Myths About Leadership And Truth About Service

The graduating class of Polytechnic School invited Mayor Bogaard to speak at the commencement ceremony on June 11, 2010.  The Mayor spoke to the 104th graduating class and a large gathering of family, friends, faculty, and former students, offering the following remarks.

Mayor Bill Bogaard
Polytechnic School
June 11, 2010


To Debbie Reed, Chris Poole and the Board of Trustees, all of the teachers and staff, and parents, family and friends of the Class of 2010:  Greetings.  It is an honor to join this celebration and to speak at this podium. 

To Molly Thornton and all of the graduates:  Greetings and congratulations to you and best wishes for all the future holds.  Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight as you cross an important milestone and consider the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.  

Every one of you should be proud of what you have achieved at this great school.  Over 100 classes of Poly graduates have sat where you sit today.  On some occasions, perhaps many, the world into which a class was graduating was relatively straightforward.  But on other occasions, the times were complicated, and I would suggest 2010 is one of those years. 

The world has many unresolved issues, including environmental degradation and global warming, immigration policy, the needs of public education, and poverty in the world, in our country, and in this great community.  The ability of government to do what it is supposed to do is in question today, and the resources needed to meet the needs of society are in doubt.  

So this is an auspicious moment in your lives, a turning point, and I hope that my remarks are a helpful complement to all that you have learned in your time at Poly.  

It is well known, or at least widely believed, that each graduating class has its own personality.  And that’s why it was important for me to sit down a few weeks ago with senior class president Molly Thornton and other officers of the senior class to hear directly from them about their experiences at Poly, their thoughts on graduation, and what is important to them as they move to the next stage of education and personal growth. 

My conclusion is that the Poly graduates of 2010 represent a class that does almost everything right.  The students are collegial and not competitive, they have high goals and are good listeners, they are willing to assist classmates to help them succeed, they are committed to community service, and they are interested in the opportunity and rewards of public service.  This is what I learned in my meeting with the senior class officers.   

Now, admittedly, this was based on the students’ own statements, but I came away with a confident feeling that my impressions were correct.  I particularly like “Mighty Oaks and the Little Acorns”, a program that started this year in which seniors sit down with Kindergarten pupils to share what Poly is about and to offer guidance, learning, and mentoring; to remind them they are part of a larger institution.  This benefits the youngsters as well as the seniors who are learning ways to be helpful to others.  

Based on my conversation with the students, I decided to offer some remarks about leadership and service.  I have no grand theory or detailed prescription for a successful life, just a few reflections based on my own experience.  

A few years ago, Team of Rivals was published, a book which quickly became a #1 New York Times best seller.   Its author is Doris Kearns Goodwin and its subject is Abraham Lincoln, one of the most significant leaders in American history.  The book prompted a national conversation about leadership at a time when a good understanding of the subject was truly needed. 

The author coupled her account of Lincoln’s success with the stories of three other remarkable men who were Lincoln’s rivals for the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination—New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman, Edward Bates.  All of these persons had studied law, became distinguished orators, served in public office, and opposed the spread of slavery.  By comparison, it was hard to take Abraham Lincoln seriously.  He had an impoverished childhood, limited schooling, a complicated marriage, and he frequently ruminated about death.   

When Lincoln won the nomination that year, each of his celebrated rivals believed the wrong person had been chosen.   

But, as the book’s title—Team of Rivals—indicates, the author focuses on Lincoln’s unusual decision following his election as President to bring these opponents into the new administration.  Seward became Secretary of State, Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates, Attorney General.  Every member of Lincoln’s Administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life. Their presence in the cabinet threatened to eclipse the obscure prairie lawyer from Springfield, Illinois.  

Well, it did not take long for President Lincoln to emerge as the undisputed captain of this unusual cabinet, truly a “team of rivals”.  

His powerful competitors a few years earlier became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days.  Seward was the first to appreciate Lincoln’s remarkable talents, setting aside Seward’s ambition to become the predominant member of the administration, and soon became the President’s closest friend and advisor.  Bates initially viewed Lincoln as well meaning but incompetent, he eventually concluded that the President was an unmatched leader, a “nearly perfect man”.  Edward Stanton, who had treated Lincoln with contempt on their first meeting, developed a great respect for the commander in chief.   

Team of Rivals is a story of Lincoln’s leadership revealed through extraordinary personal qualities that enabled him to form friendships with men who had previously opposed him; to repair injured feelings that, left untended, might have escalated into permanent hostility; to assume responsibility for the failures of subordinates; to learn from mistakes; and to share credit with ease.  The book shows how his success proves that qualities we generally associate with decency and morality—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy—can also be powerful resources for successful leadership.

People are sometimes kind enough to ask me about my experience as Mayor and what has worked for me in my role as Chair of City Council meetings.  My response frequently engenders surprise and consternation. 

For example, I start by saying my first rule is to speak on each issue last among the other Councilmembers, and unless it’s necessary or helpful, not to speak at all. 

In fact, I argue the most important element of leadership on the Council is not the skill of speaking, but the skill of listening, which helps me to understand problems better than I otherwise would and to pick up ideas about the best solutions. 

My third rule is to maintain respect and courtesy for the persons with whom I deal, recognizing that their role in developing policies and making decisions is equal to mine.  One aspect of respect for others involves the sharing of information, so they are not surprised and have an equal opportunity to understand the circumstances and the implications of decisions.  

There is a theory that leaders are not required to do the hard work, and can look to others for help.  My experience is that success in a leadership role requires one to work harder, to understand the issues, to evaluate alternatives, to see interrelationships between what is currently known or done and what needs to be discovered or changed.   

And then there’s the issue of who gets credit for success.  My rule is that getting credit is a bad thing and that diverting credit to others, or at least sharing it, is the better way to go.  There is simply no way to be recognized for any accomplishment without having others involved in the effort feel left out.  So my approach is to assure that others get recognized, certainly those who have significantly contributed, and often even those whose contribution has been modest.  

Before closing, I want to offer a comment about your role going forward.  As I indicated, the world today is complicated and there is lots to be done.  We’ve got an economy to rebuild, diseases to cure, children to educate, threats to overcome.  We’ve got clean energy to discover.  And it’s up to you to meet all those challenges—to build industries and make discoveries and inspire the next generation.  

I’m not saying that you’ve got to do it all at once.  But as Theodore Roosevelt once put it, “I’m asking you to do what you can, with what you got, where you are.”  And I can guarantee that wherever your future takes you, there are going to be children who need mentors and senior citizens who need help.  Persons down on their luck who could use a helping hand. In the end, service binds us together, in our communities and in our country, in a way that nothing else can.  It’s how we participate fully as citizens.  

Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech 100 years ago entitled, “Citizenship in a Republic”, in which he reflected on what he believed were the duties associated with living in a democracy.  Here is a short passage from what has come to be known as the “Man in the Arena” speech, so named for a phrase contained in this unforgettable passage: 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that  his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Once again to the graduates, I extend my congratulations and best wishes for all the future holds, and to each and every person here, thank you for this special opportunity to be part of the Polytechnic School Graduation 2010.  May God bless the graduates and all of us!  


Posted: 6/14/2010 02:25:00 PM
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