Below is the complete text of the commencement address delivered by Ed Tomey, professor emeritus in the Department of Organization & Management.
Discovery, Commitment, and Action
Commencement Address to the Graduating Class
of Antioch University New England
May 5, 2007
Edward J. Tomey
President Caruso, University Trustees Alexander, Dean Guerriero, esteemed chairpeople, members of the faculty, and administration of Antioch University New England, members of the graduating class of 2007, honored family members, friends, and guests: This is a stunningly proud day for you and it’s also a very proud occasion for me.
At this stage of my life and career, it is particularly uplifting to be asked by the institution I carry most closely in my heart to address Antioch New England’s graduates across the disciplines upon the culmination of their graduate education—minus a final paper here and there—and you know who you are!
I’m so pleased to have this opportunity to share some thoughts with you. I want to take the next several minutes to speak directly to the graduates, and I’ll be delighted if the rest of you come along for the ride.
I know you are anxious to walk across this stage so I’ll try not to delay you. I won’t be as long-winded as the commencement speaker in the mythical story about my undergraduate alma mater.
(Humorous story about commencement speaker)
All of us, in one way or another, find ourselves—and you, our graduates, certainly will find yourselves—connected to some sort of organization: a nonprofit or community agency, an industry or business, a group practice, a school or school system, a governmental unit.
Typically, we think of the leaders of these organizations as those at the top who have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that people have the resources, skills, guidance, and motivation to achieve the organization’s mission. We see them as the people who are accountable for setting the standards, developing the processes, obtaining the necessary resources, weaving the workforce together, engaging the support of other organizations, maintaining morale, providing feedback…the list is virtually endless.
But we have all been there. We have experienced what doesn’t get enough attention, and we have learned from those experiences. We know that no one does all of these tasks as well as they would like to do them—nor as well as they need to be done to ensure organizational success and individual satisfaction.
After nearly four decades as a consultant to organizations and their leaders, I can tell you that leaders are overwhelmed by all the tasks demanded of them. They need all the help they can get to successfully move things forward.
This is where I urge you to come in.
Who better to offer valuable, thoughtful, well-intended assistance than graduates of Antioch University New England?
Whether you are a teacher in a school, a clinician who is part of a group practice, a counselor of troubled youth in a community mental health agency, a scientist or policy analyst protecting our environment, a movement therapist integrating expressive arts into counseling, or a manager of a nonprofit human services program or the director of business service unit, you can engage in what I call “finding the leader within” and thus bring the best of your Antioch experience to your workplace. That experience, and your insights, and your wisdom, and your energy, are in great demand.
Even though many of you may not move into formally structured positions of leadership, I am going to urge you during my remarks this morning, to step forward—in the context of whatever your professional responsibilities may be—to step forward and take on one or more of the many leadership tasks that hunger to be filled by people with talent, dedication, and courage.
I am asking you this morning—despite coming to the end of your formal studies during which you met so many challenges—to take on one more challenge as you head out to begin this next phase of your professional lives.
I ask you to devote a part of yourself to “finding the leader within”—that part of you that might, for example, be:
— a facilitator of voices that long to be heard
— a contributor to a promising future vision for your organization
— a supporter of those who search for guidance in a pressure-packed world of work
— an encourager of those who are struggling with their own competence
— a gauge for the organization who is able to measure how people are doing and what emerging concerns need to be addressed
— a change agent to help the organization adjust to what may be a staggeringly unstable environment
— a relationship builder, a bridge-builder among those elements of the organization that may be estranged from one another
— a courageous taker of an unpopular position, knowing it is the right thing to do
Can you see now why I said earlier that the list of needs is virtually endless? No leader I’ve known can make all of these important tasks happen by herself or himself.
These leadership tasks contribute to the health and welfare of an organization and its human resources, and that organization can gain so much from what you will have to offer.
To find this “leader within,” you will need to continue with what you learned to do so well during your Antioch experience.
First, engage in self-discovery. I believe—no, I know—that there is always something more to discover about ourselves and our abilities: a needed skill that lies hidden or dormant; an element of knowledge that with a bit of tweaking, can be just what the workplace needs to move past a block in its pathway; or perhaps it’s the artful use of your intuition that can provide an insight to a formal leader who will benefit from what you have to offer.
The inspiration for self-discovery can have so many sources. For so many of us, mentors have been a rich source of what we’ve learned about ourselves. I recall one of my own with fondness and gratefulness.
I went to work for the CEO of a Cambridge, Mass. consulting firm back in the 60s. In my second year as one of his young vice presidents, I landed a very large multi-year contract for the firm. The project had to hire some sixty people and be organized from the ground up. And in a hurry. The CEO spotted my “deer-caught-in-the-headlights” look that said, “OK, now what?” Kind of like a car-chasing dog who one day actually catches up with one. What does he do with it?
In his office, the CEO spoke about my not needing to be the expert on everything. About searching within myself for those parts of the job that lay ahead that I was skilled in, and identifying those elements that I needed to hire other talent to carry out—without my pride getting in the way.
What he said next has been among the most valuable advice I’ve ever received—and I pass it on to clients and students whenever I can. He said, “Ed, first-rate people hire first-rate people; and second-rate people hire third-rate people. You have an opportunity here. Be a first-rate person.”
To this day, I try to discover those parts of me that might be scared, or don’t know enough—and then I try to find the best people I can to educate me or take on a task that needs the best it can get.
Sometimes our inspirations for self-discovery come from something we’ve read or heard. Back in the early ’70s, when my wife, Maich Gardner, and I were courting in the environs of Harvard Square. I discovered a new volume of poetry that I wanted to give her—a small, now out-of-print collection, by a then relatively unknown poet and novelist, Marge Piercy. She’s certainly not so unknown now. The title poem, “To Be of Use,” went on to become a call for community and still brings people together everywhere.
One particular passage gave me an insight into myself that I have acted on ever since, no matter what my role has been. These lines continue to tell me a lot about who I am and who I want to be:
“I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.”
We need patience for self-discovery. Intentional time with the self, reflecting on what’s important to us, what values we hold most dear, what inspires us, what and whom we love, what troubles us, what needs attention in our lives or elsewhere in our realms where we care about what is happening.
Self-discovery can also come from others whom we trust or admire and who may have a view of us that we can’t see. We need to spend time with them and listen with open minds and hearts and learn from them about ourselves.
Once you’ve engaged in this kind of discovery and learned something new about yourself that has meaning and application to finding the leader within, I urge you move on to another facet of what makes you, as an Antiochian, unique—your readiness to commit to making something happen.
Essentially, you are this position: “OK, I’ve discovered something about myself that just might possibly be of use to others in my organization, or to its leader, as we all try to accomplish our mission, our purpose. Now what?”
I ask you to envision the possibilities.
Leadership and consulting guru Peter Block tells us that creating a vision forces us to take a stand for a preferred future. “Not just any vision will do,” he says. “It needs to be lofty in order to capture our imagination and engage our spirit. Our vision is our deepest expression of what we want. A vision is a desirable state, an ideal state, an expression of optimism.”
Finally, Block tells us that articulating a vision requires that we hold ourselves accountable for acting in ways that are congruent with that vision.
It will take commitment, courage, congruency, perseverance, and skill, to move forward with your discovery and your vision of a better workplace. More often than not, you end up KNOWING what needs to be done, what YOU need to do. The task now is to get ready to turn your self-knowledge and your vision into action.
If you are to take steps to make your vision a reality, you need to do what I call “taking charge of yourself.” After all, yours is the only performance over which you have control. Everything else is an attempt to INFLUENCE others, but you can never control them.
If you want to help others to behave differently, then it is you who must first do something different. You must give them something different to respond to: name a problem that needs addressing, offer ideas to solve it, provide words of encouragement, lend your support. You are in charge of all this.
Being in charge of yourself I believe is one of the most important gifts you can give to yourself. As you get ready to move forward with your contribution to leadership, feeling this allows you to be forthright and expressive with yourself and others.
Self-expression is your friend. Once you have the vision of what you want to see happen, it’s so much easier to find the words that will make the difference.
While the transition from what’s on your mind to what you express might not seem that difficult, most people I work with struggle with it. They have to muster a lot of courage to win the struggle because it’s not the way many of us are used to operating—in the presence of authority or when we fear hurting somebody’s feelings, or having to deal with conflict, or fearing that we may be proven wrong.
The alternative to NOT committing to act on your beliefs is to avoid, to stand back—WAY back, and so often you will be left to engage in the almost always futile strategy of “hoping and hinting.” Hoping that things will get better, and at best, hinting meekly about your wishes, your vision.
When was the last time in your experience that someone took a hint? Or that your hope turned into reality just because you wished it so?
And so finally, you put yourself and your knowledge and your commitment on the line, where it counts. You put your commitment into action. You behave according to your values and beliefs. They—and your courage—drive you forward to contribute to a healthier workplace for yourself and your colleagues.
— You speak up on behalf of a colleague whose opinions are being ignored.
— You make known the fact that many people in the organization don’t feel recognized for their contributions.
— You volunteer your services to assist a leader who is in need of extra hands, extra minds to solve a tough problem.
— You take the time to develop a document that articulates the values that truly guide the organization’s behavior.
— You come up with the solution of how resources can be economized so as to provide services to a needy client group that would otherwise go without.
And so the cycle continues: discovery, commitment, and action. On a regular and frequent basis, you make your presence known. Your contributions may be easily visible, or mysteriously quiet, but your impact is always felt. It always moves the mission, the vision, and the human spirit forward.
If you decide to choose the road of discovery, commitment, and action, I see four important tasks that you can accomplish:
First, emulate Thoreau when he wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Next, after learning from your experience, use your new knowledge and skills in ways that serve the greater good.
Third, teach others what you have learned. Help them make THEIR discoveries, find THEIR voices, call up THEIR courage.
And the fourth grows from the third—to build a community of doers within the organization, spreading your influence from a single individual trying to make things happen, to a community of people devoted to the effort.
If you can achieve in these four leadership tasks—learning, serving, teaching, and building a committed community—then the uncertainty you might have felt when reaching beyond the boundaries of your roles, the anxiety you might have experienced in stretching toward your visions, and the difficulties and resistance you likely will have encountered in turning your commitments into actions, will all have been worth it.
I hope you’ll continue to hone your skills at making discoveries, creating visions based on them, committing yourself to those visions, and then acting on them. I hope that you’ll use your creative powers to help you challenge your abilities, taking them ever higher, broader, and deeper.
I hope that you’ll test your actions against your visions and values, and let the outcomes keep you moving toward congruency, toward insight, and toward keeping real learning alive.
THIS is the path I urge you to choose.
Let me close with well-known lines from Robert Frost. They endure because they continue to have meaning, to inspire, as does all great art. They remind us of the choices that are ours to make.
Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”…
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both on that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Congratulations. And thank you. What a marvelous achievement!