DeDe Halfhill: Lessons from a military career grounded in ‘humanness’


She has spent 24 years growing her career and leading teams in the Air Force, but DeDe Halfhill never expected to become a sought-after speaker and coach on leadership. Her compassionate, direct, and somewhat unorthodox approach to building teams and challenging norms in the military got the attention of famed leadership researcher and author Brené Brown, and Halfhill’s story became part of Brown’s bestselling 2018 book, “Dare to Lead.”

In February, Halfhill was the keynote speaker at the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute’s 15th Annual Impact Leadership Dinner. Her role as a speaker on these issues is one she pursues outside of her day job as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and special assistant for Public Affairs to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But her experiences as a woman leading in the military have indelibly shaped her career and her leadership philosophy.

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Contributed photography / DeDe Halfhill, leadership coach and keynote speaker.

Q: How did you choose the military? Did you expect to make a career of it?

A: I joined the military probably a little naïve as to what I was getting into. It helped pay for school and it offered a guaranteed job once I graduated. I thought, I’ll join, do my four years, pay back my education and be done. But I’ve been really lucky in that every single time I was at a crossroads to continue or separate, they offered me another amazing opportunity. I never intended to have a career in the military, but looking back on it now, especially as a woman, I’m so grateful for everything it’s done for me.

Q: How has being a woman in a male-dominated field influenced the direction of your career?

A: In 2014, I taught a class on women in national security and foreign policy at Georgetown University. There are all the narratives about why women don’t advance in leadership positions, so as I was going through all the literature one thing that stuck out for me is how often we self-eliminate. When I saw that, I really stopped and realized how often I would have opted out if given the choice, that I too held that narrative in my head: I’m not the right person, someone else would be better, I’m not going to put myself out there knowing I’m 50% qualified. The military never let me opt out. Against everything I wanted, they never let me opt out.

It was uncomfortable, and at times terrifying, but I gained so much confidence from that. I never really realized how much support I had in those moments. When we are in that mindset of opting out, there are so many people around us who are rooting for our success. We have to be open to hearing it and lean on it and step into those scary moments knowing we are more likely to succeed than we are to fail.

Q: You never encountered any obstacles?

A: I never listened to the narrative of discrimination or disadvantage, so it never crossed my mind. Then I read the literature and saw the case studies. I said, ‘Oh gosh maybe I have experienced some of this.’ Where I’m lucky is because I was naïve to some of the antiquated perspectives, and what I focused on were the people who were encouraging me and the people who were that support network – male or female. And most of my mentors have been male because of demographics in the military. The mentors most closely aligned to my age were sometimes women. The mentors most senior in their ability to advocate were men. We don’t have a lot of senior women in the military.

Q: How did you end up in Brené Brown’s book?

A: I look back at my life and I think 2014 was an incredibly transformational year. Through the Air Force, I had a National Defense fellowship at Georgetown, and I was asked by the school to teach the women in leadership class. I had to build the syllabus, and I was also taking their executive leadership coaching certification program. This was all happening at the same time. And at the same time, I had been a fan of Brené Brown’s work since 2010. I wanted to be the person who did the hard things and did what I felt was right. I knew I was stumbling and I didn’t have the language to understand why I wasn’t that person. Her work gave me a language. In 2014, when I taught the class, as I was going through the coaching program, suddenly I had tools to apply the language. The confluence of a language, a skill set, of a comfort applying these tools, because of that I became very passionate about sharing that knowledge, those tools, that perspective, and I started telling anyone who would listen.

Q: How was that received?

A: For a while, people looked at me a little funny. We need to be talking about vulnerability to a lot of male senior officers? They were like, ‘Someone has fallen off the train.’ But in 2016, I was selected to be a commander and I had 2,000 people responsible for base operations– all of the infrastructure, logistics, security, communications to keep this base running. I had six subordinate commanders, and I thought, maybe no one in the Air Force will listen to me but now I have six commanders who have no choice.

Brené [Brown] had a program, an online program you could download. I bought that program and my six commanders and I went through that program. There were three women, three men, a mix of races and backgrounds. It was a great team. Then we had an opportunity to go to a different base to hear [Brown] speak. When I met her, I told her about using her program to work with my commanders, told her it changed how we engage one another, how it changed the conversations we have. And they told her, ‘This work didn’t just change the way we lead.’ It changed marriages, parenting, they all added something that was amplifying something I said about the work we did and what that work meant to their lives. Some of their spouses even thanked me for bringing that work into our lives.

Q: You are known for doing an analysis of the Air Force manual from 2011 and comparing to the manual from 1948. What did that reveal to you?

A: That comparison of manuals was also in 2014. As part of the leadership program, the Air Force wanted me to do a research project, so I was immersed in this world looking at leadership from the internal perspective. I pulled up the manual from 2011 – our core values, all the stuff I read today in the Air Force, but something caught my eye. It said, ‘These current values are an evolution of the seven core values from 1948,’ and one of them was humanness. I really keyed in on that: what does that mean? It’s so different from what I hear today.

I found that 1948 manual in the chaplain corps. It was so emotional in nature, I guess someone decided there’s a time and place for that and it’s church. As I was reading this first document looking for humanness, that triggered me to do the word search and I was shocked – all the words, ‘feel’ and ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’ and ‘mercy’ and ‘friendliness’ and even ‘love’ were coming up over and over again. That really ignited a conversation.

Here’s what I find fascinating – the fact that that in 1948, after World War II, they could write with this language, that these warriors were comfortable leading this way. Our language now is often so technical, so sterile. We have sanitized the language of emotion, we are less comfortable leading with emotion. But in a world where we value courage and strength and being a warrior, the warriors we admire most led with these values.

Q: How do you continue to share these messages in your work?

A: I started a Dare to Lead Facebook page in the Air Force. I share on there regularly where I stumble. In the job I have now, I’m traveling a lot, it requires attention after hours, I’m tired, I’m not working out, I’m not resting well, my patience suffers. So here you are in a book set up as an example and you turn around and snap someone’s head off and use shame to get quick results and then you step back and go, ‘Oh my gosh what was that?’ That’s not who you’ve said you want to be.

You have to have compassion for yourself. You have to say I’m sorry. You have to make amends. I share that with the group. I’ve been doing this work for years and I still sometimes stumble and make mistakes. None of us will reach perfection, this is a process, a growth experience.

I said, ‘I need to circle back. I behaved in a way that isn’t in integrity with who I want to be. It was unfair to you, and I commit to working to not let my exhaustion result in that kind of behavior.’ When I circle back to hold myself accountable and I’m vulnerable, you’d be surprised how many people that makes uncomfortable, but it’s important that I do that.

Q: Is this partially about temperament?

A: No, this is actually a teachable skill. Courage is a teachable skill, vulnerability is a teachable skill. It is not finite, not fixed, all of them are growth skills. This values assessment I use gives you 24 character strengths, and kindness is last for me. Growth and authenticity are first. In choosing authenticity, I have to learn to deliver that with kindness. For me, this has taught me the things I want to be better at I can bring awareness to. I can really practice it.


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