Honest advice on leadership, from the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

Dec 3, 2020

JoAnne S. Bass has achieved two career firsts: She’s the first woman and also the first Asian American to serve as Chief Master Sergeant of the US Air Force. Here, she discusses what she takes time every day to do and why it’s so important to lift up others on your journey up the ranks.

TED: What do you think is the #1 quality that a leader needs to have today? And why?

Chief Master Sergeant of the US Air Force JoAnne S. Bass: I believe all leaders need to have a solid understanding of what emotional intelligence is and how to use it in everyday life. In fact, emotional intelligence is helpful to simply being a better human. Had I understood the impacts that my own emotions, actions and behaviors had on others and better understood other people’s emotions, I might’ve saved myself a lot of heartache over the years. And it would have definitely improved the interpersonal relationships that matter in life, at work and at home.

TED: The theme of this year’s TEDWomen conference is “fearless”. What does it mean to you to be a fearless leader?

Bass: When I think about being fearless, I think about being bold, brave, courageous and ready to go  after it. What I don’t think about and what I don’t believe fearless means is somebody who has no fear at all or who is unafraid. That’s an important thing to state, because there’s always something to be fearful of — we’re going to have fears. But we have to conquer them through being brave and being bold and being courageous and being comfortable with being who we are.

TED: I feel like that advice can apply to so many spaces and so many people. Now you’re the 19th Chief Master Sergeant of the US Air Force, the first woman in history to serve as the highest ranking non-commissioned member of a US military service. It’s an incredible thing to witness, and I’m curious to hear about the challenges you faced along the way.

Bass: When I look back at the challenges that I’ve had in my 27-year military career, I honestly think a lot of them were the same challenges that any military member probably had when it comes to interpersonal skills, human relations, and those kinds of things.

But my biggest challenge was me — my own self-limiting beliefs and the doubts I had that kept me from being my best. Maybe I was paralyzed about being able to have enough confidence and courage to be the leader that I needed to be.

I have to attribute a lot of getting past that to people like my husband and other leaders. And once I got past my own self, man, the sky was the limit. I tell leaders everywhere, especially women leaders, don’t let you be the reason why you’re not advancing or becoming who you want to be.

TED: How often do you experience doubts these days? And what do you do to deal with them?

Bass: I don’t allow doubt to take up space in my mind for long. I’ve worked hard over the years to identify, remove and counter anything that is simply not true.

TED: How can a person tell whether they are the reason that they’re not advancing? And then what should they do?

Bass: While sometimes it’s hard to see, we all need to take a step back from time to time, reflect and ask ourselves: “Are we the cause of our not advancing? Are our own self-limiting beliefs holding us back?” I use self-reflection as a tool every day — in the military, we call it de-briefing. After every single day, I de-brief or reflect on how the day went, what could’ve been better, how could I have done better. Then I move on. I don’t allow myself to stay focused on what I “could’ve” done better; I focus on advancing and being better.

TED: That’s great advice. What other wisdom would you give to people interested in leadership?

Bass: I would tell people to be true to who you are and to follow in your own footsteps. You’ve got to walk in the path that was created for you. You’ve got to run your own race. Also, stay hungry, learn every day, read every day and work hard at being the best version of you. And while you’re at it, look around you, grab the other people around you and encourage them to do the same.

TED: Meaning that you should bring people with you through the journey?

Bass: Yes, in the military, we talk about that all the time. If you look around and there’s nobody following you, something’s wrong. So we’re constantly doing a self-assessment and looking around ourselves, making sure that we are lifting up our brothers and sisters to our right and left. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to just be there for them. Listen to them, know their stories and when they’re in trouble, reach out and encourage them.

TED: Also, you mentioned the importance of reading every day. What books would you recommend to people who want to be leaders?

Bass: One book that I’d recommend is The Kill Chain by Christian Brose — it really breaks down how we as a military, and as a nation, need to change our way of thinking and accelerate change. I also recommend The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and The Heart-Led Leader by Tommy Spaulding. Both of those are great reads for anyone looking to improve themselves and their leadership philosophy and style.

TED: Finally, burnout is a huge problem for leaders in any field. What specific things do you do to keep yourself from burning out?

Bass: I am a huge believer in self-care, and I am unapologetic about it. I served in the Air Force for almost 23 years before I learned that if I don’t fill my own cup, I can’t fill someone else’s. So for me, that means sleep, being mindful of what I eat and drink, exercise, feeding and exercising my brain (with reading and podcasts), and surrounding myself with the people that build me up socially and spiritually. I’ve learned that self-care is not selfish, it’s necessary.

Watch her TED interview here: