A Thoughtful Commencement Message from Stephen Colbert

I’m a proud graduate of Northwestern University, industrial engineering class of 1995. Our ’95 commencement speaker was the newly installed president of the university… he delivered a pretty dry address and the students were pretty disappointed. That 1995 address was everything that the 2011 commencement address was not – this time delivered by TV’s Stephen Colbert, who studied at Northwestern (and left with an “incomplete”).

In the commencement speech (which you can view on YouTube here, well if your organization doesn’t block YouTube), Colbert tells a lot of jokes, including some inside-Northwestern jokes… but he has an important message in the last 4 minutes or so of the address – about service to others and life.

I’ve transcribed the “important message” part of the address who can’t view the video….

After finishing school, Colbert moved to Chicago to learn and perform improv comedy. He said:

“Now there are very few rules to improv, but one of things I was taught early was that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if everybody else is more important than you are, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is, you’re in the scene too. So, hopefully to them, you’re the most important person and they will serve you.

No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv. And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next. And you are mostly just yanking ideas out of your a** as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. Even when it might look like you are winning…. A sure sign that things are going well is that nobody can remember whose idea was whose, or who should get credit for what…. so no winning.

In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve your money. If you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself and you will have only yourself… Try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who will love and serve you in return…”

It’s often said that Lean leadership is really servant leadership. Effective high-quality healthcare is about teams working together, in service to each other and in service to the patient. Organizations fall down when we have “a most important person in the room,” whether that’s the person with the most education or the right education or the right title or the right letters after their name.

While Stephen Colbert’s TV character is all about others serving him, I’m glad the real Stephen Colbert is far more thoughtful and oriented around service toward others.

Here is the full commencement address, 20 minutes of comedy and the important thoughts at the end.


Yesterday’s Key Tweets:

  • Berwick (1989) “Practically no system of measurement is robust enough to survive the fear or those who are measured.”  #Deming
  • Dr. Don Berwick (1989): “the people involved [in healthcare] cannot be frightened into doing better.”  #Deming #Lean #Quality
  • Have questions for Mark Graban? Call the  #Lean Line and leave a voice mail  http://t.co/Nc8MIng
  • WSJ: “engineers join GM unaware of the lumbering and are sapped of enthusiasm after five years.”  http://lnbg.us/1yv
  • GM: “very bureaucratic thinking and still a bunch of people pursuing little sub-objectives & not seeing the big picture”  http://lnbg.us/1ys

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Andrew Grapsas says

    Wow, awesome words. Stephen, as always, has an amazing ability to merge comedy and truth.

    To some degree, he’s talking about compassion and empathy–two key elements to successful relationships. This definitely feeds into the respect aspect of Lean and the “trust your developers” philosophy of Agile.

    1. Liz Guthridge

      Mark, great summary of an amazing speech! As a Northwestern alum myself (Medill School of Journalism), I’ve always enjoyed improv. However, I hadn’t considered it a form of servant leadership. I appreciated Stephen Colbert’s thoughts about improv and your commentary, which punctuated his points quite nicely. I also give kudos to the individual(s) at Northwestern who realized what a wonderful commencement speaker Stephen Colbert would be! As one of my other Northwestern friends–a theatre grad–would say, NU “can dine on this experience for a long time.”

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