“To Forge a Leader: Experience, Community, and Character”

Founders Day 2007
Assembly Hall
Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
March 25, 2007

Introduction: Beyond Achievement

First, let me congratulate all of our honorees.

I should add that my own daughter Josephine is among the students being honored this afternoon. My wife Laurie and I are immensely proud of her as all of the other parents here today are proud of their children.

The splendid accomplishments that have brought you all to this moment of distinction mark you as leaders of today and tomorrow.

In his inaugural address, President Kennedy proclaimed to his audience, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

With this statement, Kennedy captured the great effort required of leaders. They must dedicate their whole being to leadership.

As honors students you are facing some of the most exciting and difficult challenges of your lives. You understand what you must give in order to achieve success.

But think about Kennedy's words: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden.”

He was describing something beyond achievement.

The Roots of Leadership: Character, Action, Experience

The potential for leadership springs from the heart of the human spirit. It is anchored in character, rooted in responsibility, and requires a will to persevere.

Browse the shelves of any bookstore and you will find hundreds of books on how to become a leader. Our own IU library contains nearly 12,000 volumes on this topic. Virtually every department in this vast university offers courses on different forms of leadership. But books and classes are not enough.

True leadership demands action and experience.

The Fires of Circumstance

The traits of a leader are tested both in and beyond the classroom. The strongest materials in the world are made so by being pushed to extremes. Steel must survive dramatic temperature changes to become tempered. Even our own Indiana limestone is strengthened through heat and pressure.

So too are our greatest leaders.

Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and other presidents have led this country through momentous global challenges. Legendary IU president Herman Wells gave inspiring leadership in an environment slow to change. He enabled IU to emerge as one of the best universities in the nation.

The crucible of challenge forged these men of courage and conviction.

But you live in a different age. With friends, food, and fun only a phone call or instant message away, it would have been easy for you merely to revel in the pleasures of your college years. It would have been easy to forget the world beyond this campus.

However, you chose another path. You reached out to a world beyond these ivy-covered walls, to a world of hunger and need. You have embraced the challenges of service.

You have helped AIDS victims in Kenya, raised money for sick children, and lobbied for students' rights. Just last week over spring break, three groups from IU's Habitat for Humanity chapter joined volunteers from across the nation to help rebuild the Gulf Coast region.

These are not idle pastimes but are the modern day crucibles that have tested your mettle and made you stronger. By facing these and countless other challenges, you have learned what selfless acts can teach about character and integrity.

This is the crucible of sacrifice and service from which leaders of the future will rise.

Leadership and Community

Look at the people around you at this moment. Your friends and family have created opportunities for you. They have helped prepare you for this moment of celebration and accomplishment.

Let us pause to thank them for making this moment possible.

They have given you the confidence, courage, and character to lead. They have recognized your potential, have nurtured it, and have reminded you of your limitless possibilities. And here at IU, your professors and other mentors have joined that circle of support. They have played vital roles in your evolution as leaders.

Conclusion: Cultivating Potential

But the most important element in your emergence as leaders is your own vision. You are here today because of your ability, your intelligence, and your achievements.

As I said earlier, however, achievements are not enough to make a leader. Opportunity is not enough. Support even is not enough.

Someone once said that the first acorn contained the potential for every oak tree that ever existed. Inside each of you, burning in your spirits, is that ember of possibility. You must have the vision to see your potential light a future that stretches far beyond the horizon.

You are the keepers of yesterday, the actors of today, and the promise of tomorrow. Reach inside yourselves and tend that fire, so that it grows stronger and burns brighter as the years pass.

Here at Indiana University, you are learning what it means to be the future.