Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. shares value of leadership

Published: Jan 2, 2024 11:00 AM

By Bethany Giles

While Lt. Gen. Leslie Kenne began her college education at a small liberal arts school, she soon realized it wasn’t the right place for her to get the technical education she wanted.

“I visited Auburn last,” Kenne said. “There was an instant connection. It was an easy decision for me because of the reputation of the technical courses at Auburn and because it had a small-town atmosphere that was attractive to me.”

Kenne pursued a degree in aerospace engineering because of her interest in applied math and science, and familiarity with planes thanks to the pilot’s license she earned at 19. Soon after she enrolled at Auburn, the Air Force ROTC program was opened to women for the first time. While it wasn’t her original plan to serve in the Air Force, joining ROTC just made sense.

“I understood the military because I grew up in a military family,” she said. “But the thing that was most important to me was that officers have leadership positions. When I added all those things together and the fact I could join the military for four years and build a good leadership resume, it made it an easy decision to join once they opened AFROTC to women.”

Following her graduation in 1970, Kenne began her Air Force career as an aircraft maintenance officer in southeast Asia, supervising a couple hundred men. The exceptional leadership experience she gained, even from the beginning, played a major role in Kenne staying in the Air Force not just four years, but more than three decades.

“When I went into the Air Force, I was just planning on staying four years before moving onto industry,” she said. “But there were so many unique opportunities to take advantage of that I continued to enjoy the service.”

After becoming the first woman to enroll in the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School in 1974, Kenne spent 10 years in weapon systems testing and another 10 in program management where she directed three major programs, including the F-16 and F-35. She also held several command positions as well as staff positions at the pentagon.

Her leadership skills set her apart in every role, but Kenne believes her engineering background helped prepare her for every situation.

“What engineering does for you is it teaches you to solve problems,” she said. “No matter what you’re doing, as a leader your job is problem-solving. Being able to look through data and come to a good decision is key in life no matter who you’re working for. That is what engineering does for you.”

During her 32-year career, Kenne opened many doors for women in the Air Force including as the first female AFROTC-commissioned officer and the first female to attain the rank of lieutenant general. When asked what it was like to work in this male-dominated environment, Kenne said she was focused on doing her job. 

“I really didn’t pay attention to that. I knew what I wanted to do and was just focused on doing the best job that I knew how to do.”  

In recognition of her exceptional service, Kenne has been awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal and Air Force Commendation Medal. Kenne was also inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2009.

Kenne, a strong advocate for leadership development among young people, continues to create opportunities for others through her scholarship in the College of Engineering. Her main motivation to create this scholarship was to benefit underrepresented groups in engineering and help prepare them to take their technical education and improve the world around them.

Media Contact: Bethany Giles, bcd0048@auburn.edu, 334.844.5519
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