On February 7, 2013, Chancellor Robert Gates spent an hour answering questions from a room full of students. So what can be learned from an hour observing and listening to the man known as Robert Gates? As it turns out, an hour is plenty of time to see how he was able to rise from an entry level position to the directorship of the CIA, how he became the president of Texas A&M University, and why he was appointed as the secretary of defense under two presidents. What is even more interesting is that he was not even telling his story, but answering a variety of questions posed by eager students trying to find out what he knows.
Within an hour, Chancellor Gates gave us a glimpse of who he is as a person. With just the briefest of pauses, he had an answer for all the questions directed to him. His answers were specific and pertinent, showcasing his broad knowledge and his quick wit. Knowing his background, you have to respect his ability to give a complete response while filtering any classified information. He was also the epitome of cool, calm, and collected. When asked what story he would tell at a cocktail party, he responded that he does not talk, but listens instead. It is a response fitting for someone that worked for the CIA, but it also indicates that he is constantly aware of his surroundings and most importantly, that he listens to people.
Another remarkable trait was his ability to synthesize the ramifications of even the smallest actions. He offered the story of how he was sent a photo which was edited to include him and other political leaders in superhero garb. After being amused by it, he realized the implications of what was done to the photo and what it meant for national security. The photo was of the dead bin Laden, and then Secretary Gates helped make the case why it should not be publicly released. This story speaks of how he never forgot his responsibilities, even when dealing with seemingly minute issues like an edited photo. He saw beyond his immediate surroundings and looked at the big picture.
Chancellor Gates also shared what it is like to be a leader. He indicated four characteristics he deemed important, those being candor, courage, respect, and having a sense of humor. From the moment he walked in, his candor was evident as he opened the floor to the students’ questions. He mentions courage because all leaders will, at one point or another, be standing by themselves. He values respect and decency or “the golden rule,” and has made attempts to instill that in the organizations he has been involved in. The story of the edited photo shows his sense of humor because he was amused, even if it was for a brief moment. Going beyond these four, it is evident from his responses that he also possesses other traits of a leader. He identified problems within the organizations he led and he took corrective actions. He knew how to engage people. Furthermore, he planned for the foreseeable future, and made decisions that gave the greatest chance of success.
It is for all the reasons above that it is a great honor to have Robert Gates as the 24th chancellor of the college. Intelligent, practical, and a respected leader, knowing that he once stood in the students’ shoes encourages us to keep moving forward and, as he mentioned, to learn from our own experiences to hone our own brand of leadership.
From one alumnus to another, thank you, Chancellor Gates, for giving back to the school, for spending your time with us, and giving us some tools to use as we forge our way into the future.
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