Valuable Lessons in Leadership

Robert Kehler, an alumnus and four-star general in the U.S. Air Force, spoke to the fall 2013 College of Education scholarship dinner on the topic of leadership.
Valuable Lessons in Leadership

General Robert Kehler

UNIVERSITY PARK—Robert Kehler ’74 MU ED B.S., a four-star general in the U.S. Air Force and Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, was the keynote speaker for the College of Education scholarship dinner in September. In his presentation, Kehler addressed some key elements of leadership, how Penn State prepared him to be a leader, and how he sees that continue in Penn State students today.

Kehler listed three fundamental attributes of leadership: character, vision, and competence.

According to Kehler, character is critical because it is what you are doing when no one is looking.

“A leader’s true character emerges when the pressure is on,” said Kehler. “With character, everyone in the organization can trust that your motivations are sound and that you will always place the needs of those you serve above your own.”

Kehler added that character is about having a commitment to excellence and holding yourself accountable for results, pointing out that decades of hard work and leadership can be wiped away by one failure of character.

Vision is the second critical leadership component, according to Kehler.

“Effective leaders must have the foresight to plan the way ahead,” said Kehler. “This is especially necessary when leaders are faced with complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity.”

Kehler added that vision is about recognizing the context in which your organization operates, having a clear understanding of your mission, knowing your people, and knowing how to apply available resources to get the job done.

Kehler cited the third critical leadership element of competence in describing his own leadership style. He said a fundamental tenet he follows is to never demand from others what he is not willing to do himself.

“This is a simple philosophy, but it is easier said than done,” said Kehler. “It requires you to view yourself as a servant leader, which involves being an example in all things.”

He clarified, “You may not be the world’s expert in the tasks at hand, but you better know what your people are doing, how, and why. Most importantly, you must have a crystal-clear understanding of what it takes to get the job done.”

Kehler said that the first step toward being a good leader is to understand what it is to be a good follower.

“I often tell junior officers that they should focus on three things as they enter the military,” said Kehler. “First, become expert at your job, learn what is expected of you and become a professional. Second, get involved with your people. This provides an avenue for deeper understanding of the human dimension that leads to success. Finally, you must perform because leaders are ultimately judged on their effectiveness.”

Kehler said he has been impressed with Penn State student leadership and their resilience especially in response to unprecedented and highly visible adversity.

“I’m impressed that Penn State students showed the world that they are Penn State,” said Kehler. “Students showed great poise in public settings and, in many cases, their positive words helped change outside perceptions about the University.”

Kehler said Penn State helped prepare him as a leader.

“The ideas, concepts, and experiences from my undergraduate time molded me,” said Kehler. “The University encouraged me to think about my role in helping to solve real problems. Penn State—particularly the College of Education—is infused with a powerful spirit of service. The tenets of service, sacrifice, and honor in the military seemed natural and instinctual after my educational preparation at Penn State.”

--by Kevin Sliman (December 2013)