2006 Commencement Leadership Lessons


Lean is about a journey, and it requires leadership. If you can not teach, you can not lead. On Father's Day I mentioned the spirit of learning from our fathers important lessons on leadership. Although a little late, I thought I would also draw lessons from the many commencement addresses of 2006. This topic occurred to me in part because I was fortunate to deliver the Honors Convocation keynote address this year at my alma mater, Lehigh University. I won't bore you with my speech, but there were many great addresses. I have purposely avoided the many political figures, because they are often sending a message to those other than the students. I'll start with a return to Lehigh for what I considered a great speech by filmmaker Ken Burns.

Ken Burns 2006 Lehigh Commencement address

Burns spoke of many topics, but I think the most compelling call to action was this:

“Do something that will last and be beautiful.”

He draws his inspiration from an interview that he did with Arthur Miller, but nonetheless, it is a wonderful sentiment. To me, what is more lasting and more beautiful than an organization that has energy, focus and spirit to move forward together.

Ken Burns was busy because he also delivered the address for Georgetown University.

Ken Burns 2006 Georgetown University address

One of his early comments was telling for me:

“…your future lies behind you. In your past, personal and collective. In the last thirty years of filmmaking, I have learned many things, but that the past is our greatest teacher is perhaps the most important lesson.”

This is excellent. Everyone talks of vision, forward progress and the future, but we seem to want to ignore that great moments, people and lessons lie in the past, whether yesterday, 10 years ago or 2000 years ago. Learn from the past, but from history and your own actions that you take every day.

More worthwhile commencement speeches:

President Simpson at the University of Buffalo, 2006 Commencement address

He closes his address with three questions, which I believe are an excellent chance for anyone to reflect on their own lives, not just at graduation:

“1. What mark will you leave on this world? 2. What lessons will you seek from it? 3. What contributions will you make to it?”

British Robinson's Fairfield University 2006 Commencement address

My favorite passage from this address is as follows:

“When is the best time to do things? There is never really a best time to do most things; the best time to do things is often when the moment or opportunity presents itself. Sure we must all make judgments, but if we wait too long or think too much, the “best time” will pass us by. As James Baldwin writes, “No one can possible know what is about to happen. It is happening each time, for the first time, for the only time.”

“So, this is your time and your opportunity to make your unique impact on the world. You must seize it. Trust yourself. Your challenge is no different than those confronted by a Churchill or a Martin Luther King. It's unique and decides the fate of YOUR life. You are the best person to make those decisions. As Goethe said, “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.””

Michael Uslan's Indiana University 2006 Commencement address

OK, so he produced Batman movies. But his journey is an incredible tale of chasing a dream through adversity. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here's my favorite recommendation:

“And if there's no other advice I could give you, I'd simply urge you all always to have a Plan “B”…and a Plan “C.”

Sheila Johnson's Trinity University 2006 Commencement address

As an entrepreneur, this appears credible and useful advice:

“We must never assume it will be an easy road and be ready to accept defeats without giving up or losing our vision and caring about people. Excite and inspire others with your passion and boldness. Be a champion for what you believe is right -and don't lose sight of who you really are.”

And finally, there are other places we can go to learn from commencement speeches. In case you don't want to Google your way through all the bad ones, here are a few books that have sorted through as many commencement addresses as possible and compiled what they consider to be the best:

Onward!: …America's Best Commencement Speeches

Graduation Moments: …Best Commencement Speeches Ever

Speaking of Graduation:…Timeless Graduation Speeches

And finally, if you'd like to write one of your own:

Writing Great Speeches

So, think of your lean efforts as beginning a great journey, just as a college graduate is embarking on a journey. Approach your journey with ambition, spirit, energy and above, a insatiable curiosity.

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Jamie Flinchbaugh
Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, and Board Member with more than 20 years of success spanning finance, manufacturing, automotive, and management consulting. Leveraging extensive operational experience, Jamie is an invaluable asset for a company seeking expert guidance with process improvements, lean strategies, and leadership coaching in order to transform operations, reduce costs, and drive profitability. His areas of expertise include continuous improvement, entrepreneurship, coaching and training, process transformation, business strategy, and organizational design.


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