Opinion: What I learned from Barbara Barrett

On Tuesday, May 21st, President Donald Trump nominated Ambassador Barbara Barrett to succeed United States Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. When confirmed by the Senate, Barrett will become the 25th Secretary to lead 685,000 active-duty, guard, reserve and civilian forces and will be in charge of an annual budget of more than $138 billion.

Who is the leader that is about to assume the highest civilian position in the United States Air Force?

Some may recognize Barbara Barrett as the namesake of the highly prestigious Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University or through her work on the Smithsonian Board of Regents. To me, though, she is known as my former boss and mentor. I had the privilege of working for Arizona’s most famous Renaissance woman.

Barbara Barrett taught me to be humble

The night before meeting Barbara Barrett, I was incredibly intimidated by her résumé. She was an adviser to the Secretary of Defense for 25 years, senior adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Finland, deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, first civilian woman to land in an F-18 on an aircraft carrier and even a certified Astronaut. And here I was…. a young 24-year-old former intern looking for the right opportunity to launch my career.

During my final interview, Barrett and her chief of staff asked about my career goals, overcoming adversities and the leader who I sought to become. Instead of boasting about her career and achievements, she listened intently and was the most unpresumptuous leader I had ever met.

Barrett comes from humble beginnings in Pennsylvania where at an early age she began working to support her mother and siblings after her father passed away. After relocating to Arizona, she relied on scholarships and worked as many as five jobs (even working at a hot dog stand) to eventually earn three degrees at Arizona State University. Despite the hindrances that she encountered, Barbara Barrett always took a challenge head on and persevered with utmost integrity and graciousness.

I accompanied her to a venue in Paradise Valley where she addressed a group of young women participating in the Scottsdale Honors Cotillion about the importance of civic education and leadership. Her presentation was titled “Life is What You Make It.” Barrett eloquently stated you do things as a result of habit, relationships that you build now will benefit you later in life, and through diligence and hard work you can become anyone you strive to be. She took time to ask each of them what their goals were and what effective leadership meant to them.

However, do not let her warm-hearted qualities fool you. Barbara Barrett commands respect and abides by a strict set of principles that she learned early on from her mentor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whom she met while interning at the Arizona Capitol.

Barbara Barrett embodies the word Leadership

Barbara Barrett and Mark Fitzgerald at the 2018 Heritage Award Dinner

Having served on the boards of RAND, Smithsonian, CalTech, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Horatio Alger Association and the Aerospace Corporation, where she served four terms as chairman of the board, Barrett is one of America’s greatest leaders. She is diplomatically astute, surrounds herself with the finest leaders in the world, and is frequently sought out to provide guidance on a realm of issues worldwide.

The terms to best describe her leadership style are effective and thoughtful. Before heading to Dallas to participate in the Forum on Leadership at the George W. Bush Institute, I asked if I could read to her out loud the remarks that both of us edited that evening. As a person who stutters, I rarely speak about the adversities I have overcome. However, with Barrett, it came naturally because of her innate ability to connect with others. Although occupied with her many projects and several hundred emails received that day, she stopped what she was doing and listened as I practiced speaking. While never interjecting, as I finished, she offered her critiques and suggested that I stop using the filler word “like” to express my opinion. A duly noted assessment that has since stuck with me.

As I reflect on this moment, I realize this is Barbara Barrett – a kind, respectful leader who looks past your challenges and sees your potential. She taught me that adversities do not build character, they reveal it.

The United States Air Force and Arizona gain from her nomination

Barbara Barrett will be Arizona’s biggest advocate throughout the United States Air Force. Arizona is home to three active Air Force bases and continues to be in top-10 rankings in Department of Defense contracts as well as in aerospace and defense manufacturing, aerospace exports, and aerospace jobs. Military giants like Raytheon, Honeywell, Boeing and Lockheed Martin regularly expand operations throughout the state and with Barrett at the lead, Arizona’s economy will benefit significantly.

Although never enlisting, Barbara Barrett’s tracks can be found around the United States Military throughout her astonishing career. Earlier, Barrett was an adviser to the Secretary of Defense and was a member of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services during an era where women were prohibited from flying in combat. She worked with Congress and the Secretary of Defense to advance the roles of women in the military, culminating with law and policy provisions to allow women to fly combat aircraft – a barrier that was eventually broken by none other than Arizona’s newest United States senator, Martha McSally.

Her admiration and praise for military personnel is regularly seen as she participates in Luke Forward, a capital campaign at Luke Air Force Base. She led the effort to bring to Phoenix, Portraits of Courage, a vibrant collection of personal paintings and stories that honor America’s Warriors, each one painted by President George W. Bush. Hosted by the Arizona Historical Society and Sandra Day O’Connor Institute last fall, Barbara Barrett single-handedly raised the initial funds to bring the exhibit to the Arizona Heritage Center. In typical Barrett fashion, her efforts exceeded the minimum amount that needed to be raised. All profits from this exhibit went towards the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative that works to ensure that post-9/11 veterans and their families make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war.

Barrett thrives on challenges, and if an issue arises, she knows exactly who to contact for assistance. Barbara Barrett will be that resilient advocate and trained problem solver to guide America during a pivotal time in history where defense and high-volume technology make us susceptible to any type of foreign interference. The United States Air Force is not only gaining a diplomat, they are inheriting a leader who will make a lasting impact for generations to come.

The day Barbara Barrett was nominated happened to fall on my 26th birthday and was a day that will forever be engraved on my heart. It wasn’t that I turned a year older, it was because my mentor received a well-deserved recognition for her outstanding years of service. Ambassador Barbara Barrett continues to make Arizona proud and I look forward to the day she is confirmed when America will experience her true greatness.

Congratulations BB.

Mark Fitzgerald is a Research Associate for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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