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Commencement 2016: Leading with Integrity

Thank you, Walt, for that most generous introduction. Also, thank you to Lucille Nickerson, the chair of the Board of Regents. It is a distinct pleasure and honor to be a member of the Class of 2016. It’s great to be back in the state of Connecticut. I’ve enjoyed seeing so many friends and former colleagues.  In California, we’ve heard about your last three winters. Here’s my first piece of graduation advice: Move!

Commencement is a fun and joyous ceremony, not only for you, but for your families, friends and professors. Each one has played an important part in your professional journey. But, give yourself credit. You’ve worked hard to earn this degree and made sacrifices to be here today. Congratulations!

I’ve listened to quite a few Commencement speeches. Frankly, I don’t remember much of any speaker’s remarks…except, of course, those of President Harrison…but what I do remember is that the best addresses were inspirational…and brief.

Well, I can’t promise to inspire you, but I can be brief.

Many of you already know the challenges of being a leader, whether in your profession, community, or organizations you’ve joined. Given your newly conferred degree, you will most likely be called upon to assume even more challenging leadership roles.

What makes a good leader? John Naisbitt, author of Megatrends, said leadership involves finding a parade then getting in front of it. But, I think it’s more than that. Management scholars have identified ten important traits associated with great leadership.

But, relax, I will only talk about one…the one that I think is the most important: integrity. Unfortunately, today’s society provides us with numerous examples of leaders whose conduct is, how to put it, “questionable.” Those leaders can be found in all walks of life…business, media, sports, government, religion, politics and even the nonprofit sector. Hmmm…perhaps politics should be on the top of the list.

It is a challenge to lead with integrity in a world where it sometimes seems those who lack it get ahead. You will be asked to make many difficult decisions in your life, you will face uncertainty about which path to take, and you will need to choose your path carefully. Which path should you take? Ellen DeGeneres advises never to follow anyone else's path, unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that. But she also counseled that the most important path is a life with integrity.

So what is integrity? C.S. Lewis said that: “Integrity is doing the right thing…even when no one is watching.” It is said that when Michelangelo painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – lying on his back for endless hours to finish every detail with great care – a friend asked him why he took such pains with figures that would be viewed from a considerable distance. “After all, “the friend said, “Who will notice whether it is perfect or not?” “I will,” was the response.”

Why should a leader care about integrity? Here’s why. To be an effective leader, one needs to gain the trust of others. People do not follow someone unless they have established trust with them. Eleanor Roosevelt observed that when you adopt the standards and values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to extent of your surrender, less of a human being. If you are a person of integrity, people will know that your words and actions are aligned. They will be loyal to you, they will willingly follow you and they’ll work hard for you. Your character will help shape the ethical climate of your organization and the actions of those around you.

How can you lead with integrity? Become even more self-aware. What do you value? Who are you as a person? And, behave consistently with your values. In making decisions, listen to your inner voice. Thomas Jefferson advised, “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”

Your integrity will define your reputation and your reputation is the most important asset you bring to both your professional and personal lives.

Earlier I talked about leading a parade. Lead your parade with integrity and I’m certain others will follow.

I wish you the best that life has to offer...may your personal and professional journeys be exciting and fulfilling, and overflowing with good health, great friendships and the love and support of family.

Thank you very much.