Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks at CU about what it means to be a leader

With the goal in mind of cultivating leadership skills in students, the Leo Hill Distinguished Leadership Speaker Series was recently created to bring prominent leaders to campus and hear from their experiences. The launch of the series was held on Tuesday in Macky Auditorium and featured former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaking to a full, sold-out audience.

Gates has held several towering positions during his decades in public service. This includes being a former CIA director, president of Texas A&M University and, most recently, secretary of defense under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the end of his term as defense secretary under Obama.

Introductory comments made by Chancellor Philip DiStefano emphasized the importance of exposure to Gates’ insight, especially now as the country transitions between presidential administrations.

The former secretary of defense began by providing what he believes to be the five most important qualities in a successful leader: integrity, self-discipline, courage, tenacity and a sense of humor. According to Gates, these qualities are a necessity for establishing strong interpersonal relations.

“Core to leadership is the ability to relate to people. Personal relationships move things forward,” Gates said.

He said these qualities are not necessarily the product of formal education, but rather a result of time and experience. He learned that through mistakes early on in his career, he said.

In regard to the new president, Gates suggests that President Donald Trump “figure out a way to make [leaders of government institutions] your allies and not your adversaries,” citing what he says is the necessity of listening to people who understand and conduct bureaucratic functions.

“When you antagonize everybody that works for you, your ability to bring change that is lasting and that is deep is going to be seriously inhibited,” Gates said.

On defusing tense situations — a scenario that he’s experienced many times through interaction with strong personalities and opinionated leaders — he says that “the biggest tool is humor.”

Gates also provided insights into the contentious discourse surrounding cyber security, including ISIS threats and concerns regarding Iran, North Korea, Russia and China.

As part of the Leo Hill series, in addition to his speech, Gates held informal visits with students. The series aims to bring one speaker to campus for two days each year and follow that same structure.

Contact CU Independent News Writer Heidi Harris at

Heidi Harris

Heidi is a fourth-year student at CU studying International Affairs, Economics and Journalism. She was the spring 2019 editor-in-chief for the CU Independent. Previously, she covered campus diversity initiatives and the local effects of federal immigration policies. A loud and unashamed ABBA fan, she can be relied upon to belt out the tunes of the seventies whenever possible.

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