Thank you everybody for inviting me to speak at the graduation of the class of 2020. OK, you didn’t invite me. But if you did, here’s what I would say.
My name is Dave, but folks call me The Watchdog because, like a good pooch, I’m supposed to watch out for you.
If I and all the other watchdogs out there had done our jobs correctly, your senior year wouldn’t have been the worst ever. When you suffer from senioritis (the inability to focus on schoolwork in the final months due to anticipation and excitement) you’re supposed to lose focus. But this time, you didn’t even get a chance to lose focus. It was taken from you.
What do I recall about my graduation day? In college, I remember going up to the roof and watching the sun rise. I feared the most fun part of my life was ending. That turned out to be true. Something else I remember from that day: The commencement speaker didn’t show up.
It was supposed to be Tennessee Williams, the most famous playwright in the land, but ole T.W. got gobsmacked drunk the night before in his hotel room and never got out of bed. Oh, well.
I’m here, and I’m sober. But I have a message for you that isn’t your typical commencement talk. You know, here are three lessons on life yada yada yada.
I bet most graduates, trying to balance those stupid caps on your head, wouldn’t even remember all three if you had to take a test. Forget that! No more tests for you!
I only offer one point and that is to apologize. Speaking only for myself, I want to apologize for fouling up your world.
One of the hallmarks of our great nation is every generation is supposed to enjoy a better quality of life than the previous one. For the most part that worked.
Looking at you now, spaced apart, unable to hug, parties banned, awards ceremonies canceled, we all know that we’re not bequeathing you a good world.
I blame a lot of it on my fellow baby boomers. We’ve been leaders for a while now. And look what we’ve wrought. We possess surefire steadiness when it comes to not solving problems.
We know how to identify problems. We know how to study them and find solutions. We just don’t know how to actually implement them. As we say, we like to kick the can down the road.
The problem is leadership.
We lack it.
This lack of leadership is a trend I’ve watched my entire adult life. I was born in the peak year of the baby boom. I’ve watched my generation of leaders struggle.
I first saw it in my early jobs. The bosses I worked for were well-meaning but lacked the emotional security to act fairly. I began to understand that leadership is a skill that must be learned and earned.
Then as I covered governments as a reporter, I saw that leaders kept stepping on political land mines, causing problems for them and the people they were supposed to serve.
The first baby boomer president (Bill Clinton) was impeached by his enemies because he showed a stunning lack of will power. The second boomer president (George W. Bush) thrust us into a war for all the wrong reasons. The third boomer president (Barack Obama) didn’t want to play footsie with Congress to get things done. And the fourth — aw forget it. You get the idea.
Every problem we need to solve: opioids, poverty, police violence, health care, climate change, spam phone calls, affordable housing, mass transit, infrastructure and on and on is solvable. You just need to add leadership to bring the solutions home.
Let me tell you how I got the idea for this message. It’s because of a number: 36,000.
That’s how many lives possibly could have been saved if social distancing recommendations to prevent the spread of coronavirus had gone into place on March 8 instead of March 15, according to a Columbia University study.
Thirty-six thousand lives saved. What was missing? Leadership and watchdogs on all levels. Leaders build stockpiles. Leaders plan for the worst and hope for the best. Leaders figure out how to save lives.
That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. About how we need you to develop this leadership trait. We need you to be leaders like never before. Consensus builders. Problem solvers.
Here’s what I’ve learned about leadership. It’s important to build passion for the project. Don’t assume people are as passionate as you. Figure out how to spread the optimism.
Keep everyone informed. Be transparent. Make clear and understandable goals.
And most important, never miss an opportunity to praise others. Always, always say, “Thank you.” These are two of most important words of leadership.
I’ll close with the lines from one of my favorite songs from the play Hamilton. He sings to his son: “We’ll fight for you; we’ll make it right for you.
“If we lay a strong enough foundation, we’ll pass it on to you. We’ll give the world to you, and you’ll blow us all away.”
I don’t see that strong foundation, but we need you to blow us all away. Sooner than later.
And now the two most important words: Thank you.