On Wednesday, we recognized students at Archmere who, throughout the course of the year, have demonstrated academic excellence and leadership at the 41st Honors Convocation ceremony, held in the Performing Arts Center. Below is my address to the students.
At this 41st Honors Convocation, when we recognize academic excellence, achievement, and leadership, I would like to talk about failure.
Mark Shead, in an article entitled, “The Five Most Important Leadership Traits,” references five leadership traits and qualities, according to the research of Kouzes and Posner:
Shead goes on to say that effective leaders demonstrate these traits, and in doing so, draw more people to their cause.
Focusing on the first trait, honesty, Shead says that a true leader does not miss the opportunity to display honesty when he or she admits to making a mistake. Leaders need to take risks, and sometimes things just don’t work out. It is in these moments when leaders need to be honest enough to admit failure and to change course.
In thinking about your lives as teenagers and all that you manage, I can only imagine the pressures you feel – build the resume, stand out as a unique applicant to that college or university of your choice, run the race and break the record. Do it all. Be it all. And don’t make a mistake like getting a “C” on your transcript.
These are wonderful aspirations, and we should work our hardest (which can be somewhat subjective) to achieve them. But often, we do not meet 100% of our goals 100% of the time. It is in those time when we fall short of our expectations – when we fail miserably, in fact – that true leaders “regroup.”
We analyze and reflect.
We acknowledge what went wrong, and in doing so, learn from it and make attempts to correct it, if possible.
Author and researcher Jim Collins has been studying what makes “excellent” organizations excellent by studying the leadership of these “excellent” organizations.
Collins found that great leaders not only have discipline and vision, but also a sense of humility. They listen to the advice of great people. They assemble around them. Most importantly, they learn from their failures.
About 1,000 years before Collins’ research, Saint Norbert, I believe, exemplified these skills of great leadership in the very challenging times of 11th century Europe. His deeds and actions have made an impact on the lives of countless people, more than a millennium after his death.
Saint Norbert was born into nobility and influence. He was very intelligent, and a charismatic speaker.
The first signs of true leadership emerged when Norbert disagreed with King Henry V, who thought it his right as sovereign to invest bishops and priests. After King Henry’s forces surrounded the Vatican and forced the Pope to allow lay investiture, Norbert left the court of King Henry, giving up his financial security and privileged lifestyle.
Norbert became an itinerant preacher. He did not join a religious community, though asked. Norbert had a vision. He had a vision of what a religious community should be. He realized he needed to start anew.
In 1120, Norbert founded a new community in an obscure part of France called Prémontré, where he formed a religious community of both men and women, lay and ordained, supporting one another.
It was 1120, yet Norbert conceived of a very contemporary model of community. Men and women lived separately as equals. Ordained and lay religious worked together. And Norbert envisioned that his community would grow internationally with each new community reflecting the local culture, and supporting the needs of the people in that locale.
That is leadership – honesty, forward-looking, competent, inspiring, intelligent.
It is not, however, a “happily ever after story.”
In his book, The Order of Premontre: History and Spirituality, Father Bernard Ardura notes the great successes of the early Norbertine communities in flourishing abbeys and schools. Ardura even mentions a Norbertine priest who proposed a flying machine contemporary to Leonardo Da Vinci (slide #23). But Ardura also chronicles the Norbertine’s failures – poorly funded abbeys, unsuccessful ventures that closed, and even unfaithful community members.
This is just one small part of the wonderfully rich Norbertine heritage that is Archmere’s. What we need to take from it is the works that continue to survive long after we die come from those people who have honestly acknowledged mistakes along the way and learned from them, only to be stronger, improved, and enriched by other gifts.
So, this evening, I congratulate you on your achievements based on your hard work, your mistakes, and all those moments that leave a hole in your stomach or give you a headache. Because I know for you to be here now at this 41st Honors Convocation, you overcame them. You learned from them. You were true to yourself and to your faith.
I celebrate your potential as the future leaders of the world who will construct a reality based on community, respect, zeal, reverence, and wisdom, in the hope that one day our world does not have to experience another Enron, another Bernie Madoff scandal, another economic meltdown, oil spill, or terrorist attack.
I give thanks to God for bringing you here to Archmere, with the support of your families who have sacrificed much so that you can have the best education possible through the dedication of your teachers. I am so proud of each of you, as are your teachers, your parents, your families, and your friends.