Leadership has always been one of the core purposes of a St. Gregory education.
Your teachers have always believed that they are supporting you in developing the confidence, the thinking skills, the organization, the principles, and the character necessary that you as students can become leaders, today and tomorrow: here while you are still students and out in the larger world after you graduate.
Now I know that some of you embrace this, and want to pursue leadership. You see yourselves as being leaders in the ways we most easily imagine: the Boss of a company, the Coach of a sports team, a General in the Army, the Pilot of a plane. [Softly] I always wanted to Captain Kirk as a kid.
But some of you don’t envision such a future—you imagine yourself as a veterinarian, perhaps, or community service worker, or a parent, or a nurse, or a scientist—and I fear that you think that maybe when we talk about leadership, you think we are talking only about someone else, not about you.
But I want to argue otherwise. I think that we can and should interpret leadership very broadly and I think there are aspects of leadership which all of you can and should develop.
I think you can be a fine leader even if you were never to speak a word, and never to be on a stage, and never to hold an office of importance. This could happen by your acting as a role model—a model of respecting others, of compassion, of work ethic and diligence, of perseverance and resilience. If you act in these ways, you will stand out, you will be an exception, you will be a model, and you will influence others!
I think that you can be someone who works brilliantly in a group, a group you are never in charge of, but always making stronger by your suggestions, your encouragement, your enthusiasm, and your willingness to do the hard task. By your contributions, the group is stronger, considerably stronger, and you are exercising a kind of leadership.
Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian who won the Nobel Peach Prize, for his service in Africa, said when he received the Peace Prize:
Of all the will toward the ideal in mankind, only a small part can manfest itself in public action. All the rest of this force must be content with small and un-noticed deeds. The sum of these small deeds, however, is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition. The latter, compared to the former, are like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean.
I am drawing now from a wonderful book called leading quietly by Harvard Professor Joseph Badaracco. He explains that the “vast majority of situations which call for leadership” happen in just plain “everyday situations.” These situations “don’t come labeled as strategic or critical, and they aren’t reserved for people at the top of organizations.”
Most difficult, important, human problems are not solved by a swift, decisive stroke from someone at the top. What usually matters are careful, thoughtful, small, practical efforts by people working far from the limelight. Quiet leadership is what moves the world.
There are three virtues: Restraint, Modesty, and Tenacity– associated with quiet leadership, Badaracco explains, and they are habits of mind rather than tactics.
Restraint is the first: When facing a problem, sometimes it is better to slow down, and “control and channel your feelings first.” Quiet leaders, :even when they think something is clearly wrong or mistaken, they try, if possible, to pause, look around, listen and learn.” Like the ancient Greeks, who believed that we best approach life with the philosophy: all things in moderation, and that the greatest virtue is temperance, we should use restraint in quiet leadership. Seek to Understand First, and Be Understood Second (from Covey).
Quiet leaders don’t see life as a classroom in which the smartest kids are the ones whose hands shoot up first. They trust their instincts, but they also try to separate sound instincts form strong impulses. Even when they think something is clearly wrong or mistaken, they try, if possible, to pause, look around, listen and learn. Habits of patience and restraint give someone enough time to tell the two apart.
The second is Modesty: Quiet leaders always remember that our ability to influence the events is pretty limited. Asked how he became a leader during WWII, President Kennedy was modest—”I had no choice, they sunk my boat.” Quiet leaders are modest about how much they can do. “Modesty is the reason quiet leaders assume that people and events are more complicated than they first seem and the reason they buy time, drill down into problems, and escalate gradually.” Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is a philosophical and literary expression of this same modesty: I seek the strength to change what I can change, the serenity to accept what I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The third is tenacity. “Quiet leaders are sometimes alone, isolated, and have to work long and hard to achieve what they believe is important.” This prospects discourages some people from acting or persevering, but not quiet leaders.”
Quiet leaders don’t give up; they persevere, they are patient, they are stubborn, they keep on going, knowing that many of the biggest impacts we can make are not done with a swift and rapid strike but many, many, many small taps.
St. Gregory students, when we speak about creating leaders, please remember that we are speaking about many different forms of leadership. Some of you will be prominent, public, and outspoken leaders; many of you will be quiet leaders, and we hope and intend that all of you will make positive impacts on the world by the way in which you contribute, and that you will often best do with restraint, modesty, and tenacity.