O’Brien’s speech focused on the importance of leadership, particularly in the face of adversity. It’s something he knows a little about as O’Brien replaced late Penn State coach Joe Paterno, in the aftermath of a child abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
The six qualities of great leadership, according to O’Brien: communication, people skills, character, competence, a good heart and courage.
Below is is an edited version of his remarks.
I’d like to talk to you about leadership. People over the last year have asked me a number of questions about leadership and adversity and what it means to be a leader and what qualities does someone have to have to be a leader.
I’m just a football coach, but I believe that we need more leaders in this world. We need more people who think about what is right and stand up for what they believe in. This is a hall full of future leaders. You’ve been the leaders at Whitman in all different areas. You’ve been leaders of teams, leaders of clubs, student body leaders and on and on. You will not walk into your respective colleges and be instant leaders. That’s not how it works. What you need to do when you walk into your colleges is figure out what you want to be involved with first.
Have a passion for something, whether it is sports, whether it’s clubs, debate club, chess club, whatever it may be, the band. Find out what you have a passion for. Join that organization, join that club, join that team and initially observe the leaders.
Personally, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve worked for and been around some of the best leaders in football. I’ve been around Coach [Bill] Belichick, I’ve been around Tom Brady, and I’ve learned a lot from those type of people. But what follows to me are some guiding principles in my mind when it comes to being a good leader and what good leadership means.
I think there are six qualities of a great leader.
1) Communication: In this day and age of Facebook and Twitter... people don’t have face-to-face communication anymore. This is the antitheses of what football is all about. So when we came to Penn State, one of the things we wanted to do was make sure we have a lot of face-to-face communication with our players, with the people in the athletic department, with our coaching staff...As you head out into the world, in order to be a good leader, you have to be a good communicator. But before you can be a good communicator you have to be an excellent listener. Listen to what the other person is saying to you. I think that is part of communication.
2) People skills: To be a great leader, you have to love being around people and learning about each individual — who you’re on the same team with, who you’re on the same club with and the same organization. Learn about these people. One of the things we do at Penn State is when we go into pre-season training camp, we have a few of our guys each night stand up and talk about things for five minutes that are important to them. It’s our way of learning about each other, whether it is a coach or a player. But I think that is really important to have the people skills to learn about all the people that you’ll become involved with and have interaction with in the different endeavors that you move forward with.
: This is a roomful of character. I use the word honesty all of the time. One of the things that I believe is so important in our program is to be honest and truthful with each other. If you’re honest, you never have to remember what you said. Integrity. Do you walk the walk? We talk to our players about this all the time. How do you carry yourself in the classroom? Who do you hang around with? Who are your friends?
: If you’re going to be the leader of an organization, a team a group of people then you have to be competent. You have to know what you’re doing. Whitman has laid the foundation for you. They’ve given you a fantastic education and now you’re going to carry that into college. And now you’re going to figure out what else you want to really know about. Maybe you already have. Maybe you know what you want to do when you graduate college, but most of you haven’t. And so it is important for you to go into college now and become very competent in what it is you have a passion for. Because when you get out into the workforce, when you get out into whatever profession you choose, it’s very important that if you’re going to be a leader that you know what you’re teaching, what your business is about, whatever it may be that you head into.
A good heart: To me, this one is really important. Continue to give back to your community. Pick a charity or an organization that is near and dear to your heart. Whether it is a church, an elementary school near where you go to college, special needs children — reach out to these people and give back. A lot of people out there are obviously less fortunate than us. It’s important for you to give back.
: Courage is a big word. Know the difference between right and wrong. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you think something is wrong. Have the courage to tell people what you believe in. Find out what you believe in earlier. Don’t wait until it is too late in life to find out what you believe in and have the courage to tell people what that is. Be mentally tough. Be an educated risk taker. If you think about it, if you think it’s worth doing, then take that risk. But be mentally tough to bounce back if it doesn’t work out.
People ask us all the time at Penn State about the adversity that we shared this year as a team. But what happened at Penn State was unique. Something horrible had happened at Penn State and when we came there, we had other struggles, the NCAA sanctions and things like that. But the group of people that we were left with were just a fantastic group of people that were mentally tough, who took a risk of being at Penn State. And then were able to bounce back when things didn’t go their way early on in the season, in their practice, in the classroom, whatever it was. It’s important to be mentally tough to be able to overcome adversity.
Before I conclude I want to share with you something that I think is really important. Make sure that today, graduates, that you thank the people who have helped you along the way. Your parents, your grandparents, your siblings, your teachers, your guidance councilors, your coaches and anyone else you can think of who has helped you get to this stage in life. Because as you go through life, you’re not doing it on your own. You’re doing it with the guidance and the help of people who are a little bit older than you who have been through these experiences already. So it’s really, really important to make sure that you thank them.
Good luck to everybody out there. Congratulations class of 2013.