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Secretary Deborah Lee James Image

Secretary Deborah Lee James

23rd Secretary of the Air Force; Board Member, Textron, Unisys, Noblis; Advisory Board Member, Lean In, MIT Lincoln Labs

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Deborah Lee James is a business leader and the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force.  As only the second woman to ever lead a military service, she became the civilian CEO of a 660,000 person, $139 billion enterprise during a time of unprecedented political divisiveness and major threats to the US overseas. She also handled diverse issues ranging from battling sexual assault in the military, to rebuilding and speeding up the Air Force acquisition process, to addressing the health of the nuclear enterprise, to the future of space.

Featured Videos

Deborah Lee James | DefIndPol | Keynote

Deborah Lee James | DefIndPol | Q&A

Deborah LeeJames | Air and Space 2015

Speaker Resources

  • Secretary Deborah Lee James


Deborah Lee James has a three-decade track record of leading, transforming, and driving lasting results in the Legislative and Executive branches of Government (U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense) and private industry (SAIC, United Technologies Corporation, Business Executives for National Security).

Through January 2017, Deborah served as the 23rd Secretary of the United States Air Force with responsibility for 660,000 military and civilian personnel and a budget of nearly $140 billion. Prior to this role, she served as President of SAIC's Technical and Engineering sector, a $2 billion, 8,700-person enterprise. Deborah has deep expertise in strategic planning, risk management, public policy, cyber security, logistics and innovation. Deborah is an accomplished speaker on business and government topics including topical issues in national security and world affairs, politics in Washington, business transformation leadership and diversity and inclusion.

Speech Topics

Although many focus on the underlying technology of the digital revolution, some fail to focus on people and culture.  Business leaders and cyber professionals speak different languages and review different metrics when measuring progress and success.  Frequently, these two groups do not understand one another and talk past one another, putting at risk growth, speed, agility and resilience within the enterprise.

Deborah Lee James, the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force and current independent director on multiple public and private boards, shares the business factors that drive the cyber conversation at the Board of Director and senior government level. She’ll offer perspectives on what IT leaders need to know to communicate more effectively, become better business partners for growth and mission accomplishment, and change culture for the good.

As Secretary of the Air Force and as a business leader, Deborah was charged with talent management; readiness and training; technology and modernization; and making her organizations as efficient as possible.  She also traveled extensively overseas –visiting more than 40 partner nations during her most recent tenure in government.  She offers up to the minute commentary on the Washington budget scene and topical issues in national security and foreign policy. In the following clips (labeled Readiness, Women in the military, Foreign Policy and Acquisition reform), Deborah talks about controversial topics including –the readiness of today’s armed forces; sequestration; opening combat jobs to women in the military , making the acquisition process more efficient and countering the threats posed by ISIS (Daesh) and Russia.

Over the course of her 35 year career, Deborah has developed insights and lessons learned –from business and policy successes and failures. Among them: “Establish goals and priorities, but be prepared to zig zag.   At least 50 percent of effective communications is listening.” And “You can and should compromise on most things, but never integrity.” Her problem solving approach—which she outlines with personal case stories from business and government—includes: investigate, communicate, activate, and follow up. In the following clips labeled setting priorities and inspirational), Deborah discusses a few lessons learned in leadership in the attached clip.

A key part of talent management in today’s business, academic and business environment is improving policies for diversity and inclusion. Why?  All organizations are in a war for talent and need to recruit from the widest pool possible of qualified individuals to join their ranks.  All organizations also seek innovation, which in large part stems from diversity of thought.  In the following clip (labeled D&I) Deborah outlines the business case for diversity and inclusion and offers examples and implementation advice from both her industry and government experience.  Deborah can also offer personal experiences on how to achieve a successful work/life balance and how a woman can successfully navigate in a male dominated environment.


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  • "Deborah Lee James has been leaning in her whole life. She has been an inspiration to the Lean In community for a long time and I'm proud that she is part of Leanin.Org's Advisory Board." - Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook; Founder, LeanIn.Org

  • "Deborah is a true trailblazer who has lifted up so many women, and I'm grateful for her voice." - Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook; Founder, LeanIn.Org

  • "Debbie is the rare speaker who can knit together incredible been there/done that insight, a fantastic and inspirational personal story, and the humor, timing and poise of a seasoned storyteller. " - Daniel Schwartz, Bain & Company DC

  • "Debbie’s discussions on diversity, growth, and leadership are incredibly engaging, thought-provoking, inspiring and a lot of fun." - Daniel Schwartz, Bain & Company DC

  • "Secretary James is a go-to speaker on national security. She brings a unique insider knowledge of Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and defense industry, and her engaging style draws in audiences of all expertise levels." - Kathleen Hicks, CSIS