John C. Whitehead

Commencement address: John C. Whitehead
unedited transcript

Thank you, President Hansen. Thank you, Tom [Renyi, presenter of the citation]. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and especially good morning to the graduating class of seniors. About two weeks ago, I received a call from a young lady at Bates reminding me of the details of today’s events and reminding me that I would be asked to make a speech. I asked her what she wanted me to speak about, and she said, “About three minutes” [laughter].

I will be conscious of that, knowing that I am the only thing that stands between you and the receiving of your degree. I thought about what things I remembered from speaking at other graduations and listening to an endless number of graduations of children, grandchildren and friends. The cupboard was bare; I couldn’t remember a single thing that I had heard at anyone’s graduation — including my own!

So, my three minutes is now down to two minutes, and let me launch into my brief exhortation to all of you.

I’m going to say something about leadership: I’m going to charge you to think of yourselves as leaders. The world today cries out for leadership. Where are the great leaders of 50 years ago? Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Mahatma Gandhi. No one has emerged to replace them. It is true in the political world where we are often left with such sad choices, but it is also true in the business world, in the world of science, in the world of education, and in the world of religion, in the world of art and culture. There simply are no present important leaders.

And so I say to you, to set your goal to be a leader in whatever walk of life you choose. Not just a good doctor or a good lawyer or a good businessperson or a good teacher. But a leader. Leaders are the ones who make a difference. Followers don’t ever make much of a difference. You don’t have to be a pushy, egotistical person, characteristics sometimes thought of as required of leaders — people like Gen. Douglas MacArthur of World War II, or, today in the business world, Donald Trump. Just look at other kinds of leaders: look at Gen. George Marshall, or Mother Theresa, or more close at hand, former Sens. George Mitchell or Bill Cohen of Maine. They accomplished a lot more than the loud-mouthed leaders ever did.

And so I say to you, whatever your personality, whatever your style, think of yourself as a leader. Set your goal to be a leader. Set your goal to make a difference in our world. Good luck to all of you, and thank you very much.

Keep Reading