Ladies and gentlemen. Class of 2014. Graduation, this ceremony, this significant accomplishment in your life. It probably felt far away when you began your journey just a couple of years ago. But since you began the journey, you’ve not only learned from some of the best professors in the world, but you’ve also endured countless projects – and perhaps a challenging internship.
I have one more assignment for you today; one more challenge to take on. I must say, however, that this is one that you’ll never entirely finish – perhaps, for today, we should call it a “lifelong challenge.”
But before I issue the challenge, I’d like you to join me for an exercise in visualization. Picture for me a hero; someone you admire and respect. It could be a parent, a friend. Maybe an emergency responder, perhaps a teacher. Or someone who’s a perfect stranger, someone you heard about on the news this morning who did something miraculous. Heroes are individuals who demonstrate epic courage in the face of adversity. And when we think of them, we’re in awe.
In reality, most of us may never be a hero. But, as emerging leaders, we’re able to demonstrate courage of a different kind; I’m going to call that “everyday courage.” Many of you have shown “everyday courage” already. By going back to school. By choosing to put your career on hold. By investing in your future. And you will need this “everyday” courage as you move forward.
I’m talking about the courage to embrace candor and ask for help. I’m talking about the courage to let go and move on in certain situations that will arise in your career. And I’m talking about the courage to never settle, but to keep learning and growing and changing. In the end, I’m talking about courageous leadership; the courage to successfully navigate your future.
What is courage?
The word “courage” stems from the Latin word “cor,” which means heart or inner strength. And I’m a firm believer that courage is a learnable skill, and everyone has the capacity for it. But being courageous is not just a one-time decision. It’s almost like a muscle that we develop over many years and through many difficult situations.
And, as we hone our courage to lead, we become more adept at confronting reality head-on. Being open and honest and transparent. Saying what needs to be said – even when it’s difficult. And doing what needs to be done. Above all, as we flex our courage, we’ll empower ourselves and those around us to grow and to adapt.
The courage to ask for help
Here’s an example of what I mean – and I’m sure some of you are very familiar with this story. It’s the story of Ford Motor Company and Alan Mulally – as described in the book “American Icon.”
Mulally took over as Ford’s CEO in 2006 when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. He immediately recognized that his management team was out of touch with the company’s real issues.
In early meetings, the leaders offered very promising updates on their business’ prospects, labeling everything “green” – meaning everything was on track. Of course, Mulally didn’t buy this. And who would? The firm was forecasted to lose something like $17 billion in 2006.
Within the first few weeks, one member of the senior team, Mark Fields, finally labeled something “red.” It was the launch of the Ford Edge sport utility vehicle. So, what do you think Alan Mulally did? He stood, he applauded and he asked the team, “What can we do to help with this challenge?”
Mark Fields demonstrated courageous leadership – by being the very first person to label something red. It required him to have the capacity and humility to ask for help – even when he wasn’t certain of the consequences.
So, how did this story end? Well, Ford has returned to profitability. And, earlier this month, the company announced that Mark Fields would succeed Alan Mulally upon his retirement this summer.
The courage to let go
That was certainly a happy ending. But the ending of challenging circumstances isn’t always so great. Sometimes we need the courage to just let go and move on. We need to come to grips with a new or a different reality – an unexpected or a disruptive career setback. For me, that happened over a decade ago when I was a partner at Arthur Andersen.
I had been with the firm for 20 years. It was my first job out of college. And when I joined Andersen, I thought it was the very best. It was the crème de la crème. It was an extraordinary career for me. It was fast-paced and competitive, and I had the opportunity to work in so many industries. The firm stretched me and moved me and challenged me – and it was a terrific, extraordinary professional experience.
Arthur Andersen was also the source of my biggest professional heartbreak. That heartbreak occurred in 2002, when the firm was under attack for its role in the collapse of Enron. I’m sure you’ve studied that period of business history. At the time, Arthur Andersen was a firm of 100,000 professions, yet only a relative few worked on the Enron account. But their actions severely damaged the firm’s reputation – and ultimately led to its demise.
I vividly remember a midnight conference call with Andersen partners from around the world. We were told that firm – not individuals – was going to be indicted, which basically meant the firm was out of business. My husband stayed up with me that night to listen to the call. After hearing the firm would be indicted, he looked at me and said, “Lynn, it’s over.” And he went to bed.
I felt as if my entire world had turned upside-down. Two decades of work had basically disappeared. As you can imagine, I went through the next days and weeks spanning every possible emotion – from shock and sorrow to anger, disbelief and fear about the future.
In the weeks that followed, when I would get in my car and drive to a job that was essentially gone, I would say to myself, “Let it go. Let it go, let it go, let it go.” And I did. I did let it go. And after I helped those in my workgroup at Andersen transition to new jobs and find new careers, I eventually transitioned to a career path that led me to Duke Energy – and to the position I have today.
And I must say to you, that the position I hold today is one of the most challenging – and I’m sure to be one of the most rewarding – of my professional career.
What I’ve learned about courageous leadership
So, that period presented a hard but valuable leadership lesson – and one that I didn’t recognize at the time. I learned that it takes courage to let go. It takes courage to accept the reality of a situation. And it takes courage to move on.
Benjamin Zander, a famous conductor and author, has written that you can respond to any situation in one of three ways: resignation, anger or possibility. Which one would you pick? What kind of leader would you like to be?
To be courageous and to be an effective leader, we must always choose possibility – and help others to see what’s possible.
How we navigate these obstacles, the setbacks, the ambiguities in life – and how we continue to march forward – can only be learned through experience and, sometimes, through failure.
A few minutes ago, I asked you to visualize a hero, someone you admire and respect. I strongly believe that courageous leaders can be “everyday” heroes. So the challenge for you is I want you to build your courage to lead; to become the kind of leader who will drive change and learn and adapt and grow; to bring out the best in yourself and the people around you – no matter what the circumstance.
Every one of you has the capacity to be a courageous leader. And although there is no magic formula – for me, it is built on a sense of purpose, conviction to do the right thing, a call to action to shape your future, and a call to empower those around you.
So, class of 2014, Congratulations. And I’m calling on each of you to be a courageous leader in the years ahead!