Kim “KC” Campbell: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &…

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Kim “KC” Campbell: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

To lead with courage . . . It takes courage to hold ourselves and others accountable, to have difficult conversations, and to make decisions when we don’t have perfect information. It also takes courage to get out and connect with our team during challenging times.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Kim “KC” Campbell.

Kim “KC” Campbell is a retired Air Force Colonel who served in the Air Force for over 24 years as a fighter pilot and senior military leader. Her final assignment was as the Director of the Center for Character and Development at the United States Air Force Academy.

As a senior military leader, Kim led thousands of airmen both at home and abroad in deployed locations and enabled them to succeed in their missions. She has experience leading complex organizations and driving cultural change. Kim has flown 1,800 hours in the A-10 Warthog, including more than 100 combat missions protecting troops on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, Kim was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism after successfully recovering her battle-damaged airplane after an intense close air support mission.

Since retiring from the Air Force, Kim has shared her inspirational story and lessons on leading with courage with business and corporate audiences as an executive coach and keynote speaker. Kim’s new book, Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage, will be available on March 8, 2023. Connect and learn more at

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m going to go back a little bit here . . . when I was in 5th grade, I watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. As we likely all remember, the launch was a tragedy and we lost all of the astronauts on board. I cried watching it. I had no idea why, but I cried as if I knew the astronauts personally.

It took me some time to understand the gravity of my feelings. Why was I so emotionally connected to these astronauts when I didn’t know them? At age 10, I knew they died doing something they believed in, something important. But even thirty-five years later, I struggle to make sense of it all. The astronauts had a dream that they went after. And even though they failed to reach the stars, they had a commitment to a dream that was big and important, not just for them, but for the rest of the world.

I realized I wanted to commit my life to something bigger, something more important than myself. I wanted to serve and believe so strongly in something that I would be willing to give my life in pursuit of it. There was something about that shuttle launch that pulled me to the exhilaration of flight and the sense of freedom and fearlessness that goes with it. And so, at ten years old, I decided that I was going to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure I would classify this mistake as funny, because it was certainly not funny at the time. But I realize now, how important it was for me to learn this lesson early in my career.

The journey to become a pilot starts at United States Air Force pilot training. It is an intense 52-week program designed to teach the basic flying fundamentals and lays the foundation for more advanced flying. Our success in the program is determined based on our performance on training flights and evaluations at the end of each phase of flying. I knew I had to perform at the top of my class to get the fighter aircraft I wanted.

Most of my flights at pilot training went pretty well as a result of a lot of studying and hard work. However, my last formation check ride left a lot to be desired. It was not an effective performance, to say the least. On a formation flight, we take off with two aircraft and perform maneuvers close to each other. My flight started out all right, but the visor on my helmet fogged up while we were in tight formation. It was uncomfortable for me to be that close to another airplane when I couldn’t clearly see all of the features used to ensure we are in the right position. I moved away from the other airplane and told my evaluating pilot in the backseat about the issue. He took the airplane, told me to clean the visor, and then move back into formation. I quickly did what I could to fix the issue, but I was also worried I had failed the flight for not flying in the proper formation position. And because I couldn’t get that off my mind, I continued to make more errors. It was the worst flight I had ever flown, and it was my fault because I couldn’t compartmentalize everything that was going on in my mind. I let my concern about my mistake spin out of control, spiral, and get the best of me.

I received several downgrades on that flight. However, that mission was also a powerful lesson for me, and I’m thankful it happened early in my flying career. If you mess up, learn the lesson, don’t do it again, and MOVE ON.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My dad has always been my role model and my hero. When I told him I wanted to be a fighter pilot, he was definitely a bit shocked, but he hid his surprise well and focused on encouraging me to achieve my dream. He never told me that women couldn’t be fighter pilots (that was the rule back in 1986), he just told me to work hard and go after what I wanted. Once I was accepted to attend the Air Force Academy, he helped me prepare for basic training by running with me in our neighborhood in combat boots and installing a pull-up bar in my bathroom so that I could do pull-ups anytime I went in or out of the bathroom. It paid off. During my first year at the Air Force Academy, I was able to max the physical fitness test. My dad has been by my side through it all and has helped me get to where I am today.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

When I was the Director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the United States Air Force Academy, our purpose was to develop leaders of character in service to our nation. Our efforts both directly and indirectly impacted the development of Air Force Academy cadets who were expected to be able to lead during uncertain and turbulent times. We had a vision and a purpose that everyone understood and could get on board with.

I found as a leader that my team performed best when they understood the ‘why’ behind our mission and what we were doing. In any organization, civilian or military, a team needs to understand the ‘why’ behind what they are doing so it gives them purpose.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

In July 2020, I became the Director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the Air Force Academy, in the middle of the pandemic. It was obviously a tough time for everyone, and it was also a tough time to begin as a new leader in an organization where I didn’t know the team.

As the new Director, I wanted to spend time with my team, get to know them, and connect with them on a more personal level. Thanks to the remote environment, I couldn’t achieve this in the way I had operated in the past. People were working from home, and we only had our mission essential personnel in the building. It was a challenging time to meet and connect with people, but I had to work with the situation and not fight against it. I decided to take the time to meet with all of my team virtually, attempting to get to know them through the computer screen. I listened to their concerns and struggles, not just with work, but also with the demanding pandemic world we were all trying to survive in. I learned quickly that there were competing priorities and interests as well as frustration that there was too much to do and not enough hours in the day to get it done. If I was going to make any progress and lead effectively, I was going to have to help my team prioritize their actions under the enormous pressure of competing demands.

I went back to some basics that I learned in pilot training of how to prioritize in a crisis. “Aviate, navigate, communicate” is a simple phrase we learn early in our flight training that helps us get through a demanding situation. When we face an emergency, we learn to slow down and focus on what’s most important first: we must aviate by maintaining control of the airplane. Then we navigate, gaining situational awareness of what is going on around us and figuring out where we need to go. From there, we communicate, letting others know about the problem, and requesting assistance if required from our wingmen or other assets. This simple phrase helps pilots prioritize under pressure and maintain focus on the most important aspects first.

These same prioritization concepts work outside of the cockpit as well and I’ve used them to help me lead my team (and my family) through a crisis. When a crisis hits, we aviate by keeping our team on course and maintaining focus on our critical priorities. These are the things that we have to keep doing, and we can’t stop doing them or we will fail. Then we navigate. We need to have awareness of the goals we are trying to achieve even in a crisis, leading a clear path for our team by knowing where there are threats or risks to the team and mission. And finally, we must communicate clearly, concisely, and correctly (perhaps more than ever in a crisis). We must communicate regularly with our team to encourage them and to ensure they know the way forward. We must also communicate with higher-ups or senior leadership if help is needed.

In times of crisis, leaders must be able to focus on critical priorities, keeping our team on course. We must also help our team prioritize their efforts. We must be clear about our priorities and help our team focus on what’s most important first.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

No, I couldn’t give up. My team was counting on me, and our mission was too important. My passion and my purpose sustain my drive. When we find purpose and passion in what we do, we are more likely to put effort into it. Then the work doesn’t feel like work, and we enjoy what we do.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown and her book, Dare to Lead. I love this quote: “Courage and fear are not mutually exclusive. Most of us feel brave and afraid at the exact same time.”

I think for so long throughout my career, especially being one of the only women in most of my units, I was so worried about admitting that I was afraid or uncertain about dealing with a challenging situation. I felt like I had to put on this tough exterior because that’s what everyone expected from a fighter pilot. Dr. Brown’s work made me realize that it’s okay to have doubts, fear, and uncertainties, it’s all about what we do with them that matters the most.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

To lead with courage . . . It takes courage to hold ourselves and others accountable, to have difficult conversations, and to make decisions when we don’t have perfect information. It also takes courage to get out and connect with our team during challenging times.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

We need to take the time to connect with our team. Show the human side of leadership. Walk around and talk with our team. Get to know them and let them share their expertise. Find out what we can do to help. Get their input and listen to their feedback. Say thank you.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Be straight-forward and be honest. Difficult news doesn’t get better with time. Propose a solution or a way forward.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

That’s our job as leaders. We have to make decisions without perfect information. We must be able to make decisions based on what we know and the best information we have. Assess what the future might look like based on what the trends indicate. In the military, when we conduct planning, we look at the most likely course of action (based on experience and trend analysis) and we also look at the most dangerous course of action. We produce different plans based on those scenarios and then we execute. Don’t be afraid to adjust along the way as needed.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Our flying checklist says that if flight through severe turbulence or thunderstorms is unavoidable, establish and maintain a power setting and pitch attitude that will hold the aircraft in level flight. Use smooth and moderate control inputs. When we face turbulence (in the air or on the ground), we need to ensure we don’t overreact or overcorrect. We must take action with smooth and moderate control inputs.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

  1. Losing sight of what’s most important: Not everyone on the team can be focused on the immediate problem or difficulty, some still need to ensure they are looking down the road at what’s ahead. We have unfortunately seen several aircraft accidents as a result of everyone in the airplane being overly focused on the immediate problem, and nobody actually focused on flying the airplane.
  2. Overreacting to turbulence. Take the time to assess the situation, and then take the appropriate action. If you take the wrong action, you can exacerbate the problem.
  3. Ignoring the turbulence and assuming you don’t have to adapt. Ensure you are not so overly committed to your current approach that you don’t adjust when needed.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Prepare: Before a flying mission, I prepared by studying my aircraft systems as well as our tactics, techniques, and procedures. I reviewed notes from previous missions and the lessons we had learned. I studied and reviewed the data. Take the time to do the work to expand your knowledge base. What research can be done in advance? What data or information is available to show what has (or hasn’t) worked in the past? When we are prepared, fear is reduced. As we prepare, we become competent, and when we are competent, we become more confident.
  2. Practice: After I prepared for a mission, I took it a step further, and I practiced. The night before a mission or even the morning of, I would think through the flight and visualize our plan of action. Practice, rehearse, or visualize to find opportunities for improvement. Can you make the time to rehearse for critical meetings, conversations, and presentations? Are you able to meet with team members to do a walk-through of new plans or decisions and assess how they might affect the organization? Practice creates clarity and boosts confidence among your team. Teams that have put in the work to practice will be more productive and are more likely to achieve success, especially in uncertain or turbulent times.
  3. Plan for Contingencies: As a pilot, I always planned for contingencies, mentally preparing for what could go wrong. I didn’t just think through what happened when everything was going right, I also thought about what to do when things went wrong. Planning for contingencies helps mitigate risk. Where could things go wrong with the plan? What is the plan if things do go wrong? What is the response to worst-case scenario? Consider creating a team to evaluate your plan. They can ask tough questions and review your plan from a different perspective. Once you think through contingencies, you will be better prepared to execute, respond under stress, and face difficult moments.
  4. Be calm: Although the military environment presents unique circumstances, leaders at all levels in any organization can serve their team well by remaining calm during a crisis. Teams want leaders who are consistent and remain calm and composed even under stress. Consistency creates trust. Our team wants to know they can count on us during tough times. Leaders play a pivotal role in demonstrating that we understand the intensity of a situation while also helping our teammates remain calm and composed under pressure. Be calm in the storm. Your team is watching to see how you will respond.
  5. Prioritize: There were many times throughout my career when I felt inundated by competing demands and priorities. I’ve also had moments when I didn’t even know where to start, feeling like there was no way possible to get everything done. Sometimes it can be overwhelming when we have a lot of information to process, problems to think through, and issues to confront. We need to be able to prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance. We must focus on those things in our control and communicate priorities to teammates. We must do the things that only we can do and then delegate lower-level tasks as needed. If we focus on what’s most important first, then we can lead our team successfully in difficult times.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” — Nelson Mandela

I’ve been scared many times in my life, just like we all have. It can be hard to admit that we’re scared, stressed, or worried about something. And I’m not just talking about the fear associated with life-or-death situations or flying a fighter jet in combat. Fear is fear…fear of failure, fear of not meeting expectations, fear of change, fear of the unknown. It can all be daunting or stressful. But it’s what we do when we are scared that matters the most.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Connect with me on LinkedIn (Kim “KC” Campbell) or Twitter (@KCHawg987). You can also visit my website:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Kim “KC” Campbell: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.