It’s mid-May, and that means the weekends are filled with graduation ceremonies. The Dalai Lama grooved to the music on stage at Tulane University. The actress Kerry Washington spoke at commencement exercises for George Washington University. (“I know what some of you are thinking,” Washington said. “You’re thinking, ‘We’re celebrating our academic and intellectual achievement with that lady who’s having an affair with the president on that TV show?’”) And comedian Stephen Colbert spoke at the University of Virginia. (“Thank you very much, President Sullivan,” Colbert said. “You are way better than that last president, Teresa Sullivan. She was terrible. I am so glad that they cut her loose.”)
In a speech that touched on race, fatherhood, manhood and leadership in far more personal terms than is typical for the president, Obama spoke about the obligations of the graduates before him—the responsibility of being a father and husband, the responsibility he and other successful black men have to other young African American men behind them, and the responsibility of making a greater contribution to society.
Some of his most widely quoted remarks include his thoughts on choosing careers (“it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do”) and on manhood (“I want to break that cycle—where a father’s not at home, where a father’s not helping to raise that son and daughter. I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.”)
But the most memorable passage had to do with leadership, and the empathy and drive every leader needs. “Whatever success I have achieved, whatever positions of leadership I have held have depended less on Ivy League degrees or SAT scores or GPAs, and have instead been due to that sense of connection and empathy—the special obligation I felt, as a black man like you, to help those who need it most, people who didn’t have the opportunities that I had—because there but for the grace of God, go I—I might have been in their shoes. I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family. And that motivates me.”
The speech was seen by some as a chance for Obama, in the words of one Georgetown law professor, “to rectify his strategic neglect of African-Americans”—a chance the same author reportedly later said he missed. The theme of his speech focused on “no excuses.” He quoted a Morehouse fraternity creed that calls excuses “tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” How well he did that will be debated in the black community, with some likely to call it “good medicine,” in the words of one African-American editor, while others will see “racial contempt.” But it has a message in it for all leaders, including the president himself, of the importance of empathy and the need to move past shifting the blame.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.