I have spent the last couple of days reading commencement speeches, and I’ve come away inspired, laughing and, most of all, a little bored. Yes, there was the remarkable story Sanjay Gupta told at the University of Michigan’s commencement about how his mother met his father when, after having car trouble, she called one of the first Indian names in the phone book. And I listened to Ira Glass, host of the National Public Radio show “This American Life,” telling stories about losing his virginity at one of Goucher College’s dorms and his grandmother meeting Adolph Hitler.
More often than not, however, I heard commencement address stock and trade: Exhortations for graduates to savor the moment. Reminders to thank their parents and professors. Plenty of long-winded calls to change the world and grab a seat at the table. And more than a few pleas to put down the social networks and laptops and iPhones and remember the importance of real-life relationships before it’s too late.
But as much as people like to complain about tiresome graduation speeches, what’s said probably doesn’t matter very much in the end. That’s because, unless a commencement speaker says something truly inappropriate (as Ted Turner did at my graduation from the University of Georgia in 1999, when he speculated about the chances nuclear war would erupt within days because of the bombing in Yugoslavia — way to inspire newly minted grads!), very few will ever remember what the speaker said.
The one thing they will remember is who said it. This surely has plenty to do with the fact that most graduation speakers are celebrities, well-known CEOs or political leaders. For many students, this may be their first brush with such star wattage, and the experience sticks with them.
Or, it could be that the careers, personal lives or political positions of famous people invite the type of controversy that makes their appearances more memorable. Syracuse University students protested JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon being their commencement speaker in 2010. Students at the Christian school Liberty University spoke out against the commencement appearance by Mitt Romney, a Mormon, this year. And while Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’s speech at Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute was pretty unmemorable, her appearance certainly left an impression. Catholic leaders criticized Georgetown’s decision to have someone who supports the White House’s contraception insurance mandate speak at the Jesuit university’s graduation; a protester reportedly shouted “murderer” during the speech before being escorted out of the room.
Still, I think the focus on commencement speakers says something about leadership that’s worth remembering. Leaders may look for the most inspiring words to say at a critical moment, or the right anecdotes to tell to make something memorable. And it’s certainly worth trying. But most of the time, what people remember isn’t what a leader says, but what their actions, lifestyle and career choices say about them.
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