Lessons in Leadership

On Dec. 12, St. John’s Cadet Corps Leadership Program welcomed former cadet colonel Kevin O’Keefe ’74 back to campus to speak about his career as a leader. 
A graduate of the Naval Academy, O’Keefe spent 26 years in the Marine Corps and is now a career member of the Senior Executive Service. He currently serves as director of the Office of Security Assistance for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, where he is responsible for managing US security sector assistance, coordinating State Department oversight, planning for Department of Defense security sector assistance programs and providing State Department input for Department of Defense planning and military activities. Previously, he served as director of the Office of Plans, Policy and Analysis.
O’Keefe used his time with the cadets to reflect upon how he developed as a leader and the lessons he has learned and continues to learn through his interactions with others. “When I think of leadership, two words come to mind: humble and service,” he said. He learned early on – first from his family and then during his time with the Christian Brothers at St. John’s – that leadership requires humble service to others. O’Keefe told the students that to lead others, you must first learn to lead yourself, and he stressed the importance of having a strong moral compass, being technically proficient and staying humble as essential to self-leadership. He explained that the cadets should expect failure in life – but the key is to learn from it, rather than accept it. Finally, history also plays a vital role in self-leadership. Every profession has a history, and O’Keefe stressed the importance of being a student of your profession – “look rearward to move forward.” 
When it comes to leading others, “the strongest form of leadership is leadership by example.” He instructed the cadets to not be risk-averse, but rather to take smart, calculated risks and build trust with those who serve under and with them. As a leader, he said one way to build that loyalty is by delegating authority, which prompted an explanation about the difference between authority and responsibility. “You can delegate authority, and try to do that, but you can never delegate responsibility,” he said.   
Following his presentation, O’Keefe answered questions from the cadets, and Jacob Patterson ’20 presented him with a selection of SJC gear on behalf of the Cadet Corps to thank him for his visit.