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

Lessons in Leadership

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 ’59 was on the front lines of the Cold War.

Formal portrait of Robert H. Reed in front of the American flag

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.

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Kathleen Haley

This story was published on .

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