentagon.”
“It’s been my experience that the best way to find out what’s really going on in your organization is to lead by walking around”
Hearing from Airmen
There’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings, she said, adding that she gets input from many sources – from senior advisors, general officers and chiefs, to the most junior Airmen — officer, enlisted and civilian.
“This helps me to make better decisions — to help tell the Air Force’s story and to fight for our resources and key policies,” she said. “Base visits let me look Airmen and families in their eyes, feel their joy in serving, hear their concerns, help solve their problems, give them updates directly, and hopefully encourage them along the way.”
During her tenure, James has kept a hectic travel schedule, which has taken her to bases from Alaska to Afghanistan.
During one visit to Beale Air Force Base, California, over the summer, James met with groups of Airmen in the dining facility. No matter the issue, the secretary insists her staff follow up to provide answers to Airmen’s questions.
Another part of her base visit is a one-on-one meeting with the sexual assault response coordinator. The SARC serves as an installation’s single point of contact for integrating and coordinating sexual assault victim care services. James asks about what is going well, what their concerns are and what other support or resources they may need.
While at Beale AFB, James received a demonstration of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing’s high-altitude mission — she flew to 70,000 feet in the U-2 Dragon Lady to gain a better understanding of the unique intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions it executes.
“I was there to get a firsthand perspective of the high-altitude ISR enterprise,” James said. “More than 60 years of operational and tactical experience reside in the U-2 community. ISR continues to be the number one most-requested capability of combatant commanders.
“I want Airmen to understand that their mission is vital to not only delivering airpower worldwide, but (also to) our national security. The unique operating environment engages all five senses and the demanding mission requirements are accomplished by a team of professionals keenly focused on the task at hand. The challenges and dedication of these Airmen could best be understood in person.”
Whether it’s an immersion visit, a small group session or an all call with Airmen, James’ message has remained the same since becoming secretary in 2013; she emphasizes her three priorities of taking care of Airmen, balancing today’s readiness with tomorrow’s modernization, and making every dollar count. Ensuring Airmen know what she’s focused on and getting their feedback on those priorities is important to her, she said.
“Base visits let me look Airmen and families in their eyes, feel their joy in serving, hear their concerns, help solve their problems, give them updates directly, and hopefully encourage them along the way.”
Informed decision making
From her office at the Pentagon, the secretary’s schedule on a typical August day is once again packed. Filled with briefings and meetings on topics as diverse as acquisition program updates and personnel boards, she also made time to provide a recording for the “Little Blue Book” mobile application. The “Little Blue Book” was recently updated and provides Airmen with the core values, codes and creeds that guide them in their service in the profession of arms.
James’ schedule may drive her day, but the Airmen and the stories they share are always at the front of her mind. Often those stories are about the challenges of balancing families and Air Force requirements.
Working with her staff and other senior leaders, the Air Force developed some initiatives to help, such as the post-pregnancy deployment deferment policy. The policy increases the deferment from deployment, short tour or dependent-restricted assignment, and temporary duty to one year, unless waived by the service member.
James acknowledges this is not the only issue on Airmen’s minds that needs addressing, but if she is able to address one issue at a time, moving the ball forward, then that’s success in her mind.
In addition to taking care of Airmen, her other priorities, balancing today’s readiness with tomorrow’s modernization and making every dollar count, help focus her during budget prioritization meetings and acquisition program updates.
Collaboration with Congress
Just as the secretary listens to Airmen and meets with commanders and senior leaders, she equally makes time for lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The secretary’s experience serves her well when it comes to this part of the job. Her experience on Capitol Hill, including her decade on the House Armed Services Committee staff, when she earned the nickname “Sledge” for her direct and unrelenting approach to her job, allows her to understand how decisions on the Hill are made. Secondly, her ability to speak honestly and plainly comes in handy during discussions on crucial funding issues. Finally, her comfort level with direct contact, which is just as important with decision-makers as it is with her staff and Airmen, keep her engaged and working hard to inform the Hill on the issues that matter to the Air Force.
“There are some who shy away from engagements on the Hill, and she doesn’t shy away from them,” said Col. Sam Grable, the director of Air Force appropriations and budget liaison. “She wants to be engaged and works hard with her staff to make sure they carve out time in her schedule so she can be engaged on the Hill, whether it’s an emerging issue like BAH or getting to know members and working with the Air Force Caucus in the House and Senate.
“It’s all about relationships,” Grable said. “Work on the Hill doesn’t get done without those relationships.”
“It’s all about relationships. Work on the Hill doesn’t get done without those relationships.”
And while all of these relationships are vital to getting her job accomplished, it always comes back to the Airmen.
“Getting to serve alongside of, and advocate for, the 664,000 Airmen and families of the Air Force is something I take very seriously,” James said. “Being Secretary of the Air Force is the honor of my professional life.”