*Champlain College Graduation Speech ’08
Thank you. I am honored to be here today and am mindful that I am here because of you all and what you have accomplished. You have made today possible and we are here to honor you.
I would like to say a few words about leadership, as you will all be leaders in one way or another. Then I will impart a mercifully brief bit of graduation advice so as not to break with tradition.
Leadership is not what you may think. In fact, we have experienced its object lesson here in America for the last eight years. To be clear, observing the White House is instructive, it will help you understand what leadership is not.
When I say you will all be leaders, I don’t necessarily mean presidents, CEOs, congressmen, hedge fund managers, or popes. I mean the important demands of leadership will be with you all your life as a parent, a friend, a neighbor, an entrepreneur, or perhaps as a Senator or CEO.
Let’s look for a minute at the key elements of leadership.
A leader derives his or her durable power and trust through the experience of those being led, not by simply claiming and defending power. This power and trust are retained by not violating either one.
Contrary to popular opinion, leadership is not about telling people what to do, taking credit for success and blaming others for failure. Real leadership emanates from an ability both to listen carefully on an intellectual plane and to empathize on an emotional one. Leadership always listens before it acts. It seeks common cause. It does not approach problems with an entrenched ideology. Nor does it claim to have all the answers. This may seem strange, as we look to our leaders for answers. But the right answers come when a leader draws us out and helps us explore new ideas.
A leader talks less and listens more, opening up space for ideas to emerge. In this culture, ideas and innovation are welcomed, heard and discussed. He or she accepts and shares credit for success and failure. A real leader avoids secrecy, in fact, works to ensure transparency in the decision-making process.
What follows next is what most people assume leadership is. After an open and frank discussion, a leader must then limit that discussion and derive a consensus so that action can be taken. The skill of leadership is to recognize when an adequate consensus—not a perfect consensus—has been reached. A perfect consensus is as rare as an accurate poll. At some point discussion must end and action must begin.
This introduces risk, as any plan derived from an imperfect consensus entails risk. Even with consensus there is risk. Leadership is as much about managing risk as it is about managing people.
The point here is that real leaders assess, acknowledge and take risks. If and when an initiative fails, they analyze and emend, moving forward again. They share and accept responsibility, they don’t blame.
The first failure of leadership is to follow the impulse to shortcut the leadership process and act solely on one’s own idea or ideology. Our nation will be struggling for years to come to recover from this failure. Conversely, the second failure is to fail to move forward at all while there is still dissent for fear of creating opposition. I would suggest that Vermont’s current struggle to face down its own challenges is attributable to the second failure of leadership. In Vermont it seems we have come to believe that everyone must agree before we move forward. So we trap ourselves trying to achieve a perfect consensus rather than taking the necessary risks and moving forward. I will take a big risk here and say that the nation has exemplified the first failure of leadership and that here in Vermont we are exemplifying the second.
In most cases the downfall of leaders is arrogance. As Lord Acton said at the end of the 19th century “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” After the sexual revolution in the latter half of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger enriched that wisdom adding, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Both points seem to have been lost on New York’s former Governor.
You may be saying to yourself that you have no interest in politics or big business or whatever you associate with leadership, but what applies there applies daily in every decision you make. I said you will all be leaders in your way and you will. You are now by virtue of your presence here. Many of you will have multiple leadership roles. The scale of that leadership may vary among you, but the basic tenets that will make you a successful leader are there at any scale.
Now a few bits of advice to be taken with a grain of salt….
Most graduation speakers will tell you that you are “setting out on a journey.” But you have been on that journey for two decades, more for some of you, and for many of you it has been hard already. We adults don’t always remember or appreciate what hard work it is growing up. So, as you grew up, some of us were helpful and some of us weren’t. Yet your presence in graduate gowns here today at one of Vermont’s best colleges indicates that you are off to a fine start. I honor you for what you have already achieved as well as for what you will achieve as life
goes on. I remember vividly how hard it was to be your age, so allow me a few suggestions that may be helpful as you continue to grow.
You are all, to a person, capable of an interesting and rewarding life. It’s true that the playing fields in life are not even and life is not always fair or easy but you can indeed do anything you set your heart and mind to.
- If you think you have mastered something, you haven’t. We do not master life, it masters us and, in knowing that, you can achieve almost anything. Your worst enemy is within you. Pride and arrogance will always bring you down. Remember what I said about leadership above. The prideful person thinks they are there, but remember there is no “there” there. There is always more to learn from life.
- Measure your well being by who you are, not what by what you own. Your things will always let you down. The fun of getting that iPod Touch or $500 snowboard is short-lived. Neither things nor wealth contribute to happiness in life. They can ease the way and are worth pursuing, but never equate them with happiness. The people who will make your life worth living, will care about who you are, not what you own.
3 You cannot fully understand yourself until you come to know others; not people in Maine or Connecticut. I mean people in
India, China, Ecuador, France, Thailand or Mali. Increasingly, in a globalizing world, our neighbors, whether they live abroad or are your neighbors, will be people with different languages and different customs. But if you reach out to them, you will be amazed at how their hopes and fears are the same as yours. If you don’t know what comes next in your life, look into the many programs that help young people go abroad to work or volunteer. The world outside Vermont and the United States is broad and rich. Mark Twain said in 1869, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow- mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Your world citizenship will make you a better citizen of Vermont or wherever you settle.
- Don’t be afraid. There is a wonderful line in an old movie called “Like Water for Chocolate” in which the old family cook looks at a daughter of the family and says, “The life lived in fear is the life half-lived.” Don’t let your life be ruled by fear. Fear is normal within us. It is a useful tool for staying safe, but if it moves in and settles into your heart and head, you will stop growing. Face down your fears, and get help if you need to. The life lived in fear is indeed the life half-lived. Be your own leader, take intelligent risks.
- Don’t make a life out of addictive behaviors. They stunt your growth. Not your physical growth maybe, but the growth of your heart and your head. You’ve all heard this before, but that doesn’t make it go away. Taking refuge in drink or drugs or junk food simply gets in the way of living life fully. It may even kill you. You will stop growing, stop learning, stop making friends, and, something we all want, you will neither experience nor be capable of true love.
- What you cannot learn in real life experience, you can learn through art. It doesn’t matter if you were a good student or not. That has nothing to do with it. Take advantage of museums here like the Fleming or Shelburne museums. Go to a museum in a major city to see paintings by Vermeer, El Greco, Van Gogh, de la Tour or Jean-Pierre Basquiat. Read a
poem you like to your best friend. Read Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, T S Eliott’s The Wasteland. Listen to Bruce Springsteen, Mozart, Bob Dylan, Beethoven, Bessie Smith, Coltrane. Listen to the mastersingers of Mali in Africa, the sambas of Brazil, the tangos of Argentina, the corridos of Mexico. See Aida at the Met or a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Art will take you to places you will never go on your own. See a play. Read a book. Explore your own potential for becoming an artist.
- Now this will be the briefest part of my comments as it is a struggle for me on a daily basis. Stay healthy and fit. Use your body well, feed it like you would a new born child. Take care of yourself. I wake up every day on a diet. Some days I do well, others I don’t but I wake up every day with new resolve. Take care of yourself.
- And take care of the Earth, starting with the part you live in. This is not manmade beauty around us. We owe it to the next generation and the one after that to preserve and protect the planet that has nurtured us. Do your part to make life on earth better every day. If you don’t know what to do, plant something, turn off alight, take public transportation, pick up that piece of litter. You don’t have to be a hero. Just love your Mother Earth.
- Take care of community. You don’t need to be a politician to make your community or our country a better place. Read the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. There is a complex balance between the rights of the individual and the “common good” and you owe to yourself and your community to find and protect that balance for yourself and for others. As Thomas Merton said, “No man is an island.” Work for justice: racial, economic, gender and religious equity. Work to make the world and your community better places to in which to live.
- Next, stay curious. The minute you think you know it all or have it all, your capacity to grow grinds to a halt and you flatline your way through the rest of life. This is the “barcalounger” stage — no worries, no risk, no excitement, no passion, but also no resilience when faced with adversity or loss. Ride life out to its fullest and to its end. Stay connected to those you love, to the earth, to life itself and to Vermont, your home, your family.
- Finally, you must believe in love. You must know in your heart that you are capable of being loved and of loving. If for some reason of fate, you were not given this gift by your family, know it from others around you. We are all capable of both loving and being loved, but not all of us know it or feel it. Know this above all else.
Lastly, go everywhere
, but always come home.