G.R.E.A.T. Day keynote speaker to emphasize public leadership experience

With Geneseo Recognizing Excellence, Achievement and Talent Day less than a month away, students are inevitably preparing for their presentations, practicing their crafts and planning what events to attend. This year’s keynote speaker should be on everyone’s G.R.E.A.T. Day to-do list. 

Geneseo’s G.R.E.A.T. Day keynote speaker is James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School Barbara Kellerman. Kellerman earned her master’s degree in Russian and eastern European Studies from Sarah Lawrence College and received her doctorate in political science from Yale University. She has also authored and edited several books, including her latest, which was published on Feb. 1, Professionalizing Leadership

 “I have been interested in leadership all my professional life. I somehow stumbled into it when I was in graduate school,” Kellerman said in a phone interview. “At the time when I got my doctoral degree, leadership was not really taken seriously as a field of academic inquiry.”

Kellerman said that as she became more comfortable in the world of academia, she started to study leadership in a generalized sense. 

“What now interests me at this point in my professional life is leadership across the board. Those things that are universal and pertain as much to Argentina and China as they do to the United States,” Kellerman said.

“That pertains as much to leaders in the private sector as in the public sector as in the not-for-profit sector,” Kellerman said.

Kellerman has an academically-focused mission in discussing, debating and learning more about leadership. Her work investigates questions such as: Why do people tolerate bad leaders? What makes good leaders? What does it take to be a good leader? 

While it is inevitable that Kellerman will be discussing the topic of leadership during her keynote address on G.R.E.A.T. Day, it is uncertain what she will specifically speak about. Sometimes Kellerman enjoys waiting until the last minute to decide what she will speak about because she likes to use breaking news in her dialogues, Kellerman said. 

In addition to her academic background, Kellerman is the founding executive director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. The center focuses on co-curricular student programs that enable students to gain leadership skills, according to Kellerman. 

“Kennedy School students are like students everywhere else—they, for whatever combination of reasons, want to learn how to lead,” Kellerman said. “I believe in teaching how to lead wisely and well. I equally believe in teaching how to follow wisely and well.” 

“I am skeptical that most institutions [teach leadership] as well as we might. I may say this in my talk—the American military is generally the only American institution, in my view, that takes leadership and teaching how to lead really seriously,” Kellerman said. “They treat leadership as a profession, not simply an occupation.” 

Kellerman has also taught at Fordham University, George Washington University, Dartmouth College and other higher education institutions. Kellerman was also ranked as one of the “Top 50 Business Thinkers” by Forbes and received the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Leadership Association. Additionally, Kellerman has also spoken to audiences globally, including in Berlin, New Delhi, Munich and Sydney. 

Kellerman advises undergraduate students to use their time in college to explore their interests. 

“Students today are way too preoccupied with securing a place on the professional ladder. I wish students today would give themselves permission and the freedom to use the ages of 22, 23 and 24 to explore their passions and follow their bliss,” she said. “They should try very hard to secure a place in the world of work that speaks to who they really are and want to be, as opposed to what they ought to be.” 

Kellerman will speak at G.R.E.A.T. Day on Tuesday April 17.