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.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. 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.

    • 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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