Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force and one of the highest ranking Duke alums in government, delivered a keynote address on the importance of leadership and persistence during a luncheon hosted by Duke Campus Club Monday afternoon.

The event—which took place at Parizade restaurant on Main Street—welcomed a gathering of distinguished Duke faculty members and military personnel.  James, Trinity '79, communicated to the audience her most effective strategies for success, noting the perseverance it took for her to become Secretary of the Air Force after her original plan, being a diplomat, failed.

"If it doesn't work out as you want, it doesn't mean you can't have the best career ever," she said.  "Persistence pays off—you have to stick with it."

As Secretary of the Air Force, James is responsible for more than 690,000 active duty Guard, Reserve and civilian Airmen and their families, in addition to overseeing the Air Force's annual budget of approximately $140 billion. After holding a number of roles in the Science Applications International Corporation—including senior vice president and director for homeland security—for more than a decade starting in 2002, James was confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force Dec. 3, 2013, having amassed 30 years of senior homeland and national security experience.

On Monday, James stressed the importance of making efficient use of taxpayer money in the face of recent proposed budget sequestrations, noting that the Air Force carries out 70 percent of all airstrikes conducted by the U.S. military despite being the smallest it has ever been. Additionally, she noted that the average age of Air Force aircrafts is 27 years.

“Even though everything is crashing around you, you cannot approach it that way,” James said.  "If you can't see through the fog, the people you're leading won't be able to either."

James' perseverance served her well when she arrived at Duke later than other students due to a foreign exchange program for high school students in Argentina. She noted that her interest in travel and experience in Argentina inspired her to minor in Spanish and focus on Latin America while majoring in comparative area studies at Duke.

“I was so lost,” James said about her late arrival on campus. “I did not know anyone.”

After graduating from Duke and earning a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University in 1981, James' mettle was again put to the test when she was rejected from every state department job she applied to while trying to fulfill her dream of becoming a diplomat. James noted that after the rejections, she could not get out of bed for four days.

“I was devastated. I saw eight years of my young life flashing before my eyes,” James said.

The Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives ended up being James' landing spot when she applied for several other government positions—she would work as a professional staff member on the committee for 10 years. Although she knew very little about national defense when she started on the Armed Services Committee, James explained that others helped guide her along the way.

“Be prepared to zig zag—life will throw you curveballs,” James said, explaining her number one secret to success. “Much of my story relates to working for great people. Have gumption to ask people to have coffee with you, you never know what might happen.”