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Advice to Future Leaders (from selected 2013 Commencement Addresses)

skillfulmarinerAfter all the pomp and circumstances, the spring graduation season for colleges and universities across the U.S. has come and gone until next year. This year was different for me. I’ve gotten into the habit of watching the Book Review program on C-Span and noticed that their programming included several commencement addresses from selected speakers. I invited myself to listen to about one dozen commencement addresses courtesy of C-Span television or their video library.

Why do this? With so many great speakers, I figured several good pieces of advice and lessons for living could be gleaned from this dynamic group of leaders and visionaries. I was especially interested in the advice that each speaker gave to the graduates because in the not so distant future, these young men and women will begin to ascend the leadership stairs of their companies, governments, or other institutions in the U.S. and other countries.

Here are some of my favorite quotes or parts of some of the selected commencement addresses:

“No matter how smart you are, no matter how good looking you are, no matter how talented you are, how athletic you are, or how brave you are, here’s my second challenge to you:  Embrace humility – why do I say that? Because you are going to need it. Because somewhere along the line each of you is going to fail, some of you in more spectacular ways than others. Ladies and gentlemen, you can count on three things in life: death, taxes, and failing at something somewhere along the way….but it is not about failing. It’s about how you handle it.”

Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Vice Chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee @ the University of Georgia, Athens, GA [Ref 1]

Source: whitehouse.gov

Source: whitehouse.gov

“But it is not just the African-American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you. See, as Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; to be marginalized; to feel the sting of discrimination. That’s an experience that so many other Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when someone asks where they come from or tells them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love they share. Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work – she sure feels it.

President Barack Obama @ Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. (05.19.2013) [Ref 1&2]

“Don’t lose that spark and energy as you move forward in life. Don’t lose your independence. Don’t lose your creativity, don’t stop being weird, don’t stop being angry, don’t stop questioning authority, don’t stop learning. Don’t do what the previous generation did. Take their laziness and turn it into your opportunities.”

Nate Silver, statistician, author, and Five Thirty Eight Blog Founder @ New School University, New York, NY (05.24.2013) [Ref 1]

Some Pieces of Advice for a Successful Life

  • Contrary to popular belief every boss you have is a role model. A great boss is a great role model. A bad boss is a good role model. If you can be the antithesis of what not to be, that makes a good leader.
  • Be afraid of old ideas not new ideas. Understand that all advice you get has implicit biases. Follow your heart, not someone else’s mind.
  • Remember your roots and keep your friends and family really, really close. Your personal board of directors are those who you will always get the truth from. They will be your foundation, your compass, and they will keep you grounded.
  • Be prepared for every encounter. The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary (Vince Lombardi). Show up everyday prepared.
  • In every situation you encounter, leave it better than you found it. Do it professionally and personally. In other words, pay it forward. We all say it. Too few actually do it! Find your way to do it. Be a giver and support those who give.

Duncan Niederauer, NYSE EuroNext CEO @ Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, 05.19.2013 [Ref 1]

AriannaHuffington_YouTube“I want to ask you to redefine success because the world you are in desperately needs it, and because you are up to it. I encourage you to lead the third women’s revolution. At the moment, our society’s notion of success is largely composed of two parts: money and power. In fact, success, money, and power have become synonymous as the same thing. It is time for a third metric beyond money and power. One founded on well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and to give back….

Alistair Cooke, another Smith commencement speaker, told the class of 1954 that their way to the top would be by the man they married. We-l-l-l, I want to do Alistair one better and tell you that you don’t get to the top by marrying some one. A much simpler way is to sleep your way to the top. I am talking about sleep in the literal sense. Because right now the work place is fueled by sleep deprivation and burnout.”

Ariana Huffington, President and Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post Media Group @ Smith College, North Hampton, MA (05.19.2013) [Ref 1]

Source: Everything Oprah

Source: Everything Oprah

“If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, the law of averages not to mention the Myth of Icarus predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do I want you to know this, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction. Now when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. So this past year I had to spoon feed those words to myself. I know you all understand better than most that real progress requires authentic — an authentic way of being, honesty, and above all empathy. I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people is that there is a common denominator in our human experience. Most of us, I tell you we don’t want to be divided. What we want, the common denominator that I found in every single interview, is to be validated. We want to be understood.”

Oprah Winfrey, CEO of Everything Oprah @ Harvard University, Boston, MA  (05.30.2013) [Ref 3]

“Well, what does all this have to do with creativity and critical thinking, which is where I started? The history of technological innovation and economic development teaches us that change is the only constant. During your working lives, you will have to reinvent yourselves many times. Success and satisfaction will not come from mastering a fixed body of knowledge, but from constant adaptation and creativity in a rapidly changing world. Engaging with and applying new technologies will be a crucial part of that adaptation.”

Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, the United States Federal Reserve @ Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, MA (05.18.2013) [Ref 1]

“Regardless of your chosen career, you are only as good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, and indeed persuasive. But if you are not honest, your reputation will suffer. And once lost, a good reputation can never, ever be regained. As the saying goes: If you have integrity, nothing else matters. And if you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.” 

Robert S. Mueller, FBI Director @ College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA (05.12.2013) [Ref 1]

“When I ran for office in 1970, I lost. Then when I ran again in 1978, I lost. And I lost again in 1986. A friend of mine said, ‘aren’t you ready to give up yet? Three strikes and you’re out!’ I told her that is a baseball rule. Do not live your lives by baseball rules. You will not always succeed every time you attempt something. Try and try again…

My dad said to me, “Son the first sign of a good education is good manners,” he said. “Of all things you can learn, please learn to say please and thank you. Second, practice the golden rule…you are going to encounter people who have experienced things differently from you. Honor and respect others’ experiences.””

Representative James Clyburn, (D-SC) Assistant Minority Leader, U.S. House of Representatives @ Claflin University, Orangeburg, SC (05.11.2013) [Ref 1]

Source: The Clinton Foundation

Source: The Clinton Foundation

“Choose what you love! Even with the employment situation and economic challenges, virtually all of you have the power to choose what you will do to earn a living. It may sound self evident but most people who have ever lived including hundreds of millions of people on the face of the earth today never had that choice. They simply did whatever was at hand in whatever form it presented itself to put food on the table and to support their families. You have a choice. Try to do something that will make you happy. Most people are happy doing what they’re best at.”

Bill Clinton, Founder of the Clinton Foundation and 42nd President of the United States @ Howard University, Washington, DC (05.11.2013) [Ref 1]

“The most valuable learning often comes during difficult times. Tough times teach character — and character is the most important quality a leader can have.”

John Donahoe, CEO of E-Bay @ Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA [Ref 4]

WesBush_wikipedia“Innovation takes many forms. It can take the form of technology, business process improvement, customer service, etc. The interesting thing about innovation is that it brings change. Change that builds vigor and excitement! Companies in any enterprise need innovators and diverse thinkers so that they can truly exploit the opportunities that go with change.

Now that is not to say that innovation is going to be welcome in every enterprise. Because innovation means change, it inherently attacks the status quo. Anytime the status quo in any enterprise is attacked you might expect a response. In fact I have seen some organizations that practically drive good innovators out of their system because they are not capable of dealing with the change that results. Now fortunately, those organizations usually don’t last very long.  And if you happen to find yourself in one, recognize it and get out. Innovation is an inherently important process that leads to the creation of the future of any enterprise.

So my bias in decision making is to favor the innovative idea. Accept the discomfort that comes with that change if you can see a promising potential for a payoff.”

Wesley Bush, Chairman, President and CEO of Northrop Grumman @ Carey Business School, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD (05.21.2013) [Ref 1]

As you can see, the message of each commencement speaker was well tailored with their particular audience in mind. For example, Arianna Huffington had several messages for the young women graduating from Smith College. She challenged them to lead the third women’s revolution. President Obama tailored his message to African American male graduates of Morehouse College, and Wesley Bush challenged the business school graduates of John Hopkins University to adopt value-based decision making skills as a part of their business acumen.

Of all the commencement addresses that I listened to and/or read the transcript of their text, Arianna Huffington’s message resonated with me the most. The combination of truth, humor, and relevancy could not be overlooked by anyone in the audience. In her closing comments she said, “As you leave this beautiful campus to follow your dreams and scale great heights in whatever field you choose, I beg you, don’t buy society’s definition of success because it is not working for anyone. It is not working for women, it is not working for men, it is not working for polar bears. It is not even working for the cicadas that are about to emerge and swarm us. It is only truly working for those who make pharmaceutical for stress, sleeplessness, and high blood pressures.”

True leaders are very passionate about their topics. This group was all too willing to share their knowledge and wisdom with those who were willing to listen. While most anticipated and expected nothing but the best from each graduate, they didn’t harp on success as the primary topic. Instead they spoke of many things that would lead to success. They were not shy in telling their audiences that the road to success is filled with failure, humility, and good manners. All spoke of the need to share their knowledge and success with less fortunate individuals.

Based on the advice given above, my time as an arm-chair attendee at these commencement exercises was well spent.


  1. C-Span Videos: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/search-results.php?keywords=%22commencement+address%22
  2. Prepared text for President Obama’s speech at Morehouse, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 19, 2013, http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/prepared-text-for-president-obamas-speech-at-moreh/nXwk2/
  3. Winfrey’s Commencement address: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/05/winfreys-commencement-address/
  4. John Donahoe, Be the Best Leader You Can Be, http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130617105130-187399433-class-of-2013-be-the-best-leader-you-can-be

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


5 thoughts on “Advice to Future Leaders (from selected 2013 Commencement Addresses)

  1. entering my comment here


    Posted by KN | June 4, 2014, 5:16 pm


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