Be the Volunteer

Interview with Sean O’Keefe

Logan Shaw

Today we interviewed Sean O’Keefe, who has been described as a high level “fixer upper” and has served in a number of important positions, such as Secretary of the Navy and chancellor of Louisiana State University. Currently he is a professor at Maxwell School at Syracuse University. The job that he has held that I found most interesting is head administrator at NASA.

He had a lot to say about his time at NASA. One thing that I found particularly interesting is what he had to say about the new James Webb telescope. He said that no previous telescope compares with it. For example, the Hubble telescope is 350 miles above the surface of the earth, and if we need to perform maintenance on it, we can do so fairly easily. However, the James Webb telescope is a million miles away from earth in the Lagrange Point, a place where the gravity of the sun and the earth are equal so that it can sit freely in space. Because it is above earth’s atmosphere, all the clutter that would normally be in the way of the telescope isn’t there, so it has better views of the universe. However, it is almost impossible to service it, so it must be made much more durable. It took over 17 years to develop it, almost twice as long as it took to put someone on the moon. I thought it was very cool that Mr. O’Keefe helped initiate the development of the telescope. 

Another thing that I thought was interesting was how he dealt with the space shuttle Columbia that disintegrated on re-entry, killing seven people. Shortly afterwards, there was public pressure to launch a shuttle mission to fix the Hubble telescope. He made the decision to cancel the mission because he deemed it too dangerous, even though many astronomers and astronauts wanted the mission to happen. He explained that until the issue that caused the Columbia disaster was fixed, there could be no more missions. I think a valuable takeaway from this would be that you need to use reason instead of emotion to make difficult decisions.

Wyatt Adams

On our last day in DC, we had the opportunity to interview Secretary Sean O’Keefe. We are at the end of the week, so we’re quite tired, but I was looking forward to our talk. Sec. O’Keefe shared two ideas that I found most inspiring. I hope that in my future I can implement these principles in my life. 

The first thing that he said that struck me as important is that no matter what you do or who you are, your actions will always have an impact on somebody else. He made it clear that even the smallest actions will impact somebody at some point. I’m hoping that as I make decisions in life I will keep this in my mind and think before I act. I will try and think about the repercussions of my actions and if they are harming or hurting other people. I am very grateful for this lesson, since I know I need to work on thinking before I act.

Sec. O’Keefe made another important point, that leadership should always take responsibility for the failures of the organization. He emphasized that accountability is the key to progress. Without accountability, anger and outrage become more likely as people search for someone to blame. If leaders of organizations take ownership of the actions of the organization, there is someone to manage conflict and ensure that steps are taken to prevent the problem from happening again. Taking responsibility is often difficult for people, and it takes courage to stand up to other people and continue to defend your decision. Sec. O’Keefe made it very clear that you need to stand by your decisions if you want to make a difference in this world. I have made a few decisions in life, and friends have disagreed with some of the decisions. I usually give in and apologize for my actions, but now, after hearing what Sec. O’Keefe said, I hope to be strong enough to defend my actions even when others disagree.

Erik Howley

Meeting and interviewing Sean O’Keefe was an incredibly insightful and inspiring experience for our class. Secretary O’Keefe shared with us valuable insights and experiences related to the issues of leadership, accountability, and volunteering

Throughout our conversation, he emphasized the importance of taking responsibility for your actions. He stated that leaders must be willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions and decisions. Accountability is especially important in times of crisis, when it is easy and tempting to pass blame to avoid taking responsibility. Sec. O’Keefe stressed that the most effective leaders are the ones who are willing to be accountable to themselves and others, even when things don’t go to as planned.

Sec. O’Keefe also spoke about the importance of being the person in the room who’s willing to volunteer. He explained that volunteering is not just about helping others but an opportunity to develop leadership and gain valuable experience. Stepping up to “be the volunteer” demonstrates initiative, a willingness to take on new challenges, and the readiness to work that is the mark of a true leader.

I believe that this interview resonated deeply with my class and especially me, and we were all inspired by his words. As students, we are constantly learning and developing our leadership skills. Sec. O’Keefe’s insights have given us a better understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader, and we will carry these lessons with us as we continue to develop as people.

Mount Madonna School students with Sean O’Keefe