Editor’s note: This is an edited commencement address by Duke Energy Indiana President Melody Birmingham-Byrd on May 7 at St. Mary of the Woods College, northwest of Terre Haute, Ind.
I want to first of all congratulate the class of 2016 for your unbelievable achievement!
We owe thanks to the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and everybody who was involved in helping these extraordinary young people arrive at this moment.
After many long hours, months and years of attending classes, completing homework, reading more than you ever thought possible, and taking exams, most of you here today are probably thinking, “Whew! I’m so glad my time here is finished! NO more classes, NO more tests, NO more homework, Now I can graduate with my degree and get on with my life – I am finally finished!”
We are gathered here today to celebrate your graduation from a rigorous course of academic study. Make no mistake – it is a huge accomplishment that I hope helped you learn, not only about your chosen field of study, but also something about yourself – how to persevere, and how to demonstrate courage and tenacity in the face of challenging circumstances.
So, let me be among the first to say, “Congratulations!”
As I congratulate you, and you congratulate one another, I have a question for you:
Have you now finished your education? I want you to think long and hard about how you answer that question. Because how and what you do after today may direct you down one of two paths: One path being a path is that you’ve declared that your education IS NOT done, finished and completed. This path often results in personal, professional, emotional and spiritual growth – all of which may lead you toward becoming a greater you and supporting causes much bigger than yourselves.
The second path may be that if you’ve declared that your education IS now done, finished and completed, then I fear you face a future of frustration, disappointment and not maximizing all the potential that lies within you.
I want to direct my remarks to those of you who have a keen awareness that, while you have already learned much, you still have so much more to learn.
“Learning how to learn” really is the primary, fundamental goal of a college education. Learning to apply critical thinking skills as you choose your approach to people and groups who think differently than you, who have a different view of the world, and different ideas about what is right, and what is wrong.
Learning how to devise creative solutions to complex problems. Learning how, over time, the many ways to make a positive impact in your respective families, workplaces, and communities.
Lynn Good is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility. She is someone I admire and am proud to work with.
In a recent commencement speech to college graduates, Lynn pointed out that when we hear the word “hero” we normally think of an individual who demonstrates epic courage in the face of adversity, or during some sort of emergency. And when we think of that person, we are in awe.
But to quote Lynn from her speech to those graduates, “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 to school. By investing in your future. And you will need this ‘everyday courage’ as you move forward.”
She continues, “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.
“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.”
Those are inspiring words from a woman whose career at Arthur Anderson, a nationally known accounting firm, prior to her coming to Duke Energy, suddenly and unexpectedly came off the rails. She learned hard lessons about courage, especially in the face of surprising and unwelcome adversity.
In short, Lynn Good was forced out of her comfort zone. She wasn’t just pushed out; she was catapulted out!
Another example I will share is more personal. I am the youngest of seven children, growing up in a very urban part of a large city. Although, I was very content with the safety of my family, friends and community, I chose to leave all that was familiar to me, and all the comforts that I had become accustomed to in my 17 years of life, and decided that I would pursue my academic studies in a different state, a very rural environment, at a university of 36,000 where only 3 percent of the student population were of the same ethnic background and 30 percent were women. I started my journey with no friends, no family, no comfort zone in sight.
What no one told me, however, was that I had to demonstrate courage to step out and away from everything I knew and was familiar with, which led me to overcoming, and learning from major obstacles at a young age; being nominated during my freshman year in college by strangers and voted as their Freshman Board President for the largest female dormitory on campus; being recruited during my senior year of college to begin working for General Motors as a front-line supervisor (the first in my family), being able to meet amazing, incredible and talented people, and currently serving in the role of president of the largest, and premier electric utility in the state of Indiana!
Each and every one of us here today is a leader.
If I had been afraid to step out, or had not had a God-fearing prayer-warrior as a mother … I don’t know if I could have, or would have demonstrated “everyday courage” or if I would have chosen a different path. From everyday courage is born leadership.
The word “leadership” often causes us to think of someone in a position of responsibility, someone in command of a place or situation, or someone who can exert power and authority.
However, there’s a different definition of leadership that I like and apply to my life, that being: “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”
In truth, leadership has nothing to do with positional power or authority. Leadership is not defined by how many people report to you, how much money you make, how large your office is, how much control you have (or think you have) or anything else we normally think of as the definition of leadership.
Let me say it again: “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”
You see, in reality, each and every one of us here today is a leader. Each of us has the ability to influence another person, group of people, or situation, to achieve an acceptable and positive result.
Notice I did not say that each of us has the ability to “control.” There is so little we actually control; more often than not, control is simply an illusion. For example:
- Did you control the circumstances of your birth – the date, the place?
- Did you control which family you were born into?
- Did you control who your siblings would be? (Although some of us which we could have!)
We really do like to think we’re in control. But the bare truth is, we cannot control other people, or other situations.
Control is an illusion. In fact, the only thing we can really control is ourselves: how we act, how we react, how we think.
But, the far more effective alternative is to have influence. If you have a voice, you can exert influence. If you can write, you can exert influence. You even influence others by the way you act, by your attitudes, by your behaviors.
If you have influence, you are a leader.
Many of you will soon enter the workforce. If you project an image of wanting to be in control, in charge of something or someone, you will likely have a hard time landing that first job … or keeping it!
There’s a difference between wanting to influence an outcome, or desiring to be in control.
Here’s some additional advice. Don’t be afraid of your strengths. However, don’t overuse them! Don’t be afraid of your weaknesses. However, don’t overexpose them!
Be not afraid of change. Few leaders stay in their comfort zone. Success is a result of learning from your failures – and you will fail, sometimes in spectacular fashion. But you will survive your failure if you use it as an opportunity to take the time to learn from it.
Michael Jordan, who many of you may know was an all-star champion in sports and business, said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twentysix times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
Another piece of advice, never be afraid to admit what you don’t know, and never pretend you are anything more than who your genuine and authentic self really is.
Don’t be afraid to give, without expectation of getting back. You’ll plant seeds that will yield surprising and prosperous rewards for you in your future.
Learn to adapt, to be a team player, so that your success comes as a result, not just of your own efforts, but of working together to achieve something bigger than yourself.
So as I close, I would like to reiterate to you before you venture out into new careers, continued education or other worthwhile endeavors:
First, don’t let the completion of the key milestone be the end of your journey.
The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
“If you can’t fly, then run.
If you can’t run, then walk.
If you can’t walk, then crawl.
But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward”
Secondly, you don’t have to be the proverbial “hero” to demonstrate everyday courage.
Thirdly, courage inspires leadership ... and leadership is influence. Kenneth Blanchard says that “The key to leadership today is influence, not authority”.
Finally, don’t be afraid to change, or step outside of your comfort zone.
When you step out of your comfort zone, you are stepping into what could very well become greatness. You can’t become a better version of yourself unless you are willing to stretch beyond what you already know.
Congratulations Class of 2016 on your graduation. I wish you great success as you continue your journey.