Becoming an Authentic Leader
Published on May 21, 2005
Becoming an Authentic Leader
Bryant University Commencement Address
Smithfield, RI – May 21, 2005
To the Bryant University Graduates, Faculty, Administration, and Family Members:
I am deeply honored to be here today, to receive the honorary doctor’s degree from Bryant University, and to have the privilege of delivering this commencement address to you. I am most grateful to your president, Ronald Machtley, and the chair of the board of trustees, John Callahan, for offering me this opportunity.
As new graduates of the Bryant University class of 2005, you are entering a world that is both exciting and at times rather frightening. Never before in our history have young people such as yourselves had such a myriad of exciting opportunities to go into the worlds of business, law, medicine, education, and public service and make such a difference at a young age. You can have an impact on a giant corporation or start your own business at a very young age, and achieve great success and financial remuneration. Or if it doesn’t work out, you can change companies or start a new one. One failure does not end your career – in fact, it may enhance it, if you learn from the experience. Yet at times the sea of choices must seem overwhelming to you, just as it does to my MBAs in their late twenties at Harvard.
Yet the world of the early 21st century can also be a frightening one. Not long after you arrived as freshmen on this campus the horrific events of September 11, 2001 occurred just miles away in New York City, a date that will live in infamy for every American. Suddenly, our long-held belief that we were safe within the borders of the United States was shattered, and our physical security was threatened. No longer were massive attacks something that occurred only in distant countries most of us had never visited.
I suspect that each one of you can recall exactly where you were when you first heard about the airplane that had flown into the World Trade Center. That is an image seared in your mind that you will remember for the rest of your life, just as the time when I came out of a computer lab at Georgia Tech in my senior year of college to learn that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas – a memory that is as vivid to me today as it was on November 22, 1963. And for my parents’ generation it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Since September 11, the United States has been engaged in fighting three wars simultaneously – in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and against terrorism on a global basis, especially the dark forces of Al Qaeda.
As you leave the safe confines of Bryant, you are entering a world that has become truly global in the four years since you started here. As Thomas Friedman wrote in his recent book, The World Is Flat, while the U.S. has been recovering from 9/11, Enron and the dot com bust, advances in telecommunications technology, the internet, and the breaking down of barriers to free trade and globalization have given three billion people – yes, I meant billion – the potential to enter the world’s workforce and compete for many of the same jobs you are competing for – people from China, India, Russia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
No, except for a select number of their “best and brightest,” these people won’t be arriving in Providence en masse to fill out application forms to work for Aetna, or competing against you for jobs at Merrill Lynch in New York City. It is much more challenging than that: they will be competing against you for jobs from Bangalore, Shanghai, and Hanoi. The irony is that they never have to leave their village or hometown, they can earn 20% of what you make, and because they can live for a fraction of your cost of living, they can have a high standard of living and high quality of life.
Global companies that see this change as a threat instead of an opportunity and seek the protection of our borders are sealing their own death warrant. May I cite General Motors as one such company, whose high costs of just about everything from steel to health care combined with a massive loss of market share, may well not exist in its present form five to ten years from today. After all, icons of my youth like AT&T and Sears Roebuck have disappeared in the last three years.
So how will you compete in this new world? I offer three important ideas for you to consider:
1. Continue to build your knowledge and your skills by embarking on a program of lifelong learning.
2. Make a difference in every job you are in, no matter how small your area of responsibility, by being innovative and creative.
3. Become an authentic leader.
Your learning should not and cannot end with your graduation today. In fact, you should consider your sheepskin as “the end of the beginning.” The world moves so fast today and technology and knowledge are advancing so rapidly that you have to spend several hours each day informing yourself and building your knowledge base just to keep up! It’s not a question of renewing your education when you hit forty – you need to do it every day!
You know by now just what a competitive world it is out there, far more so than when I was getting out of school. If you don’t believe me, just talk to many of my mentees who are outstanding young women and men and were not able to get into the business schools of their choice. You need to continually develop your skills and your capabilities, not just to keep up with your career challenges, but to excel in every position you hold.
You also should be broadening your base of knowledge, not just deepening it. This will prepare you for new career opportunities, both with the organization you work for and in future organizations you may join.
Making a Difference
You can make a difference from the first day you enter the workforce. Don’t wait to be asked. Find an opportunity, dive in, and stand out! Business leaders are looking for people that are innovative, creative, and willing to take risks to do things in a creative way. You don’t have to be an executive for this to happen. Your positive attitude alone rubs off on everyone around you and enables you to shine. It makes people want to help you, to support your efforts, and to see you get ahead.
There are many people in organizations that have a dour attitude, that feel like they are victims of life, oppressed by management, leadership, their background, the system, or whatever the excuse of the day is. No matter how talented you are, that kind of attitude can only lead you to frustration and for people not to want to deal with you or see you succeed.
These days no one has a right to a job, or even to keep their job: we all have to earn our paycheck every single day. At Medtronic I was careful to check out how a person’s subordinates felt about them before they were considered for a promotion, and personally made sure we were not advancing people that had bad attitudes or weren’t committed to the best interests of the company and their colleagues. Corporate politicians simply did not make it at Medtronic, and eventually found the door going out, not the elevator going up.
Besides, life is about making a difference in every environment we are in – from our families, to our friendships, to our communities, to our jobs. Many people go through life waiting for the world to find them. They may have a very long wait. One day they will wake up and wonder why the world passed them by. Don’t wait! Step up now! Dive in and make a difference from today forward.
A word on innovation – it’s the key to competing with those three billion people from developing countries. They may have just as much ability as you have, and just as good an education. But one of the greatest blessings of this country is the way we encourage innovation and creativity, the ability to try something entirely different, and find a way to make it successful, even if it has to go through several iterations of failing first.
Earl Bakken, the founder of Medtronic found that after he invented the world’s first pacemaker: his product had to go through many iterations before it became effective, from a large wearable device to the small implantable device of today. In the meantime he and his fledgling company almost went bankrupt: in fact, they were technically bankrupt, but too proud to declare it. So Bakken sat down and wrote the Medtronic mission, focusing the company on restoring people to full life and health. He used to the mission to bring in one of first venture capitalists to bail out his company. Within months the company turned profitable and never reported another loss. Today Medtronic ranks as the 36th most valuable company in the U.S.
Look for ways to be innovative and creative: that’s where the jobs and the opportunities are. Examine Howard Schultz who founded Starbucks. No one else believed you could sell a cup of coffee for $3.00. Schultz set out to prove it could be done, and today his company is worth $21B. Or Naryana Murthy, who invested a few thousand dollars to found a software company doing outsourcing for major global companies. Twenty years later his company, Infosys, is one of the largest in India and is worth $18 billion. Or Mike Dell, who dropped out of his pre-med program at the University of Texas, to set up a computer repair shop that grew into the world’s largest personal computer company. His personal net worth is $18 billion.
What do Bakken, Schultz, Murthy, and Dell have in common? All are courageous, innovative leaders willing to “march to the beat of a different drummer.” They go against the established way of doing things, and use their creativity to make a difference in the world.
Do you want to become a leader? If so, what kind of leader will you become? What will be the purpose of your leadership?
These are important questions for you to ponder now, even if you have not held any significant leadership roles or don’t see yourself as a leader. For starters I urge you not to think of leaders just at the top of organizations, but leaders in every walk of life at every level. The parent who gives up her or his career to raise the family is just as much a leader, albeit in a different way, as the CEO of an organization. So is the Medtronic production worker who notices a discoloration in the heart values and stops the production to get it fixed before a defective product winds up in someone’s body? Or the leader of an inner city boy and girls club.
As you think about seeing opportunities to lead, and wondering whether to raise your hand, ask yourself these two questions:
If not me, then who?
If not now, then when?
The world’s needs your leadership today! We have far too few leaders that are willing to be genuine, authentic people, able to rally a group of people to take on a challenge and succeed.
Many people want to sit back and let others lead, and then analyze and criticize their actions. But as former President Theodore Roosevelt said in his 1908 speech at the Sorbonne in Paris:
“It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Will you be that kind of leader? Will you step up to the challenge? Will you get into the arena and get your face bloodied? Or will you hang back and critique others, and avoid putting yourself on the line? All my years of experience in business, education, and government lead me to just one conclusion: leaders who step up, even if they fail, are the ones who advance and who make the difference in organizations and in the world.
Don’t wait to be asked: the world needs your leadership today!
Perhaps you feel like you weren’t cut out to lead, or that it is risky and arrogant to put your head above the crowd. South African President Nelson Mandela addressed this point in his first inaugural address, quoting from Marianne Williamson,
“Who are you to think small? You are a child of God?
You are called to make manifest the glory that is born in each of us.”
How will you lead? Will you lead authentically, or will you attempt to emulate others’ leadership and wind up becoming a phony? What will be the principles of your leadership? What values will guide your leadership? What will be your ethical boundaries?
You don’t need to be handsome or beautiful, powerful or strong. You just need to be yourself and lead in your own way with your unique qualities, your heart and your values. Many would-be leaders are afraid to show their vulnerabilities, their fears, or their hearts. Instead, they attempt to lead with their heads and use their position power to direct others. But they don’t lead anyone, nor do people today respond to this kind of leadership.
Great leaders know how to rally people around a common cause and the practice of a consistent set of values to produce results far beyond what anyone thought was possible. You can be that kind of leader! You only have to be authentic in your leadership – to be yourself.
What does it mean to be an authentic leader? First, it means knowing the purpose of your leadership. For if a leader doesn’t know their purpose, why would anyone want to follow them? Many young people haven’t yet found their purpose. That is quite normal at this stage of your life. But the challenge is to seek to find it. It took me twenty years of searching until I arrived at Medtronic’s doorstep and realized this was the place I should have been at all along.
And as Greek author Nikos Kazanzakis wrote many years ago,
“Ithaca does not exist. Only the voyage to Ithaca.”
In other words it is the journey, not the destination that counts. Don’t search for your whole life for the pot of gold at the end of your rainbow. Live the beauty of its colors reflected on you every day. Along the way keep searching for the purpose of your leadership and I assure you, you will find it at the right time.
Second, practice your values every day. Don’t say one thing and do other. Better to say nothing at all. People observe how you act, not what you say you believe. In thinking about your values, can you pass these two tests, “the mirror test” and “the New York Times test?” Look at the woman or the man in the mirror every day: are you proud of the person you are becoming? Are you proud of your behavior? You may fool others but you cannot fool the person in that mirror. And would you be proud to have the actions of your life published on the front page of the New York Times. Think about that before you act, not after.
Third, as a leader, lead with your heart, not just your head. Have passion for your work, have compassion for the people you encounter along the way, and have the courage to go in a different direction, to march to the beat of a different drummer. And then you will connect with others at the heart level, where real trust is built.
Fourth, build long-term, enduring relationships, not superficial friendships. What will your relationship be with your friends from Bryant at your twentieth reunion? Will you maintain and sustain those friendships? When you get to be my age, I think you’ll find that the long-term friendships are the ones you really value. In my case I still get together with a group of my college friends annually after all these years. I also have a men’s group with whom I have met weekly for the last thirty years, and a couples group that has met monthly for twenty-two years. Their friendship, advice and caring have been invaluable in my life.
And finally, have the self-discipline in your life to get results. All these other qualities won’t matter if you do not exhibit the self-discipline to fulfill your commitments to yourself and to others, and to get the results you desire.
If you can be genuine with others, and practice these five dimensions of an authentic leader—knowing your purpose, practicing your values, leading with your heart, building enduring relationships, and having self-discipline, I have no doubt that you will be an authentic leader throughout your life. Not sometime in the future, but starting now.
In thinking about the purpose of your leadership, consider these words from Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet:
Something ignited in my soul, fever or unremembered wings,
And I went my own way, deciphering that burning fire.
Will you go your own way? Do you feel that fire burning inside your soul? Do you have the passion to make a difference in the world?
My generation was inspired and motivated by a young President, John F. Kennedy, who said in his inaugural address, “The torch has now been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Many responded to his call to serve their country in small ways and large. Just as it was forty years ago, the torch is again being passed to a new generation. To your generation of emerging leaders the trumpet has sounded. If you listen carefully, you will hear the clarion call to lead in a different way than my generation has:
To be motivated by your mission, not your money.
To tap into your values, not your ego.
To connect with others through your heart, not your persona.
To live your life with such discipline that you would be proud to read about your behavior on the front page of the New York Times.
As a leader, your task is to engage the hearts of those you serve and align their interests with the interests of the organization you lead. Engaging the hearts of others requires a sense of purpose and an understanding of where you’re going. When you find that special alignment, you and your team will have the power to move mountains. Nothing will be able to stand in your way.
What Is Your Unique Calling?
Recently, a young leader complained that his generation seemed to lack any causes to be passionate about. I suggested that he open his eyes and observe the world around him. Seeing the human needs out there doesn’t take a magnifying glass. You don’t have to look far to see:
The pain and suffering caused by poverty, abuse and discrimination.
The need for healing, in body and in spirit.
The desire for healthy families.
The decline in our environment and our natural resources.
The hunger for security and a sense of well-being.
Do any of these challenges strike a resonance deep within you? Can you find your passion and couple it with your ability to make a difference in the world?
Reducing poverty . . .
Eliminating abuse . . .
Stopping discrimination . . .
Helping others heal . . .
Restoring our environment . . .
Building organizations dedicated to service . . .
Feeling safe and secure . . .
Helping people develop themselves . . .
Improving quality of life for others . . .
Bringing joy to the world?
What will be your legacy? At the end of your days, what will you tell your granddaughter you did to better humankind? No matter how small or large a difference you make, it will become your legacy that you leave to the world.
Consider these paradoxes as you think about where to devote your passions:
We live in a world of enormous wealth, yet three-quarters of the world’s population has barely enough to survive.
With our greater affluence has come increased mental and physical abuse of the helpless and vulnerable.
Forty years after the civil rights movement began, discrimination is still rampant at all levels of our society.
We have the greatest medical technology in history, yet the rate of disease continues to grow.
We abuse our natural resources and ignore the growing contamination of our rivers, our open spaces, our cities, and our environment.
We no longer feel safe or secure in our cities after dark.
We stand idly by as our leaders focus more on serving themselves than their customers.
We merge companies to create ever-larger organizations and then treat the people who made them successful as if they were robots.
We treat quality of life as if it were a distraction from the real work of people.
We ignore the deeper meanings of life and the source of all joy.
As an authentic leader, you can change these things. You only need to be your own person, lead in your own style with purpose and passion, be true to your values, build your relationships, practice self-discipline, and lead with your heart.
As much as we want to insure a happy, secure future for our families and ourselves, we have learned the hard way that money alone is insufficient to provide either security or happiness. But making a difference in the lives of others can bring unlimited joy. Leading a life of significant service can bring unlimited fulfillment. Sharing your authentic self with others can bring unlimited love.
At the end of the day, what is more important in your life than joy, fulfillment, and love? When you find them, you will know that your life has meaning and that you are making a difference in the world. In the end the only thing you can take with you when you depart from this world is what you leave behind.
Thank you, and Godspeed, as you go forth into the exciting life that lies just ahead of you.