Fall Commencement, Dec. 11, 2004
Congratulations to all graduates, to your families, to your friends, and to all those who helped you get to this place today. Today is about celebration. We recognize and honor your achievements.
As the parent of two recent college graduates, I can assure you that your families are tremendously proud of your accomplishments. And, speaking from personal experience, I am sure that they will be glad for you to come home. But just to visit. They've probably already made plans for your room.
My theme today is leadership. I want you to leave here with the commitment to think about yourself as a leader.
The reason is simple. You have already proven you can be a success. Now it is time to define yourself as a leader. You inherit a Darwinian worldÉ.one that is competitive, unpredictable, seldom "fair," and sometimes cruel. The good news is that you are ready, even though neither you nor I know exactly what our world will look like.
THE CHALLENGE: OUR WORLD There are literally hundreds of adjectives that capture some truth about the nature of our world. I won't read my complete list, but I will identify a few examples:
* Our world is competitive and it will become even more competitive if not cut-throat. Your competition is likely to be from another continent and she or he will probably be hungrier than you.
* Our world is certainly complex. In the field of biology, for example, the revolution in genomics, proteomics and now molecular recognition has shaped a different world from the biology I studied as an undergraduate, or the biology taught in the textbooks even 5 years ago.
* Our world is certainly internationalÉ.events from around the world frequently determine what jobs we have, our salary, or whether we can even be employed. In North Carolina, for example, tens of thousands of high-paying jobs in the furniture and textiles industries have been lost. They didn't disappear because of choices in North Carolina. They disappeared because development and investments in China, Korea and other nations where workers earn only a fraction of the salaries formerly paid here.
* As Meg Wheately said, "In this environment, if you're not confused, you're not thinking clearly."
You may be wondering what this means for you? Let me give you something to consider from recent assessments of the American worker. What can you expect in terms of future jobs, stability, and the enjoyment of your workplace? Two trends stand out:
* First, the SKILLS we learn today don't last very long. It is estimated that the half life of job skills today is less than two and a half years. In other words, job skills become obsolete quickly.
* Second, CAREER CHANGES are becoming common. We expect today's graduates to have 6 career changes over their working lives. This is NOT six job changes within one career, like I have had. Rather, on average, most of you will move across six careers. Sort of like moving from carpentry to teaching to investment management to deep sea diving. You're never quite sure what you'll be doing next, let alone what to wear to work.
So, it is a daunting world. Staying in school a bit longer is not such a bad decision under these circumstances. However, my message today is different.
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news is that this new world includes factors that are to your advantage. The old economy, the one that has governed most of my life, was largely determined by forces that you and I have little control overÉthe families we were born into, our race or ethnic status, the presence of natural resources, and so on.
* In contrast, the new economy is driven by forces that we have more control over. These forces include: Substantive knowledge: That is, expertise in complex fields like biotechnology or systems engineering or computer sciences.
* Problem solving: Our ability to use knowledge and skills to solve problems and achieve results; and
* Relationships: our skills at communicating and working with others. So, you have a great chance of not only surviving in a chaotic world but also thriving. This is because you:
* Have learned how to learn. You know that learning is fundamental to success;
* You have a whole toolbox of competencies;
* Where you don't have competencies, you know how to discover knowledge;
* You know how to communicate;
* You have experience in linking rational knowledge with emotional and spiritual intelligence; and
* Perhaps most importantly, you have the self-confidence and self-esteem to recover from life's inevitable mistakes. In fact, I'm pretty sure the single best thing you've received from your education is confidence. You are a proven success, a survivor, someone who knows how to get resultsÉ. That self confidence is now a part of you.
Winston Churchill said, "THIS IS NOT THE END. IT IS NOT EVEN THE BEGINNING OF THE END. IT IS, PERHAPS, THE END OF THE BEGINNING. " I think that applies to you. Your beginning phase is over and now you're ready for the advanced course.
You are a proven success in the world's best educational system. While I cannot promise success to everyone here today, I am reminded of John F. Kennedy's response when he was asked how he became a war hero. He said, "THEY SANK MY BOAT." You are ready to take advantage of your challenges and opportunities.
PREPARING FOR LEADERSHIP My challenge to you, then, is to not accept your great success at ECU as the end. The Theologian Leonard Sweet said, "The future is not something we enter, it is something we create."
The next step is to embrace, search for, and become the leader that you can be. Do not believe that you are someone who is just ready for the job market, rather you are ready to create jobs. You are not someone thrown into a chaotic world. Rather you are someone prepared to thrive on Chaos, as Tom Peters would say. Today, you are not just a graduate. You are tomorrow's leader. When I say that, I'm not talking about power, status, or money. I'm speaking of your ability to make a difference for other people.
If you doubt that I'm really talking about you, let me share a little data with you. North Carolina just elected a new legislature. Most legislators are graduates of colleges and universities in North Carolina. ECU is second among all colleges and universities in the number of graduates in the legislature. Our graduates make a difference in North Carolina. The one school that is ahead of us, a place somewhere in Chapel Hill, should be on notice ... we're not interested in being #2.
Let me share a secret. Becoming a leader, or being a BETTER leader, is something YOU can influence. The skills are learnable. It is up to you.
You're not quite finished with your ECU education. Today you get "Ballard's nine ways to realize your leadership potential." There will be no charge for this extra course. These nine rules are not about me; they are about my observations and experiences and mostly about others I have learned from. These rules are about good judgment. Will Rogers said, "Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment."
So, graduates, here is "the world according to Ballard:"
Leadership starts with integrity and it is the hardest characteristic to master. Leaders have many opportunities for greed and many opportunities for deal-making. In other words, principles get defined by circumstances. We can all do better on this dimension by remembering two fundamental questions: "IS THIS THE RIGHT THING TO DO?" "IS THIS DECISION IN THE BEST INTEREST OF OUR ORGANIZATIONÉ NOT JUST OURSELVES?" I worked with a great leader who was one of my most important mentors and she taught me that it is possible to lead with integrity, no matter how difficult. She was Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. She didn't believe her integrity was any better than other people's integrity, but she did hold her integrity as sacrosanct. In 1950, at the worst period of McCarthyismÉ.the era in which lives were ruined by unsubstantiated smear campaigns and paranoia about communismÉMargaret Chase Smith did what none of the 99 men in the US Senate dared to doÉ. She gave a speech on the Senate floor that denounced McCarthyism and this speech is universally considered to be among the most significant speeches of the 20th century. It remains today perhaps the best single definition of Americanism. But the point is this: Senator Smith made the speech because of her own sense of integrity, of her belief that to REMAIN SILENT in the face of smear tactics was not acceptable. She gave the speech believing that her Senate career would probably be over because of the retribution she would receive from Senator McCarthy. She gave it anyway and on the way to the Senate floor that morning Senator McCarthy sat down beside her on the Senate trolly. He said, "My Margaret, you sure are looking glum today." Senator Smith replied, "I'm giving a speech and you're not going to like it."
2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
This rule is not about the horrors of a pop quiz. It is about good luck. Do you wonder why some people are luckier than others? Do you think that luck is random? That it floats around and has to land somewhere and some people get good luck and some get bad luck? Well guess what. We know better. Luck favors the well prepared. It is not random. This is something that has been studied in detail, written about in Science Magazine, and the results are consistent. Good luck favors the well prepared. So get prepared for leadership and the odds will be in your favor.
3. FAILURE IS A PART OF LEADERSHIP
That's right, don't be fooled by failure. It is an impostor or even a friend in disguise. We sometimes mistakenly think that great leaders never fail. In fact, great leaders have the courage to risk failure and, most importantly, to learn from failure. We learn best by our mistakes. They force self assessment and make us look at the hard cold facts. And, success can be intoxicating; it makes us think we are so smart we can do anything. Show me an NFL team that goes 13-3 one year and I'll show you the makings of a team with a 7-7 record the next year. My poor, miserable, Kansas City Chiefs, with a 4 and 7 record so far this year, are a case in point.
4. IT TAKES COURAGE
Make no mistake, leadership requires courage. To recover and then learn from failure, you must be willing to try again. My father liked to say, "Steven, you've got to stay down on a ground ball." I liked to play baseball and what he meant was that in order to make good plays, you had to accept the fact that every now and then one of those grounders was going to hit you in the nose. It is just a given. Our family took a lot of pride in crooked noses. The next three rules are about people:
5. PEOPLE MAKE THE DIFFERENCE
This sounds simple and it is simple. You won't be a good leader unless you value your people. If you find a way to value your people, anything is possible. The author, Jim Collins, said it best: "GET THE RIGHT PEOPLE ON THE BUS AND GET THEM TO WORK TOGETHER." Everything else follows from that. The worst leaders are those who ignore this simple truth. So, if you see leaders who believe that success is because of them or ones who need to claim credit for the success of the whole group, I would advise you to run away as fast as you can.
6. LEADERSHIP IS NOT DECISION MAKING
Don't' confuse good leadership with the question of "who gets to decide." They are two very different questions. Great leaders are ones who can identify how the best decision can be made, regardless of who makes it. In fact, it is almost always a product of group interaction. Good decisions get good results, no matter who makes them.
7. GREAT LEADERS ARE GREAT FOLLOWERS TOO
This one is a close corollary to good decision making. Leadership is also about understanding others you work with and finding ways to develop their leadership skills. Once you do that, you will find that you are working with many good leaders. As they develop their leadership, you must let them lead, too. Ghandi said, "I cannot lead until I know where my people are." Repeat. Pay attention to this one. While it is contrary to popular wisdom, it also captures an essential truth about leadership. I think of it this way: When you have a great Provost, let him hire the dean.
8. KNOW WHEN TO QUIT
An undervalued characteristic of strong leaders is that they know when their day is up and when their impact is waning. I get frequent questions about where I stand on that score. Strong leaders leave when they've accomplished what they can. George Washington could easily have been re-elected to a third term as president in the year 1796. Instead, he decided not to run because he had done what he wanted to do and he strongly believed that eight years as commander-in-chief was plenty.
9. HOPE IS A GOOD THING
Leaders have a critical role in focusing on the future. It is very easy for people to believe that their fate is sealed or that the worst case is the real case. It is the leader's job to challenge this mentality, to focus on the possibilities, to identify the new beginnings. Nothing is more important in the leader's job.
Remember, leadership is a commitment, not a position. You are ready for that commitment. "Leaders cannot assure success, but success unquestionably requires a leader. Leaders help others want to achieve. They raise people's aspirations and provide opportunities for individuals to excel. They light the way along the path to achievement.
In closing, then, congratulations on what you have achieved. Use it as the end of the beginning, not just the end. Focus on creating the future and then leading it. ECU is proud to have you as alumni.