Syracuse University Magazine

Lessons in Leadership

Air Force and Army ROTC cadets outside of Hendricks Chapel, Veterans Day 2014.

Photo by Steve Sartori

Lessons in Leadership

With its long-standing commitment to the military, the University has provided education to thousands in the armed services—including many who have gone on to prominent leadership roles

By Kathleen Haley

Syracuse University has a long history of boots on the ground. Generations of cadets, soldiers, and veterans have walked across campus and into the schools and colleges that have helped prepare them in various ways for their military careers and post-military lives.

Nearly 100 years ago, in 1918, Syracuse University students heard the call of duty and joined the Student Army Training Corps activated by the War Department during World War I. The following year, the corps was transformed into the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), redefined by the government as a permanent military department to develop officers needed to lead the nation’s military. Since then, the University’s two ROTC Corps of Cadets, Air Force and Army (the longest continuous running Army ROTC program in the nation), have trained thousands of military officers.

During the Second World War, the University created the War Service College to offer an introductory course for military service and for women training for the war effort. The Air Corps Cadets, the Army Specialized Training Program, Women’s Auxiliary Corps officers, the Navy V-12 Program, and the Cadet Nursing Corps drew in 8,000 servicemen and –women. Those numbers set the stage for Chancellor William P. Tolley’s historic decision. At the end of the war, Tolley, a member of the presidential committee whose proposal formed the basis of the GI Bill, opened the doors to the nation’s veterans, nearly tripling the student body.

Through the years, as the needs of the U.S. military and its service members developed, the University has responded with specific programs and unique opportunities to benefit those who serve their country. These include the Defense Comptrollership Program, operated by the Whitman School of Management and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, with the U.S. Department of Defense; the National Security Studies Program, also operated by the Maxwell School; the Military Visual Journalism Program at the Newhouse School, sponsored by the U.S. Navy; the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, which started at the Whitman School in 2007; and the Veterans Career Transition Program, offered by the School of Information Studies and JPMorgan Chase & Co. For all University student-veterans, University College opened the Veterans Resource Center with a personalized set of services from recruitment to degree completion.

In 2011, the University launched the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), a bold, first-of-its-kind program to serve all 22.5 million U.S. veterans. With JPMorgan Chase & Co. as founding partner, IVMF leverages the resources of higher education to support veterans and military families by offering programs, conducting research and policy analysis, and providing technical assistance to address their specific concerns. “After WWII, more than 10,000 veterans came to this campus with global experiences, broad diversity, and a commitment to service—and they changed this institution. They made us better,” says J. Michael Haynie, vice chancellor for veterans and military affairs and IVMF executive director. “So now, as we ‘wind down’ from the longest sustained period of military conflict in this country’s history, I believe that great universities will be defined based on the choices they make to engage those men and women who have worn the cloth of the nation during this time of war. The best among us will enact the conditions where our veterans can serve yet again—as students, employees, leaders, and alumni—to position Syracuse University as a national leader in the pursuit of social and economic prosperity for the next century.”

The University’s commitment to veterans was reaffirmed earlier this year by Chancellor Kent Syverud, who cited it as one of his four priorities for the University. “We have the capacity, we have the opportunity, to be the best in the world at providing opportunity and empowerment to the veterans of our armed forces and their families,” Syverud said in his inaugural speech. “So let’s just do it. Because if we do, we will have done so much for our University, for this country, and for our veterans.”

The service members who are sustained and enriched by the University’s programs number in the thousands. Their ranks are distinguished and their stories are many. According to one estimate, nearly 50 living alumni have ascended to the rank of admiral or general.

In the following text, five U.S. military generals—all who trace back part of their roots to Syracuse University—share some of their own personal military histories and what leadership means to them.


Student Army Training Corps 1918, in front of the Hall of Languages.

Photo courtesy of Syracuse University Archives


U.S. Air Force Major General Franklin "Judd" Blaisdell '71

Major General Franklin BlaisdellThe day after terrorists flew an airplane into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, U.S. Air Force Major General Franklin J. Blaisdell was back working in his office in the still-burning building. “When you’re in the breach, you need to perform—your country depends on it,” says Blaisdell, an ROTC cadet at Syracuse who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in American studies from the College of Arts and Sciences. Blaisdell retired in 2004 from his last assignment as director of strategic security with the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Air and Space Operations. He also commanded the 30th Space Wing and Western Range at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. He currently has his own consulting company and is a partner at Strativest.

Why did you choose a career in the Air Force?
My dad was a U.S. Air Force chaplain, so I had never been a civilian. While serving during the Korean War, he and his administrative NCO saved 1,000 orphans. [Colonel Russell L. Blaisdell organized what became known as Operation Kiddy Car in 1950, evacuating the children from Seoul as communists were overtaking the city.] My dad’s influence—his sacrifice and his ability to make decisions and save lives—carried down to me.

What were some of the most challenging leadership capacities you served in?
As commander of the 30th Space Wing, I had over 3,000 military personnel and another 3,000 civilians and contractors. Our job was to launch space vehicles and our Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles as well as conduct aircraft testing. Another challenging mission was the 21st Space Wing, which is about two-thirds of Air Force Space Command with 6,000 military personnel and civilians. The Space Wing conducts missile warning and space control, for the United States and most of the world. During my last four years in the Air Force, I had a few jobs in the Pentagon, including as director of Nuclear and Counterproliferation, which is where I was on 9/11.

What was your experience on 9/11?
I was with my secretary and senior administrator when we noticed on the news that an aircraft had just flown into one of the towers. Then we watched the second one occur. That’s when I told my senior administrative NCO to start calling our people because we’re going to be real busy at the Pentagon. I was in the hallway when we got hit. I couldn’t see it, but it rocked the whole building. At that point, I knew, obviously, we had a terrorist attack broader than just New York. I grabbed my hat and radio, made sure my people were out, and spun the dial on the vault to my office. As we exited the building, we started to search for the wounded. We were also putting senior people on helicopters and making sure our people were secure.
The next day we had to find a way to work. A number of civilians and military contractors were very apprehensive. I told them, “Your country needs you now…. You are still walking and talking—and you have a job to do. We’ve got to mourn our dead, but to all those plans you’ve been working on [stored] in the safes, I want you to take them out.” And we went back to work.

What have you learned are the most important qualities of being a leader?
You’ve got to challenge your people and help them develop their full potential. If there’s credit to be given, give it to your people. If there’s blame, you take it. You also need to know your people—their wives, kids, what makes them tick—if they are going to do good work for you. You have to have a vision and a sense of urgency. Your current job is the most important one you’ll ever have.


U.S. Army Brigadier General Peggy Combs '85

Brigadier General Peggy CombsBrigadier General Peggy Combs started her military career 29 years ago as a U.S. Army ROTC cadet on campus. Today, the College of Arts and Sciences graduate, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, is back with the cadets. This time, she is leading them as the 11th commanding general of the U.S. Army Cadet Command and the 85th commanding general of Fort Knox, Kentucky. Combs previously served as the chief of chemical and the commandant of the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. During Operation Enduring Freedom, she was the joint nuclear, biological, and chemical operations officer at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, and also served as the chief of staff for the Iraq Training and Advisory Mission, U.S. Forces-Iraq, in Baghdad, among other assignments.

How did the Syracuse University ROTC program prepare you to start out your military career?
ROTC teaches fundamental life skills, including self-discipline, responsibility, time management, accountability, and commitment to something bigger than yourself. Those fundamental ideals are taught throughout ROTC and then you have the opportunity to apply them to many different leadership situations.

Among your assignments and postings around the world, what are you most proud of?
The total experience is one of great pride. Every job has its beauty, its challenges, and its particularly fond memories, and the one constant throughout the jobs is the great people we serve with and the folks we meet.

What I’m most proud of is that I married another officer [Retired Lieutenant Colonel Brad Combs] and we have three great kids. We were able to serve together, and our kids served right alongside us.

What does your work entail as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Cadet Command?
I’m responsible for shaping how we’re moving forward with our education and training, as well as recruiting and assessing officers, and then also personnel, administration, and supply.

We are undergoing what we call BOLD (Basic Officer Leadership Development) Transformation. Our education curriculum model on campus and what we do in the summertime to train officers is all changing for the first time in our history.  

The new model is more challenging and rigorous, but at the same time more flexible. For instance, in addition to active duty, we train officers who will serve in our Army Reserves, and the National Guard. We’re looking at making our model flexible so if they need to do a civilian internship during one of their summers, they can do that. This sets them up to succeed in their civilian jobs and that makes them better officers.

What have you come to learn are the most important qualities of being a leader?
I tell seniors it’s what I call the triple “A” approach. They have to be “Authentic” in order to gain trust and respect of subordinates. They have to have complete “Awareness” of what’s going on around them, not only in their environment, but also with every soldier on their team.

The most important one is to have a great “Attitude.” You have to bring your positive energy to everything you do and you have to be committed to selfless service to our nation.

What do you enjoy about your work that keeps you committed to service?
There is a quote from Katharine Graham [former publisher of The Washington Post]: “To love what you do and feel that it matters‚ how could anything be more fun?” At cadet command, we shape the future leaders of our Army. How can anything be more critical than that? Seeing these young cadets and their dedication is truly an inspiration. I truly do love it because I serve alongside folks who all have this common heart and dedication to service.

Editor's note: After this was published in the print edition of the Fall/Winter 2014 issue, Combs was promoted to major general in a ceremony at the Pentagon on December 12.


U.S. Army Major General Fredric H. Leigh G'72

Major General Fredric H. LeighU.S. Army Major General Fredric H. Leigh may be retired from military service, but he is still leading a mission. He serves as co-founder and executive director of the Taia Peace Foundation, a nonprofit organization working in Sierra Leone on socio-economic development. Leigh, who earned a master’s degree in public relations from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, retired in 1994 from his final assignment as director of management, Office of the Chief of Staff of the Army. He began his career as a second lieutenant, and served two tours in Vietnam, with the 1st Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. His other command assignments have included commander, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and assistant division commander, 7th Infantry Division.

What significant events helped shape you as a leader?
I commanded a rifle company as a first lieutenant, normally a captain position, during my first tour in Vietnam. This unit had a large amount of casualties five months before, and the captain who took over had stabilized the unit. The battalion commander chose me to replace that officer because he felt my temperament would continue the unit’s restored stability. I didn’t feel ready, but he thought I was more ready than the captains arriving as replacements. His mentoring of me made me very aware of how important it is to coach your officers.

The Vietnam experience underscored for me how important it is to maintain the dignity of people. Before we went to Vietnam in 1965, I defended two problem soldiers in court-martials. Every payday they would come back late or be in jail. They were released to go to Vietnam. One of those soldiers saved his squad three times and was killed assaulting a machine gun position. The other soldier had a unique ability to spot booby traps. As point man, he kept everybody safe. If you preserve a man’s dignity and signal caring confidence in them, they will be there when you need them.

What were some of the most challenging leadership capacities you served in?
The higher up you go, leadership is more challenging because your influence is achieved through others. That means you have to look hard at how you coach and nurture and give people freedom to succeed and show confidence in those who bring your influence to bear.

After your years of service, what did you come to learn were the most important qualities of being a leader?
First, you have to focus on the task or mission, and that’s true in the civilian world. Also, when you occupy a position of authority, the position gives you some legitimacy, but that alone is not sufficient to get the best from people. You have to perform in a way that those who enable your success know they are valued and respected.

What does your work with the Taia Peace Foundation involve?
I started working on sustainable socio-economic development in 2003 right after the civil war ended in Sierra Leone. Since 2010, we have focused on infrastructure, women’s economic empowerment, and restoration of cocoa and coffee farms. We partner with the people to sustain development, so when we leave they can maintain and thrive. Although we have funding to continue projects in agriculture, we now help contain the Ebola virus where we work.


U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Charles P. McCausland '57

A military force cannot be sustained on munitions alone. During 35 years in the military, retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Charles P. McCausland ensured troops in combat and in peacetime had the resources they needed to complete their duties. McCausland, who was commissioned through the Syracuse University ROTC program and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from the College of Arts and Sciences, worked in logistics and supply, retiring in 1992 from his final assignment as director of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in Virginia. Among many other positions, he was commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Center, Utah, and vice commander of Air Force Logistics Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Since retiring, McCausland, whose father, Gordon B. McCausland, was a Class of 1926 Syracuse graduate, is active with educational institutions and serves as a director of the Dynamics Research Corporation.

What are some highlights of your career that you are most proud of?
I was a base supply officer during a yearlong tour in Vietnam. I had worked in supply in the Air Force for 10 years and there I was in a position I had trained for all those years—to support combat operations. We went 270 days without an aircraft grounded for a spare part. I was proud of the troops.

While I was at the DLA, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney came to the agency following the First Gulf War. He told us, “We could not have won the Gulf War without the DLA.” General Colin Powell [then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] came a week later. He thanked us for our support and gave the agency the Joint Meritorious Unit award, which was a really nice event.

What were your responsibilities during your time as director of the Defense Logistics Agency? And during the First Gulf War?
We had 95,000 civilian and military employees, operating at various depots and centers. We were responsible for approximately five million spare parts, which would cover aviation, ground support, missile systems, maritime naval systems, just a whole gamut of items. We were responsible for all fuels, petroleum products, food, clothing, tents, uniforms, medical supplies, pharmaceuticals—and for cataloging and contracting for those items. It was about a $13 billion operation.

In the First Gulf War, we supplied all these things to the deployed forces. For example, we had 500,000 troops in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and then into Iraq, so we had to have a million-and-a-half meals a day, every day. Also, the Air Force reported they had 90,000 sorties and did not lose one sortie for lack of a spare part. The Patriot missile system has 20,000 parts, and there were only 10 items we had difficulty obtaining.

What did you learn about the significance of logistics and supply through your service?
When I was out at the Utah depot, we had a visiting Chinese general in 1986 who had been on the Long March [1934-35] with Mao Zedong. He said through an interpreter that “logistics is hero without fame.” The logistics worked so well in the Gulf War and Vietnam. There’s been a little complacency that it could work that well forever, but you always have to keep your eye on it because it’s very important.

What did you come to learn were the most important qualities of being a leader?
The basic thing is you have to lead people and you have to manage things. A lot of people try to manage people, but you have to lead them. You have to have integrity in what you do and say. You have to have standards and stick by them. You have to communicate with your people and listen to them. You also have to trust and empower them in their work.


U.S. Air Force General Robert H. Reed '59

As chief of staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium, from 1986-88, U.S. Air Force General Robert H. Reed was on the front lines of the Cold War. The four-star general, who retired in 1988, served at NATO’s military mission to plan for defensive measures across Europe, coordinating with partner nations in case of a Soviet attack. Reed, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the College of Arts and Sciences, began his career in 1952 as an aviation cadet, eventually marking 6,100 flying hours as a pilot during his service. Along with many assignments to Air Force bases around the country, including command positions, he served as Air Force assistant vice chief of staff, Washington, D.C., and the Air Force representative to the U.S. Delegation to the Military Staff Committee, United Nations. In his civilian life, he serves on the Myrtle Beach Air Base Redevelopment Authority, a former air base where he once commanded the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing.

What did you enjoy in your capacity as a pilot and in training with various fighter jets?
It was challenging and exciting to get into a new model. I flew seven different types of fighter aircraft, and each time you move up to a newer airplane you’re getting one that has more complex systems than the previous one, with much greater speed, and with much greater weapons carrying capability. My favorite to operate was the F-4 Phantom jet, which I flew in combat in Vietnam. It takes a lot of punishment, if you got shot at. My second favorite would be the A-10.

What are a few career highlights you are most proud of?
One of the most satisfying was being commander of the 1st Combat Wing of the A-10 aircraft at Myrtle Beach. Since it was a new airplane, we had to develop all the tactics and techniques to make it a success. Another assignment was my combat tour in Vietnam. We were busy supporting troops on the ground, and there were lots of firefights that cropped up all over South Vietnam. In the latter stages of my career, the assignment at SHAPE was a very challenging and interesting assignment. I ran a staff of about 2,800 allied officers from the 16 NATO nations.

What was your role as chief of staff at SHAPE?
The key job was war planning, and also, at the time, we were busy bedding down the new Ground Launched Cruise Missile, a tactical missile designed primarily for nuclear deterrent, and the Pershing II Ballistic Missile, to strengthen NATO’s tactical nuclear deterrent capabilities. The Cold War was in full force at that time, but the Pershing II missiles proved to be quite a deterrent. It was one of the factors that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the military threat it posed because they couldn’t find a way to stay abreast of our technology.

The other key role of the NATO staff was force planning with each nation’s different military capabilities. For example, we might work with Denmark, which was located in the straits of the Baltic Sea, to develop minelaying capabilities to bottle up the Soviet fleet.

After years of service, what did you come to learn were the most important qualities of being a leader?
One of the key qualities is the ability to motivate people. You have to be able to communicate and convince people of the importance of mission, and get them to buy into it. The other thing is to always operate with a sense of fairness in the treatment of people, because if you begin to show any kind of favoritism that can destabilize morale. The third thing is maintaining high standards of discipline, conduct, and ethics—you can’t compromise on those.


Leading in an Age of Complex Global Challenges

General Martin E. Dempsey, the 18th chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (pictured above), shared his thoughts on global security challenges, the importance of a life in public service, and the qualities of a good leader during a lecture October 31 at Dineen Hall. As the principal military advisor to President Barack Obama, Dempsey has a high-profile role that involves making policy and strategy decisions in the public eye, and he advised future public servants to understand that role. “You will find increasingly you are constantly under scrutiny for the decisions you make,” Dempsey said.

Dempsey’s lecture was hosted by Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). His visit was one of many events celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The theme of the day’s event, Public Service in an Age of Complex Global Security Challenges, resonated with Dempsey, who told the audience of more than 300 that “public service still matters.” During his more than 40 years in the military, Dempsey has served in various levels of the U.S. Army, from platoon to combatant command. He spoke about complex issues that threaten global security, including the difficulties on the Korean peninsula emanating from North Korea’s young, inexperienced, and xenophobic leader; the threats from various radical religious terrorist groups, such as ISIS; and the security concerns from the cyber domain.

Dempsey also offered some advice to future public servants in becoming a “persuasive, influential leader of consequence.” Leaders need to be agile and understand that making decisions involves risk, but “it’s your job as a leader to make it safe for subordinates to take the risk,” he said. It’s also important to have both competence and character. “Competence will get you to the table, but character will keep you there,” he said.

Vice Chancellor for Veterans and Military Affairs J. Michael Haynie, the co-founder and executive director of IVMF, noted the importance of Dempsey’s lecture at the University, saying it “will add yet another chapter to the long narrative that is the Syracuse University story of engaging and being a partner to the nation’s military, our veterans, and their families.”

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