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Building Greatness Through Leadership

Building Greatness Through Leadership

by A. Eugene Kohn
Founder and Chairman, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates
Seabee Diamond Anniversary Ambassador

You could say architecture is in my DNA. For 50 years it’s been my life’s work. I’m the head of one of the world’s leading architectural firms and we work in 43 countries, building some of the tallest buildings ever built. I attribute my success to the lessons I learned in the U.S. Navy: about leadership, decision-making, and taking responsibility.

I was inspired to join the military by my cousin, who was a Navy captain, jet pilot, and flight surgeon. A career officer, he flew countless missions and treated people who were injured and sick. I visited him often when he was stationed in Washington, DC. The stories he told convinced me that the Navy would be a part of my future.

I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1953 with an undergraduate degree in architecture. At the time I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to be an architect. The Korean War was being fought and one thing I did know was that I wanted to serve my country. So I joined the Navy, receiving a commission in the Civil Engineer Corps.

I went to OCS for training and after that to Port Hueneme and Camp Pendleton, CA, for more training. Camp Pendleton was a dose of reality. The terrain is much like that in Korea, rugged and hilly, so it gave you a taste of what fighting would be like in that country.

My first assignment as an ensign was with MCB 7, a Seabee battalion nicknamed “The Magnificent Seven.” We sailed from Davisville, RI, to Morocco. I was a young officer, wet behind the ears, serving with a battalion of seasoned Navy men. The first time I addressed our battalion to introduce myself and talk about how we would work together, I was so nervous my legs shook. I wanted to be an officer they respected as well as liked.

In those early years I thought a lot about how I wanted to lead. I didn’t want to depend on the stripes to be the force. Your title and stripes give you power, until you get to somebody with more stripes. Rather than giving orders, saying, “Do this, do that,” my leadership approach was to set an example of always doing the right thing for the unit, our projects, and the Navy, and have my unit understand and support that way of thinking. That’s been my approach as an architect and businessman as well.

Lieutenant Commander Eugene Kohn in 1953

In Morocco our battalion faced many challenges, including a revolution. The Moroccans, led by the Berbers, overthrew the French in a bloody battle. We stayed close to the base and always wore our uniforms, because it was hard to tell an American from a Frenchman. We also lived through a small earthquake, an attack by swarms of locusts and a scirocco—a storm of dust and red sand that totally engulfs you.

In spite of these challenges—or perhaps because of them—I enjoyed my years in the Navy. These experiences test you and you learn to manage yourself and your troops. The confidence and skills I gained have been vitally important throughout my career: running a company, serving as a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and speaking all over the world.

With challenge comes opportunity, and that was a great benefit of being a Seabee. You built and repaired things that were important to the war effort, innovating when you didn’t have the right tools. In the Navy I found ways to be inventive. One day my commanding officer told me the Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of the Navy would be visiting the base. We had been given permission to redo the interior of the base’s Officer’s Club. Since I was an architect, I had two weeks to design it and get it built, with the help of a large work crew.

It was my first architectural assignment and I threw myself into it with gusto. With no drafting tools on hand I roughly sketched the design on paper. We redid the interior floor and wall surfaces and added a new bar, and in some places we lowered the ceiling. I enjoy painting, so I even painted watercolors for the walls. It was a big success and the chief and secretary loved it. I was a hero for at least five minutes, and I thought, “This is great. I think I will be an architect.” I still have that sketch of the club too.

Sketch of the Officer’s Club, Eugene Kohn’s first architectural assignment

Our battalion was tasked with building projects in remote locations. The Seabees were driven there each morning and did not return until dinnertime. It was tough being away all day, so I came up with the idea of designing a mobile canteen to bring coffee, soft drinks, sandwiches, and snacks to them. We built the canteen on a bomb cart—a sturdy apparatus used to carry bombs. It could be transported by truck to wherever the servicemen were working. It was a huge hit, and it felt good to do something for the men who worked so hard.

After a year in Morocco our battalion sailed back to the U.S., encountering a horrendous storm along the way. The seas battered the ship, water poured over the deck, and several men were injured. It took us twice as long to get home and never was I so thankful to see dry land.

I went on to other assignments, from Newfoundland to New Jersey. Once my active duty was over it was time to think about the rest of my life. I got my master’s degree in architecture, remaining in the Naval Reserve for five more years, when I retired with the rank of lieutenant commander.

I worked for other architects for a few years to ‘learn the ropes,’ then in 1976 started Kohn Pedersen Fox with two partners. Through the years our firm has grown and prospered. With more than 600 employees, we build everything from office buildings and museums to residences, schools, and hospitals. We’ve constructed five of the six tallest buildings in the world and third largest airport in the world in Abu Dhabi, which is really quite special.

Some of the impressive projects designed by Kohn, Pedersen and Fox including the Abu Dhabi airport, the third largest in the world.

In my role previously as president and now chairman I’ve supervised projects around the world and developed a global strategy for our growth. This requires making key decisions every day, thinking things through carefully and weighing the plusses and minuses. The Navy teaches you that no decision is worse than the wrong decision—so you want to know how to make that decision and move forward.

The Navy pointed me in the right direction and being in the Seabees made everything possible. As I’ve said many times, given the choice, I’d do my military service all over again in a heartbeat. Now it’s time for me to give back, so I’m serving as a Diamond Anniversary Ambassador to help the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation raise money for the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme.

The funds will be used to expand the museum’s collection of exhibits, focusing attention on the Seabees’ accomplishments. Visitors to the museum will see many examples of leadership in action. They’ll gain an understanding about the important life skills you learn in the Navy, beyond building and construction. I’m living proof of that. I’m pleased to have this opportunity to help the Seabees as they helped me.

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