Editor’s Note: On May 13, 2017, Dr. Lee DeRemer (a retired Air Force colonel, founder of Lifecycles, and graduate of the Ph.D. program in values-driven leadership) gave the commencement address at Benedictine University’s undergraduate ceremony. What follows is the text of his speech, which focused on three commitments graduates should make for the coming years.
Good morning. I am honored to join you here on the beautiful Benedictine University campus on this gorgeous spring day. Thank you Dr. Brophy, Abbot Murphy, and Chairman of the Board Dr. Mesla for the privilege of sharing this day with graduates, families, staff, and faculty who are here to celebrate years of hard work, study, and achievement … and the opportunities ahead.
Let me offer a special thank you to Dr. de la Camara for your service as provost, and welcome Dr. Payne as our new provost. I would also like to acknowledge Dr. Ludema, the staff, and the faculty of BU’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership, the only place on the planet where you can earn a Ph.D. and a Master’s degree in values-driven leadership.
“This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Yes, this is a day to celebrate. This exhortation, from the 118th Psalm, is just one of many calls from our different faith walks to be thankful for each day and to face it with optimism.
It is right that we should celebrate. You’ve earned this day. Enjoy it. Be sure to thank someone who helped make your Benedictine University education possible, and who made your study rewarding. Thank your parents, or a special faculty member, or that organization who granted you a scholarship. Do it with a handwritten note. A hand-written note means you had to write it slowly and thoughtfully. A hand-written note tells someone that you cared enough to use your most important resource, time, to make this statement of genuine gratitude stand out. It gets read, and it gets remembered. You were worth this person’s care and their trust. Give them your time. Write the note.
This is also a day to commit. Today, after you finish celebrating, is the day to commit to your future – to building on the successes of your education, so far. This is not the end of something; instead, it’s the beginning … of your charge to make a positive difference. This charge is consistent with Benedictine University’s mission to prepare students for active, informed, responsible citizenship and leadership in the world community.
As you follow that mission, I’d like to ask two questions and then propose that you make three commitments.
- What will you do with the years given you?
- Who will you become?
I propose that you inform your answers to these questions by committing yourself to developing three things in the coming years: your competence, your contribution, and your dreams. Let’s consider each one for a moment.
Competence: Commit to grow in your chosen field. People don’t get hired because of what they know. People get hired because of their promise, and because of their employer’s expectations. So, today’s competence is just your starting point.
There’s no reason to fear this. Now that you know the expectations, you can capitalize on your best asset: you. Here’s the neat thing: God has gifted each of us uniquely. You have a combination of skills and strengths that no one else has. Your “A-game” is based on those strengths. Lean into your strengths and build on them to flourish as the person you were created to be.
And along the way, I propose a few tips:
- Study your profession and your industry. If you discover that you enjoy what you’re doing a year from now, it’s only natural that you would want to learn all you can, so you can grow and contribute even more.
- Find a mentor within three months of starting any job. Someone who knows what “right looks like” and who can teach you the tacit knowledge, the stuff that isn’t written down anywhere but is still very real. Why not learn from someone who believes in you and wants you to succeed?
- Do hard things. Stretch yourself beyond your current limits – intellectually and physically – and you’ll find that your world is bigger and more fulfilling. If you haven’t been confronted by the things you cannot yet do, how do you know what you really can do?
Let’s talk about contribution. It’s healthy to remember that it’s not about you. Today is about you and your family. After this weekend, though, I suggest looking not only forward, but also outward. The best of your life ought to be focused on others. These ideals are part of living in community, which once again, is embedded in Benedictine’s mission statement.
In your family, your place of worship, your workplace, your town … what happens if you actually put others’ interests before your own? As you gain responsibility, they call this type of behavior, “servant leadership.” Isn’t it a wonderful paradox that we can actually provide the most effective leaders in in many cases by serving others first?
Here’s what it looks like: in any organization – a company, a manufacturing plant, a government office, the Air Force I grew up in, or right here at Benedictine, you’ll be in an organizational pyramid. You’ll rise in that pyramid, and as you do, you’ll enjoy greater pay, perks, privileges, and span of control. Most who experience this rise have more and more people working for them.
But what if you get out of bed every day seeing the pyramid differently? What if you felt in your heart – really believed – that the pyramid was upside down? What if, instead of those folks working for you, you approached your day with the attitude that in reality, you worked for them? That the people in your organization have families, dreams and goals of their own, and that you can help them by focusing on their futures more than your own? The first view of your pyramid is about power. The second one is counter-cultural. It’s about responsibility.
There’s more good news: I believe that as we serve others, we don’t have to choose between these two pyramids, between power and responsibility. That’s a false dichotomy. We can – you can – lead with both power and responsibility as you grow. And that’s a great, optimistic mindset. It’s contagious, people gravitate to it. Why? Because these leaders respect a person’s God-ordained dignity. What could this look like in your place of work? In your community? In your family? As you go forward, I encourage you to try it and find out.
The founder of my own state, William Penn, spoke of contribution with this prayer. He wrote, “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me knot defer or neglect it. For I shall not pass this way again.” Sometimes life will require us to be tough. Being tough isn’t really that difficult. Can you be kind, too?
Build your competence. Contribute by serving others.
Finally, dare to dream. I want to close by challenging you to dream. We live once. Why not live the life that makes a difference? The life you feel called to. The life the ancients understood to be a “life worth living.”
Do you want to earn a pay check or do you want to build a life, too? You can do both but it requires the ability to dream, and the will to pursue your dreams. Dreams feed our imagination. Dreams keep us asking, “What if …?” Dreams lead to innovation, starting, building. Dreams help us solve the toughest problems and open new worlds. Let me ask you this: how could Benedictine University or the Center for Values-Driven Leadership be where they are today, were it not for people who would dare to dream?
Try these recommendations:
- Dream often, and dream big. In fact, I believe that if your dreams don’t frighten you just a little, they’re probably not big enough.
- Be unreasonable. We’re often advised to “be reasonable.” And, that’s good advice. We want to avoid being too demanding. But reasonable people don’t change the world; they conform to a world that needs to change. Unreasonable people change the world, because they dare to dream big, to challenge the status quo, and to ask themselves, “If not me, then who?” And, “If not now, then when?”
- Anticipate that following your dreams will take hard work. Permit me a short story. I served for 26 years in the Air Force as a pilot, commander, and Pentagon strategic planner. In mid-life, I came here to Benedictine and the Center for Values-Driven Leadership to earn a Ph.D. in values-driven leadership. It was this doctoral education experience that prompted me to follow a calling to start a non-profit named Lifecycles. I hope you’ll be able to see the continuum of competence, contribution, and dreaming as I describe it.
Lifecycles builds young men of character in a faith-based bicycle touring adventure experience. It’s a mentoring program for urban teens, with bicycles. Many of our boys are in a situation they didn’t ask for and don’t deserve. We stand in the gap with them and dare to dream, so they can become the men they were created to be. The men our communities need them to be. Our dream requires a total commitment and lots of faith. Our teens’ dreams will require the same of them. We trust in the ancient Hebrew scripture, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Our leaders meet boys where they are, find out what they’re doing right, and build on that. They encourage the boys with words they don’t hear often enough. You know, once a teen takes ownership, it’s amazing how hard they’ll push themselves to reach their own goals. It’s gratifying to see the hope in their eyes as they stretch their abilities, see new places, and practice teamwork, trust, and leadership. Our leaders contribute by investing in the future, knowing that they return on their investment is years away, and that it’s not measured in dollars. Anyway, that’s daring to dream, the Lifecycles way.
My dream? It’s to change lives, one ride at a time. What’s your dream? And what will you do with it? In the end, it’s about what kind of world you want to live in, and how hard you’re willing to work to build it.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, written decades ago, advises us, “All that remains is to decide what to do with the time given us.”
So, as I join you in celebrating today’s important milestone, I leave you with two questions:
- What will you do with the time given you?
- Who will you become?
These are exciting questions, and they will take a lifetime to answer.
That final exam starts Monday