The superintendent stood at the podium addressing the students, families and friends at a high school graduation ceremony. She asked all of the honors students adorned in special crimson sashes to stand for recognition. Her pride in them was obvious as she beamed with appreciation for all of their hard work and diligence. She praised their achievements, test scores, academic excellence and scholarship. She knew that most of them were on the path to great universities and asked everyone to congratulate them enthusiastically.
After the distinguished students sat down, she addressed the students sitting among the graduates who came close to receiving the sashes but did not. She knew that some of them were filled with remorse, but she encouraged them to understand that effort has its own reward. Although they had not achieved the highest pinnacle of success in their academic efforts, their efforts were admirable. She asked them neither to despair nor to compare themselves with students of greater or lesser standing.
She expressed gratitude for the way these students had worked and encouraged them to continue on. She mused that there were many opportunities ahead and that the journey was just beginning. She advised them to never give up, to press forward and to pursue their dreams with redoubled effort.
Then, as a wry smile spread across her face, she asked the assembly to look around in the sea of graduates and acknowledge with a nod and a smile the “social activists.” She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side. She too nodded as she told some amusing stories about the extraordinary energy and innovation of these unnamed students. At times they had pushed her limits. She was relieved that their entertaining ways had been within the bounds of acceptability. She loved their energy, their passion for life and their friendships for and with each other.
She recounted the fact that many of them had challenged the standard answers and conventions of thought. They had produced novel approaches. She expressed genuine admiration for the fact that many of them followed the convictions of their own ideals rather than toe the standard line. They had made it harder for her — but certainly richer, more interesting and real.
She was sincerely pleased that these students seemed to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others. She clearly disapproved of anything that neared irresponsibility, sloth or destructiveness. Thankfully, that was not the story for these young people. In fact, she was particularly gratified with their community consciousness. They thought about and applied a moral compass and followed an agenda that included serving and giving, which exceeded mere self-interest.
They were far from perfect. She chuckled as she thought about some of the messes they created. She sagely observed that not all of them would follow the path to college. She expressed confidence that they would apply the same sort of creative energy to their life’s work that she had seen them give to their social, artistic and athletic endeavors. Then, with a wink, she advised the honor students and runners- up to take special stock of the creative, disruptive, passionate, socially active free spirits, because in a few years those free spirits would likely be their bosses.
As learning leaders we must rightfully focus on requirements met, tests passed and certifications awarded. We are appropriately concerned with subject mastery and competency requirements. But if we miss the development of spirit, innovation, character, emotional intelligence and conviction then we will miss leadership, and we will build a staircase going nowhere.
We have been blessed with teachers who have shown us how to recognize and develop the social activism of real leaders. As graduation approaches, we say thank you to Stephen Covey for making us think about effectiveness, to Deborah Tannen for helping us understand understanding and to David McClelland and David Burnham for showing us that achievement and power can work for and against leaders. To these remarkable teachers and many more, we say thank you for giving us an expanded view of leading, living and learning.
And to you graduates, we are proud of your sashes, your striving and your spirit. Our world needs your constructive, thoughtful social activism now more than ever. We are eager to meet you and to learn from you in our corporate classrooms.
Fred Harburg is a private consultant, writer and speaker for leadership, strategy and performance coaching. He has held international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Motorola and Fidelity Investments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.