Former CIA Agent Michele Rigby Assad Brings War-Zone Tactics to Women's Leadership Conference

Michele Rigby Assad speaks at the inaugural Women In Leadership Meetings + Incentives event on the Norwegian Bliss

"Have any of you ever felt underestimated in the workplace?" Michele Rigby Assad asked the 85 executive-level women participating in Northstar's first Women In Leadership Meetings + Incentives (WILMI) event, held May 4-6 aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, Norwegian Bliss. All too often, women are made to believe that our unique qualities are "soft skills" and inappropriate for the workplace. As an officer for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Assad proved otherwise. Trained as a counterterrorism specialist, she served the U.S. for 10 years, working in Iraq and other highly dangerous Middle Eastern locations.

Sponsored by Goodman Speakers Bureau, Assad recalled how her male superiors in the CIA assumed that she would take a behind-the-scenes role, while the male agents handled operations. "I had been told for years I couldn't do this job," said Assad.

She was quick to prove otherwise, harnessing her knowledge and female intuition effectively to gain intelligence from terrorists that her male counterparts had not been able to obtain.

The tactics Assad honed as an undercover CIA agent also apply to the challenges women face in any leadership role, she stressed, using ambush training as a dramatic example. "The place where the attack is being carried out against you is called the X. The idea is to get off the X," she said.

While it might sound obvious, "When you're under huge amount of stress, you have three potential reactions: fight, flight or freeze. A lot of people die in terrorist attacks, because a lot of people freeze."

That X relates to life in general, said Assad. "How often we tend to freeze because we're so caught up in fear, discomfort or lack of directions? That X is nice and toasty for me. I really have to work myself up to get off that X. But the most interesting things in life do not happen in that comfort zone."

Assad asked, "As women in life, how often do we hold back, especially when there's an established way of doing things?" Remember, she said, "Courage is a muscle. The more you use that muscle, the stronger it gets."

Her personal experience is chronicled in the newly released book "Breaking Cover, My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me About What's Worth Fighting For."

Norwegian Bliss, featuring a race track, laser tag, water slides and a jogging track, holds up to 4,004 passengers and 1,716 crew members. The ship will begin excursions in Alaska and the Caribbean later this year.