The Profile Original: Former U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson: ‘Know the Difference Between Advice and Command-Decision’
“There is no substitute for the decision-making by the people responsible for the outcome."
On Nov. 5, 2017, a gunman entered a Texas church and opened fire, killing 26 people in the largest mass shooting in the state’s history.
Heather A. Wilson, who was the Secretary of the Air Force at the time, witnessed the tragic unfolding of events, and then got a call from the Inspector General. He told her that he thought the shooter was a former airman who had been discharged.
“We found out that not only had he been an airman who had been discharged, but that under the law, the Air Force should have notified law enforcement and put him on a list that prohibited him from purchasing a weapon — and we failed to do that,” she told The Profile.
As the Secretary of the Air Force, Wilson had to make a decision on how to handle this. One of the lawyers around the table suggested that she mitigate risk by issuing a statement with general language that told the public the Air Force is looking into it.
Wilson didn’t like that suggestion.
“We know what the truth is,” she says. “We’re much better off owning up to what we know and fixing it than trying to suggest that we’re further evaluating and investigating it. We were much better off just owning up to it and fixing the problem.”
Someone else chimed in with another suggestion: “Blame it on your predecessor.”
But Wilson was resolute. She would take responsibility and go on to work with the FBI to fix the underlying record system to prevent mistakes such as this one from happening again.
In the end, a federal judge ordered that the Air Force pay more than $230 million in damages to survivors and victims’ families of for failing to flag the conviction that might have kept the gunman from legally buying the weapon used in the shooting.
The Air Force took corrective action and reviewed all case files since 1998, and “all criminal history reporting requirements that would preclude someone from purchasing a firearm have been updated.”
I wanted to know: As a leader, how do you know when to ignore the advice of highly-qualified people around the table and to trust your own judgement? Wilson said something that will stay with me for a long time.
“You always have to know the difference between the advice and the command decision,” she says. “They are there to provide advice, not to decide.”
She adds: “There is no substitute for the decision-making by the people responsible for the outcome. It may have been the harder decision in the short-term because you are going to get grilled, you are going to get skewered the next day. But in the long-term, it was the right decision.”
Wilson has had an illustrious career — she was the first female military veteran elected to a full term in Congress, she was the Secretary of the U.S. Air Force from 2017 to 2019, and she is currently the president of the University of Texas at El Paso. Wilson is many things, and someone close to her told me that she “doesn’t fit neatly into any box or stereotype.”
In the interview below, we discuss developing mental resilience, making decisions in times of crisis, and some of the biggest lessons she’s learned after decades in leadership. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I think you will too.
To be in the military, politics, and academia, you need to have a level of really thick skin. How did you learn to develop mental resilience in the most challenging times of your career?
WILSON: I would say that certainly humor is an underrated coping skill. And my husband would tell you that I grew up in a home for the humor-impaired and that I’ve been in therapy with him for over 30 years.
But I do think that seeing the funny things in life, or the funny side of life, in higher ed or the military or the Pentagon and making fun of oneself and the circumstances certainly helps. It helps to laugh. That's probably an underrated leadership skill and coping skill.
One of the skills that I think good strategic leaders have is a lens that's wide-angled but can also zoom in. So you get this ability to focus in on the problem of a moment with whomever you're dealing with or whatever's going on. But also — to zoom back out and to see how this fits in the larger picture. I, mostly through life experience, have developed that skill.
Are there any universal leadership qualities that you've noticed across industry?
Values-driven leaders, in my opinion, are the most successful.
As an example, you know what the rules are, but it's about [questioning], ‘Why is that rule a rule?’ Because most things that get into the president's office or the secretary's office, they're not the easy issues. It's something really difficult or high-consequence. And being driven by values: ‘Do the right thing.’ ‘Do it in the right way.’ ‘Be transparent and fair to people.’ It's about the mission, it's not about you.
I think the other thing that every great leader that I've known has is that they are voracious readers. I've never met somebody who I respect as a leader who doesn’t have several books they're reading at the moment. Or if you ask them, ‘What have you read, that's interesting recently,’ and it leads to a 20-minute conversation, or they've got a list for you. So I would say that they read widely — and not just in their field. That's one of the the transcending characteristics across industries, across government, higher ed, corporations, national laboratories. They tend to be voracious readers.
I would love to know: What is the book that's had the most profound effect on you?
Wow. So set aside books like the Bible or something like that. It’s different books at different times in my life.
I would say when I was college-aged, ‘Blackberry Winter,’ which is anthropologist Margaret Mead’s autobiography. That was at a time when there weren't a lot of women role models doing really tremendous things. And it just struck me at the time — it was a wonderful book.
There are some recent books that just really have stuck with me. One of them is ‘The Splendid and The Vile’ which is a biography of Winston Churchill. You know how the first year of his prime ministership is going to turn out, but it was drawing from diaries, from his personal assistant, and from his daughter, and it was told like a novel. And you know how the Battle of Britain ends, but you were just drawn into these decisions made on a personal level.
The other one is David Epstein's book ‘Range,’ which you would love if you haven't read it.
I interviewed the former CEO of General Electric Jeff Immelt, who was heavily criticized during his time at the helm of the company. But he said something that really struck me: “There were days when hundreds of thousands of people hated me, but one person loved me, and that was enough to keep persevering into the future.” How have you managed to keep your personal life strong even through all of the challenges you faced in your professional life?
As a young woman, I probably wouldn't have said this, because, you know, I was so focused on being successful professionally, that I didn't want to mix these things or something. But of all the decisions I've made in life, the most important one was who I decided I'd have as a roommate. It’s who I married, and I married well. There is nothing that has made my life better than that.
I would also say that when I was a teenager, I wasn't, you know, babysitting the neighbor's kids. And to be very honest, my family life at home wasn't sometimes all that great. And leaving at 17 was a really good idea. Although I wouldn't have admitted that at the time either because we weren't supposed to talk about those things.
To me, your success has been something that you can achieve. But your joy is a gift to revel in, and something that you're just thankful for every day. I have two great kids, and they both married wonderful people, and I now have my first grandchild.
When I was the head of the Children, Youth and Families department in New Mexico, I was a member of the cabinet. I had to spend a lot more time on the budget and in front of the legislature there on child welfare reform. Unlike the federal legislature where every legislator has five minutes, there's no time limit in Santa Fe. So if you're there, you're there for like three hours testifying. It can be brutal. I usually had my notebook and all my things in front of me to testify, but I always had a picture of my kids where I could see them. The reason was that I knew that no matter what happened in that hearing room, I was going home for supper. And for a hearing that I thought was going to be particularly awful, my husband would drive up from Albuquerque, and I knew that nobody in that room mattered to me as much as him. And no matter what, we were going home together.
How do you define the word success?
A lot differently than a younger version of myself would have.
I like succeeding at things at work and setting goals and achieving them. I always have. But for me now, it's a lot less about me than it is about the mission that matters. Personally, I would say that my goals have also become broader. I want to be a good wife, mother, and now grandmother. I want to make a positive contribution to the community in which I live. And I want to be a craftsman at my work, and enjoy the company of other craftsmen.
So I think how I would define success is different than just the kind of temporal things or the the amount of money that someone's willing to pay you or even just achieving goals that you've set for the institution that you're leading.
I find satisfaction in accomplishing a mission within an organization. I find almost no satisfaction, by the way, in financial things. I have never negotiated for the salary, and I never will. It doesn't matter to me beyond a certain point.
But I do like helping institutions to succeed at things that matter. And that gives me tremendous satisfaction and I'm involved in that. We are increasing access to excellent higher education and advancing discovery of public value, positively impacting the community that we serve. I mean, what's better than that? Not much.
(The book Wilson read during the pandemic was ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus.)