I gave this speech last month to the audience and Class of 2007 at my old boarding school.
Good morning, Mimi, good morning ladies & gentlemen of The Orme School, good morning young ladies and young men.
This place is utterly fantastic. I’m not sure if you all are aware of this. It’s like Oz. I come back here after 5, 10 or 15 years and each time I am profoundly and positively moved by the uniqueness of this place and its otherworldly quality and physical beauty. It is a fabulous school, and you are blessed to have attended it.
First, I shall discuss the notion of personal leadership, then of leadership from a cultural perspective, and then I shall make a few suggestions to you.
I’m here because I’m the president of a commercial company and was elected to lead a few non-profits. The meaning of a presidency is the commitment the job requires. Whether you have earned the position, step by step, over a long period of time; or you have taken the position in an elaborate scheme or deal; perhaps the position has been given to you as an inheritance, whether you are the tortoise or the hare or the little emperor, it doesn’t matter—the job requires an enormous personal commitment. People choose someone they believe can not only stick with the job but also invest precious time and energy to it. Basic skills are necessary—but not sufficient. The simple truth is that the president is the person with the greatest—the most energetic and effective—commitment to the customers and employees. Devotion is the essential quality that is required.
But what does “President” mean beyond the personal experience of it? How does the President function within a culture or a society? The answer depends largely on the setting, the specifics of the culture or nation. In the Roman and Latin worlds, leadership uniquely possesses style as well as substance. The “buena figura”—the profile—a leader makes is as important as anything else. The face on the coin, the emperor, the king, the ruler. Today’s obsession with beauty is influenced by this long and profound Latin, or Greco-Roman heritage. But it has also theological as well as cultural roots. God was thought to have originally chosen the leaders. Indeed, we’ve come a very long way.
By contrast, in Asian society, the able and the rich were known to frequently rise to the top of the pyramid. Rigorous examinations assured that the gods precisely did not choose the leader. Throughout Chinese history, one finds examples of peasants rising in society as the most capable, the winners of the tests.
In yet even greater contrast, in Northern Europe, the presidency is often a secretly detested job, because the social pressures are so stressful and intense—quite the opposite of the typical image in the rest of the world of a corporate chief or head of state. In Germany and Scandinavia, most people avoid leadership—it’s far too taxing and has little, if any, material reward. Ironically, this is good. Those who become leaders feel called to the challenge—they want specifically to help others, not to exercise power or gain wealth. The cultural pressures act as a kind of “examination”.
So, despite the many definitions of President, and the many types of leadership, all have one thing in common—the personal commitment of time and energy. “You snooze, you lose”, is the wisest counsel a President could receive.
Today you embark on the presidency of your life, the start of a lifelong term of the leadership of your own life—and it is actually quite similar to being—and acting—as the President of a company or a nation: rules, responsibilities and pressures pertain in the same way. You are a self-constituted and autonomous company of one. This is the most important company you will ever work for.
Like a hot stock, or an attractive start-up, you will be in the limelight for a while, and it will be hard to meet the expectations of your investors, customers, suppliers. They’ll want you to do certain things—lots of pressures. But don’t become disillusioned. The real investor is you. And you are in charge; you’re the only employee. You are the only person responsible now for all of your future assignments.
So, let me share a few tips. My specialty, my strength, has always been the “turnaround” –taking a failing company and saving it. It sounds heroic, but it isn’t. In fact, it is a thankless job that many wisely avoid. But I was like a magnet to troubled companies, right out of college. I was great in sales—that was the first sign. But the biggest sign was when I worked in the collection department—a guy quit and I had to step in and collect dead-beat accounts. Almost like ‘Dog The Bounty Hunter’, except for money rather than hardcore criminals. So I could generate sales, as well as persuade folks to pay. Then I discovered that I was, in fact, better at repairing a damaged company than I was at operating a functioning company. I’m happier fixing things, and solving problems, that’s all. But that’s me, my identity. I couldn’t help it, so to speak.
Find out that uniqueness in you, and go with it. Don’t resist it too much. Exercise and apply your strength everywhere you can do so. Once I worked in a lab. I was miserable after a few weeks and quit. Talent is as strong as physiology or biology. Like a natural gift or aptitude in music or math. Some have one talent, others have another talent. If you have doubts still, after today, try an aptitude test—they’re very useful.
Another thing, a Chinese mentor, Mr. Chu, told me something when I was in my twenties that I’ve never forgotten: we were discussing a training program for interns, and I proposed a certain period of time, like a month, for training and then another month or so for practice. He said, “George, I never do anything I know how to do.” I never do something that I have learned! After I learn something, I move on to the next thing I don’t know.” But the way he actually meant it was, “Never do anything; learn everything.” According to Mr. Chu, there was no value in occupying a job. I had a sort of “practice-oriented” perspective inherited from my German background, but he said, “No—keep moving forward into the unknown!” Startling, and great advice. So unexpected—I’ll never forget exactly where I was-like where I was when JFK was shot. But this sort of anti Zen, pro-Yankee spirit—coming from an Asian—was just odd and strange enough to make a deep impression on me. And Mr. Chu’s lesson helped me to mellow out the “You must always be working!” mentality of my German ancestors.
A reporter from The New York Times once asked me what new books I had read. I thought a moment and answered, “King Lear”, and then also the John L. Stephens book about his travels through Central America in 1839, “Incidents of Travel In Yucatan”. The reporter thought I had misunderstood and asked again, “Any new books?” Then I was the one caught off guard. I explained, “A new book is one I haven’t read yet.” This is another lesson. Our society, our contemporary culture, emphasizes the superficial, the glittering, the oven fresh, the brand new. This emphasis is misplaced. The ancient is more avant-garde than what is going on in the local art gallery or symphony hall or internet. Turn to the classics, and make sure your roots are fully watered. It’s like a musician practicing scales. Make sure you are schooled in the basics, the foundation of your chosen field. Vocabulary, too: study vocabulary books—there are excellent ones, like the Vocabulary Builder, a thick two-volume set by Johnson O’Connor. Priceless.
But beside the basics, I’ll always remember traveling through rural Egypt and seeing two things: first was an entire family expertly planting onions in a perfectly prepared field with a thousands year old irrigation systems—the same as Uncle Chick laid down. They were dreadfully poor, completely uneducated, and yet they had learned agriculture perfectly—traditionally. And in another rural town in Egypt, several kids surrounded a late 1920s Ford Model A. They had the hood up and were cleaning the gorgeous 4-cylinder and it was in beautiful condition. These kids had filthy clothes and tattered shoes, and yet they spoke English and were utterly conversant in the mysteries of the automobile. It was amazing. They had a lot of the basics down in desperately poor, middle-of-nowhere Egypt. Get yours down too.
And the foreign travel reminds me of another point—if you show even a basic skill at foreign language—push yourself hard and push now. As much as the direct value of learning another language, it is the indirect effect it will have on your English—because you’ll see it from an outside perspective—you’ll possess an enhanced English ability—a double gift from one study.
Also, my grandfather said, “Avoid rich food” and he meant it broadly. Butter, thick soup, heavy sauces, but also high anxiety, business schemes that are too good to be true, dense language. Rich stuff, loaded with empty calories. Unnecessary fat. Baggage comes in many forms. Things loaded with expense or costs. It’s going to turn out to be junk. Remember all those little shops in strip malls that advertise, “We give cash for gold coins, jewelry, watches.” Just try to avoid excess. You can still have it, eat it or acquire it occasionally. No one can resist the Gucci loafers or, if you’re really successful, the Porsche. But just being conscious of their potential dangers will keep you healthy. And I don’t spend a lot of money. Think about how important certain inexpensive things are, like a good pair of sox. Invest in those things and behaviors that solve practical problems, and also those that create successful results for your career. Like they say all the time in Holland, “Be careful”.
Finally, there is much to be said for having a sweeping visionary goal or two. They’re extremely powerful. Keep working on your own private set until they become realistic. Mine are to use seed to replace money in relief projects in devastated areas of the world. We started in Somalia in ’93 then worked in Rwanda in ’94, and Haiti in ’95. We did the last one in Iraq in 2004, about 2,000 pounds of squash, onion and tomato seed. The other is to reintroduce the phonetic system of reading instruction in the public schools, where it was replaced about 60 years ago by the “Dick and Jane” style of whole word instruction, and damaged the literacy levels of several generations of US citizens. I have two desks at work—nothing fancy—one for business, one for the two charitable projects.
These are unattainable goals, perhaps, in the sense of being difficult to complete in a lifetime, but they are all the better for it. Have goals to which you can dedicate a life and never be satisfied, never be done, until late, when you’re ready to stop.
Which for you is a long time from now.
Last but not least, believe me, your parents understand what you face. They have stories and examples just like these, but from their occupations, their walks of life.
Talk with each other about the leadership of yourself, of your life. Each of your parents—both mom and dad—could give you their own version of this speech, take certain elements of it perhaps, or the spirit of it, and make a great commencement address for you.
Congratulations and the greatest of luck to each of you.