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Servant Leadership - Graduation Speech

On a recent stroll down memory lane, I came across the following speech I gave at the graduation ceremony for my MBA class from the University of Georgia.  The speech was delivered on May 9th, 2003, and here is it for your enjoyment, just as I gave it 7 years ago:

Believe it or not, getting an MBA degree is a lot like building a tree house.  Let me explain.  Two brothers, while in their childhood, spent an entire summer building a tree house in their backyard.  They experienced unforgettable feelings of joy and satisfaction when they finally were able to enjoy the fruit of their work.  The two brothers climbed into their finished masterpiece, and, after a few minutes, climbed down from the tree – and never returned.  The completed project, as wonderful as it was, could not hold their interest for even one day.  In other words, the process of planning, gathering, building, and working – not the completed project – provided the enduring satisfaction and pleasure they had experienced (Thomas S. Monson, “In Search of Treasure”, Ensign, May, 2003).

Tonight, at the conclusion of the MBA summer of our lives, we have completed what we set out to accomplish – graduation.  Interestingly, we will all climb onto this stage for a few minutes and then leave – and most of us will never return to this scene again.  Our graduation will not hold our attention for much more than the duration of this ceremony.  It is not the piece of paper that brings our feelings of joy and satisfaction – it is the very process we endured to get here and the relationships we formed along the way.  The process, not the product, has helped us grow and develop.  Moreover, our growth and development have been directly correlated to what we have put into, or given, to the program.

For example, everyone who worked with Dr. Hofer on national business plan competitions would agree that we worked harder and put more into that class than any other MBA class or project.  And each of us agrees that we learned more and got more from that experience than any other in the program.  As a bonus, all four teams enjoyed recognition and success on a national level, a tribute to Dr. Hofer’s commitment.

And herein lies a true yet often overlooked principle – when we focus on giving, not only is our experience more meaningful, but also the getting will take care of itself!  If we give of ourselves to our respective organizations, the “getting” will come.  If we look for ways to serve and give to those we lead, we will be successful leaders.  This principle applies to our personal lives as well.  By striving to give to, not get from, our personal relationships, those relationships will be more fulfilling.

My father understood this concept while I was in my youth.  When our garage door needed replacement, my father saw an opportunity to spend quality time with his boys.  I called it free labor.  Even though our newly re-built garage door fell apart within days, my dad held firm to his decision: “I’m not building a garage door, I’m building men.”  Hopefully his “men” will last a little longer than his garage door!

The northwest entrance marquee of my undergraduate university reads: “Enter to learn, go forth to serve.”  That marquee stands as a poignant reminder that we should use our education to focus on giving, on serving.  Max De Pree, in his writings on servant leadership, made the same point when he wrote: “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  The last is to say thank you.  In between, the leader is a servant.”  Whether in professional or personal environments, the person who focuses on giving, on serving first, will succeed in the long term.  President John F. Kennedy was really inviting the American people to focus on giving when he implored: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson understood the need to give.  He penned: “What wouldst thou have from life?  Then pay the price, and take it.”  Whatever price you had to pay to be here tonight, you now take your degree, your education, your relationships, and your experiences with you.  While we each have our own unique ambitions for our lives, the formula to achieve those ambitions is the same - we need to pay the price of giving of ourselves to our organizations and our relationships in order to obtain our ambitions.  So I ask, What wouldst thou have from life?  Then pay the price of giving of yourself, and the getting will almost always come in greater portion than you hoped.  May God bless us to be successful in our various endeavors, and may those endeavors improve the world in which we live.  Thank you.

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