Charter Day 2006

Clarence E. Butler, Keynote Address

April 22, 2006

Gentlemen of the College:

Some of you may be hoping, with gleeful anticipation, that I will use this occasion to disclose secrets of the Dean’s Office concerning current or former fellow students. Others may be anxious that I will divulge secrets of the Dean’s Office, especially as they may pertain to you. Today, disappointment and relief will dwell together under the same roof. Nor will this be a State of the College address. However, be assured that from my perspective the College is in excellent condition. At Hobart College, we have a goodly heritage.

Rather, today I follow the Bampton House “Last Lecture Series” tradition, established by its capable advisor and my colleague, Associate Dean of the College Rocco Lawrence Capraro. There we invite faculty and administrative colleagues to speak to the men of Bampton, Hobart’s honor house, as if they were delivering their last lecture. An interesting phenomenon has over the years emerged, so I have observed. No matter the diverse disciplines of the speakers, every speaker invariably speaks to what I call “matters of the heart.”   And thus it is, that I speak to you today on “Leaders and Leadership.”

Leadership is a privilege. Leadership is marked by a vision. Leadership requires agreement or consensus of those who would be led. Leadership makes one humble, not haughty or proud.

Leadership is a privilege.

Charles of the House of Windsor belongs to that elite minority who find themselves in positions of leadership by reason of heredity. However, most of us do not find ourselves in position of leadership because of accident of birth, or because a hereditary gene catapulted us into the position. Rather, whether we thought consciously or not of becoming leaders, hours of mental, spiritual, emotional and physical effort, preparation, and planning are required to become and remain a leader. And fundamental to every leader’s effort and every plan is the conviction that he can and wants to make a difference.

As a child growing up, I learned from my parents to differentiate between leadership and privilege, as well as to understand potential agreement between the two.  Just as I came to know from my parents, as at the age of four I would sound out words, that the word “a n t i q u e s” was antiques and not “anti – ques” in that Dagwood and Blondie comic strip, so did I learn the meaning of privilege.

And their instruction went beyond assisting me in sounding out words. They gave examples. For my parents’ generation, there could be only one example of how leadership and privilege coexisted peacefully and to the betterment of society, and that was in the person of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He died years before I was aware of my world, but because we share the same birthday and because every parent harbors the notion that his or her child is destined for great things, my parents did not cease holding up FDR as an example of what a great leader could accomplish. However, more than that was their expectation, grounded in their religious belief, that to whom much is given, much is expected. FDR, born into social privilege, did not let that form of privilege obscure the necessity to use the resources of the state to provide basic needs of those less fortunate. Indeed, he felt a need to earn the privilege, the honor to serve, which required gaining the confidence of those to be led.

The founders of our College invested time, energy, and resources in the belief, and hope, that they were providing a venue for preparing leaders to further the cause of a fledgling nation. Those men were men of faith, so they would have been familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan. They saw not only the need to minister to, and to provide and care for that lone fellow, set upon by highway robbers. To assist the individual, was indeed honorable. However, if that highway were a place controlled by robbers and murderers who could attack at will, and repeatedly, our Founding Fathers knew, as did later FDR, that government had an obligation to protect everyone who traveled that way, and that society needed and needs leaders who see the broader issues and understand the role that government could and should assume. Individual compassion must inevitably lead to public policy.

Students admitted to Hobart College already enter a unique cadre of men and women; and those who earn their degree from this venerable College enter into an even more elite group, for it is reported that less than one percent of the world’s population enjoys the privilege of post-secondary education. Gentlemen of the College, use your social privilege well.

A leader has vision.

There is scarcely anyone of my generation, no matter his or her political stripe, who does not recall the stirring call to service of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Yet, it was his younger brother, Robert, who was my hero. I cannot resist quoting Bobby, as we called him affectionately, even as I no longer can recall the circumstance of his statement. Said he: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things, and ask why not?" 

Harriet Tubman, often called the Moses of her people, envisaged a world, a United States of America, where all men (and women) lived under and benefited from rights promised in our constitution. As envisioned in the Declaration of Independence, she wanted for all the guarantees of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ for she understood that as long as one man, one woman, one child was enslaved, our constitution was diminished in, robbed of, its crucial essence and would not and could not fulfill its fundamental promise.

Our children and our children’s children’s children will enjoy freedom of movement because Jonas Salk, M.D. (1914 – 1995), the son of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants and the first of his family to attend college, had a vision of the world in which every child would run and play and not be hindered by that disabling disease called polio. But even he built on a foundation of leaders in science who had preceded him. Anticipating a later section of my address, I share now another image of Dr. Salk. When asked once about patent-rights for his discovery, he stated: “Who owns my polio vaccine?  The people!  Could you patent the sun?” 

The founders of the College did not live to see the College which you and I have inherited. (And, by the way, there still are buildings on campus which, even after 27 years, I have not entered. ) However, as they were men who traveled to Europe and other ancient sites, it must have been their vision that one day Hobart would grow in stature as a college, but not as measured by the number of buildings and edifices on this site, but by what new discoveries could be had in them. In their largesse, our Founding Fathers dared, borrowing a word from Judge Herbert J. Stern ’58, on the occasion of the dedication of the building which bears his family name, “to reach across an immeasurable gulf to those who they knew would come after” (“Anthropomorphism,” Sept. 3, 2002).

A fallacy of many who come to college, and even of some who matriculate at this College, is the belief that college is where they acquire their vision, that it is the College’s job to tell them what their uniquely individual vision ought to be, and that a leader is one who has earned or will earn a thirty second spot on the evening news. I suggest to you that every one of you has a vision, a prerequisite for leadership. However, just as the stars and moon are often obscured by the bright lights of our cities, so is our inner vision often hidden by the cacophony of things we call “life.”  The role of the College is, then, not to implant in each of its students a vision, but to challenge, cultivate, stimulate what is already there, but perhaps not yet seen or felt. A graduate of Hobart College will leave with his vision in tact, because he will have learned the difference between transformation and transition. The College’s administration, faculty, and student body and its ethos will ensure that your vision has been transformed into a more mature one and that you will have received the skills for transition into a world in grave need of enlightened and empathetic leadership.

Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press,” expressed in quite simple terms the vision which every leader should have, when he said “No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to help another human being” (Harvard University Class Day, June 8, 2005). Without a vision, a people perishes, and if our individual visions do not elevate and enhance the common weal, in whatever seemingly insignificant or history-altering way it may occur, I suggest, as Dean, that it is not a true vision, but cloaked self-aggrandizement. Gentlemen of the College: Take time to contemplate and cultivate your vision.

A true leader knows the value and art of consensus.

In the Declaration of Independence, to which I made reference, is an often overlooked basic assumption. I quote: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Too often, we forget where true leaders and, thus, true leadership are to be found. I had once hanging in my study at home a poster, long since lost and the name of whose author I have also forgotten, that said, and I paraphrase, Democracy is no better secured than when men can gather together to express their opinions freely and without coercion.  A true leader encourages conversation and debate, for it is out of the sharing of ideas that new knowledge emerges.

Recently, I read of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company who asked during a meeting of his senior people for opinions regarding a direction in which he intended to take the firm. His senior advisors all agreed with him. To their amazement, he terminated the meeting abruptly, dismissing them with the admonition not to return, until they had found points of disagreement with his plan, for clearly they had not given his proposal any serious consideration.

A true leader will recognize that a society has many voices, as many voices as there are participants, and that each voice has its own history. A true leader sees his role not as one to appease, but to provide for a freedom of expression which, when the voices have been heard, will result in bringing a vision forward. Our Founding Fathers called for such a conversation. John B. Bennett, former provost of Quinnipiac University reminds us that “to share our learning without being prepared to receive the learning of others is not really to share” (“Liberal Learning as Conversation,” in: Liberal Education, AACU, vol. 87, No. 2, Spring 2001, p. 38). In other words, not only will we deprive ourselves of the wisdom of other learned and genuinely concern individuals, we will miss out on advancing knowledge, a cause, our vision, by shutting out the voices of others.

I allow myself an observation regarding of our larger society in the area which we call “the Civil Rights Movement.”  For sake of convenience and because it is easier to assign blame or acclaim to one individual, we have canonized the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as the icon of that movement. In so doing, I have seen the movement contained and the driving forces behind it sanitized and placed into a neat package. We can declare “Mission accomplished!” when, in fact, the mission is far from being accomplished.

It is perhaps helpful to recall that before Dr. King stepped into the national and international limelight, already students in Greensboro, North Carolina, had marched, and sat-in, and been beaten and arrested for their non-violent protests of laws that defied our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Others elsewhere had been urging and were continuing to persuade fellow blacks to register to vote and, then, to vote. Dr. King could galvanize people from all segments of the population and country, precisely because there were already in place local leaders who knew and felt the minds and pulse of their people.  

What made Dr. King a great leader—and without equivocation, I honor him as such—and what sets any leader apart in whatever field of endeavor is something which Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) recognized when he said, upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on. The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully” (“Roosevelt Has Gone,” April 14, 1945).  Gentlemen of the College: would you be a leader, then be not afraid to listen to those around you.

Leadership makes one humble.

The Chinese Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu (6th Century B.C.) makes the observation: “A leader is best, when people barely know that he exists” (The Way of Life According to Laotzu”, Witter Bynner, 1881 – 1968). I am most positive that Lao Tzu, as he framed his philosophy, did not have in mind Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz, namely someone who hid behind smoke and mirror and bombast. Nor did he have in mind someone who was afraid to take great risks. Rather, Lao Tzu would appear to support the concept of greatness that comes about, by not putting oneself first. Self-first is narcissism and arrogance, neither of which allows for ever admitting to a mistake.

It does occur to me, however proud each of us may and should be of our individual accomplishments, a true leader will make mistakes, and will acknowledge his mistakes. A great leader will always be in search of ways to improve his game, his delivery. A true leader will always question whether the effort put forth was sufficient, ethical or the correct effort for the task at hand, and a true leader will recognize that to question is not the same as to doubt. And, he does so, not out of ego, but because of the very trust that others have placed in him, and because his goal is a successful outcome, not adulation.

Some while ago, I happened upon a TV interview of basketball great Michael Jordan. Mr. Jordan was asked how he came to be so great. TV advertisements had prepared me for references to a brand of sneakers, or underwear, or an energy drink. However, his response did not come even close to an endorsement of a product. What he said—which I can only reproduce in paraphrase—was, laying aside whatever natural talents he might have, what the public, and especially the young boys who admire and emulate him do not see, are the long arduous hours of practice with coaches who know more than he and are able to enhance his gift. What the public does not see are the number of times, during practice, he misses the shot.  Even for a non-athlete such as I am, Michael Jordan is great, but greater than
his ability, is his recognition of that foundation which supported his greatness. The great Michael Jordon was humble, a sign of his true greatness.

I turn personal for a moment, in order to respond to the question which many have asked me, often long before I announced my retirement, and that question is, “why do you do what you do?”  Now, as I stand down, I will give you my answer. First, be assured, it was not for the money. Second, I suspect that in choosing my professional life’s work, I entered into my profession not any differently than many others. It was truly so in my own instance that life is what happened, while I was making plans, plans to become a medical doctor, in order to become rich and respected. Third, I did not leave my mother’s womb, proclaiming for all to hear, “I want to become Dean of Hobart College.” And, fourth, there is no 3-credit hour course called “Deaning 101 – 102,” taught in alternate years. I was driven, and the basic motivating factor was a belief system.

It will not come as a surprise to hear that my belief system is framed by two distinct, but related bookends. The one bookend reads thusly: “Yahweh has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8).  The other bookend, also from Holy Writ, admonishes: “‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength….And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these”  (Mark 12.29a – 31).  These bookends are never far apart in my thinking and in my actions, and I find them not the least bit constricting. They remind me that I must always be vigilant in my concern for others and never cease in my efforts to address them. These bookends remind me that a community devoid of benevolence cultivates its demise. Gentlemen of the College: Establish your value system and live by it.

Our Challenge

So, I stand down, but not before issuing a final deanly challenge. To address concerns of the nature besetting our nation and our globe today, we require leaders with vision, leaders devoid of self-serving ambitions. I call on former Ambassador to South Africa James A. Joseph, now president emeritus of the Council on Foundations and Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Studies at Duke University to articulate my challenge to you, in part because he is right on target, but also in part to remind you that others beyond this College are willing and ready to stand with you as you take up the reigns of leadership.

Ambassador Joseph writes: “…the next generation of leaders will require that we look beyond the boundaries that presently define our comfort zone. The changing demographics of our society and the changing needs of our institutions will require that we include people with very different backgrounds. Their accents will be different and so will their color and complexion, but they will need to be people who understand what the African American mystic, poet and theologian Howard Thurman had in mind when he wrote ‘I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.’ Can you imagine how different our world would be if more Americans were able to say ‘I want to be an American without making it difficult for Africans to be Africans, Asians to Asians or Arabs to be Arabs?’ Can you imagine how different our communities would be if more Christians were able to say ‘I want to be a Christian without making it difficult for Jews to be Jews, Muslims to be Muslims or Buddhists?” (“The Ethics Agenda in Changing Times: New Challenges for Philanthropy,” presented by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (NYRAG) on September 17, 2003).

As you march through your individual courses and fulfill your eight goals, it may be difficult to imagine that Hobart College has remained true to the mission of her Founding Fathers, as articulated 184 years ago. However, even in my own brief tenure, I am able to look back over my time among you, and now give witness to the accomplishments of her graduates. There is hardly a discipline, profession, or vocation in which this College is not represented, and where her graduates have not served, or do not serve with distinction. When as leaders of today and tomorrow you understand and recognize that others have voices and are demanding to be heard and to become partners in our conversations, you will recognize that those same voices have added to your humanity.

Gentlemen of the College: Do good, and you will do well.