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Commencement speeches are usually given by people who are old and wise, and since I don’t consider myself to be either, I hope you will indulge my efforts nonetheless.
I know what is expected of me: brevity, a little humor, and some sage advice. I promise to adhere to at least the first of those.
Albert Einstein was traveling from his home in Princeton on a train when the conductor came down the aisle, punching the tickets of each passenger. When he came to Einstein, Einstein reached in his vest pocket. He couldn't find his ticket, so he reached in his other pocket. It wasn't there, so he looked in his briefcase, but couldn't find it. Then he looked in the seat by him. He couldn't, it wasn’t there.
The conductor said, “Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We all know who you are. I'm sure you bought a ticket. Don't worry about it.”
The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets. As he was ready to move to the next car, he turned around and saw Einstein down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for his ticket.
The conductor rushed back and said, “Dr. Einstein, Dr. Einstein, don't worry. I know who you are. No problem. You don't need a ticket. I'm sure you bought one.”
Einstein looked at him and said, “Young man, I too know who I am. What I don't know is where I'm going.”
When I got my first apartment a friend brought me a small tool kit that he had put together with all sorts of household tools that I might find useful. It was such a great gift and one that I still use frequently. Well, I thought I would do something similar and give you a few items you might find useful as you head out into the world. You might call them symbolic tools.
The first item I would suggest is a compass.
Now when I say compass, I don’t mean the traditional kind you can hold in your hand. The compass that I want for you is far more complex.
It is a moral compass.
A moral compass has been described as our inner core of personal beliefs—principles we hold to be true and act upon in making decisions. Without that core, no matter how many degrees you attain, no matter how high up the corporate ladder you climb, no matter how many cars are in your garage, you are never truly a success.
A first century teacher described it this way to his students: “The world is equally balanced between good and evil. Your next act will tip the balance.” I don’t know whether your professors told you that, but it’s not a bad way of looking at our decision-making anytime in life.
Certainly, the need for moral leadership—especially in the business world—has never been more evident than in the wake of the Enron scandal. After all, Enron was supposed to be the corporate model for the 21st century.
But Sherron Watkins, their vice president for corporate development, felt something was not right. While management thought that keeping debt off the books was a creative and aggressive business practice, she knew better. In a letter to Ken Lay, she questioned the accounting methods, saying they threatened to destroy credibility and ultimately the company.
“The business world will consider the past successes as nothing but an elaborate accounting hoax,” she declared. Mrs. Watkins would later say, “Stop them early. You must stop them early and do not participate.”
This failure of management need not indict the structure of corporate America. Any structure—corporate, government or religious—is subject to the failings of those involved. But, Enron is a reminder that a vacuum in moral leadership can be costly and fatal. As it turned out Enron, not only defaulted on their loans, but on their responsibility to shareholders, employees, and customers.
I urge you to construct a moral compass, keep it near at hand, and look to it for direction.
The second item you would find useful on your journey is a hammer. But that seems to be a little harsh for what I’m about to describe. So let’s call it a “velvet hammer” for correcting the things we see that are wrong in the world about us.
Ancient rabbis called it “tikkun olam” or “repairing the earth” which is a central belief of the Jewish faith.
It means taking responsibility for correcting the damage done by people to each other and to the planet. It is the idea that we should leave the earth a little better and brighter than we found it.
What a tremendous challenge: to leave everything better than we found it. My father always took a plastic bag with him when he walked the back roads near our farmhouse in Rolla. When he returned it was always full of debris that he had found along the way. There he was—the Governor of Missouri—picking up roadside trash. No one knew he did that, he never mentioned it that I know of. But he knew and he felt it was important to him.
But repairing the earth doesn’t mean just removing litter, or controlling pollution, eradicating lead poisoning, or cleaning up nuclear waste sites, and neighborhood eyesores. That’s important. But it also includes repairing relationships, whether it’s in our homes, workplaces, or on the other side of the globe.
Today we live in a world that desperately needs repair. A world that is torn by hatred, injustice, and violence. As potential business leaders, you have not only the ability to perform some repairs, but you also have the moral responsibility to do so. I hope that each of you will search for some small way in which to repair the earth.
Well, there is one final item I would want for you.
A step ladder. On this symbolic ladder, you would keep climbing in the direction of your goals.
One of the good things about being part of a political family is that people will often talk to me about their associations with my parents or grandparents.
I discovered early that—for better or worse—I am part of a family of dreamers.
My grandfather taught school in the Ozarks for many years before he went to Congress.
One lady who knew him said that she was cleaning out a dresser drawer when she found an old, yellowed graduation program from the year 1934—a commencement at which my grandfather, A.S.J. Carnahan, was the speaker. She thought our family would want to have it.
From your history, if you remember l934, you know it was during the depression era—a time of great hopelessness and despair.
In fact, as a teacher my grandfather was paid in warrants, which were just promises to pay if the money became available. You couldn't pay the rent with them or put food on the table, but it was better than nothing.
We looked to see what he had spoken on during such a time as that. The title was: "Climb though the Road Seem Rugged."
I had to laugh, because it seemed so like my grandfather, it could have been the motto for his life. He was the last of 9 children, born in a poor Ozark community—the only one in his family to get a college education.
But he had dreams . . . even when there was no reason to believe they would come true.
Ten years after that speech, he came home one evening and made a rather shocking announcement.
He told his family that he was going to run for Congress.
My grandmother said: "Don't do it. You can't win."
He told his friends and neighbors.
They said: "Don't do it, you can't win."
He told the local politicians.
They said: "Don't do it you can't win."
Well, he ran anyway.
And, you know . . . they were right. He didn't win.
But he wasn’t defeated . . . if you know what I mean. And that’s what made the difference.
He ran again in the next election. And, that time he won and went on winning for 14 years.
He later became a delegate to the United Nations and ended his career in government as an Ambassador to Sierra Leone.
Goals keep us on course. They give us purpose. They keep us going!
During World War II, a group of men found themselves in a terrible situation. Theirbomber was shot down in the jungle on the Burma border. By some miracle, the men on board survived, but many of them were injured. They looked at their map and discovered they were 300 miles from an American base.
The men were completely disheartened.
There was no way they could walk 300 miles through jungle, over mountainous terrain, through the rain and heat back to their base.
They knew where they wanted to go, but they had little hope of ever getting there.
The Captain knew he was going to have to do something or they would all die right there in the jungle. He discovered from the map that the villages all seem to be about ten miles apart.
So he asked: "How many of you think you can walk ten miles?"
They all agreed they might be able to walk ten miles.
And, they did.
The next day he asked: "How many think they can walk ten miles today?" Again, they all agreed they’d give it a try.
So day, by day, they kept walking until they were finally made it back to safety.
The Captain was later interviewed by a reporter who asked: "Under those hopeless circumstances, with that terrible terrain, and with all those wounded, dispirited men, how were you able to walk 300 miles out of the jungle?"
The Captain replied: "Oh, we never walked 300 miles. We could never have done that. We just walked ten miles, thirty times."
Reaching our goal is seldom accomplished with a giant leap. It's more of a series of little steps moving in the right direction that finally get us where we want to be. The ladder serves to remind us of that.
It is especially important for you, the future leaders in our communities, government, and work places, that you know where you’re going, because chances are you're going to be out front with others looking to you for direction.
So that’s it, my words of wisdom and advice on this occasion.