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What advice would you give to a future leader?

It’s that time of year again when famous leaders get a few minutes to talk directly to future leaders.

I’m talking of course about the commencement or graduation address. Post-secondary institutions all over the world invite famous politicians, artists, titans of commerce, professional athletes and philanthropists to address a graduating class and pass on a few words of wisdom.

I’ve been in the leadership industry pretty much my whole career, and there is certainly no shortage of people who are willing to share their earned wisdom about how to be successful in business and happy in life. There is also no shortage of ideas, models and theories about leadership and how to become a great leader.

Such has been the case this year. Here’s a quick summary of ideas shared over the past few weeks that I found to be really interesting.

  • Rex Tillerson, former Secretary of State of the United States, said to graduates of the Virginia Military Institute that they must “confront the crisis of ethics and integrity” in our world today, especially among leaders. He went on to say that integrity is the most valuable asset anyone will ever have. A powerful idea, most likely influenced by his time in the Trump administration. As a leader you will need to be ethical. It’s always been important, but with everything going on today, it’s even more critical.
  • Oprah Winfrey challenged graduates from University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to focus their energy on becoming “so skilled, so vigilant, so flat-out fantastic at what you do that your talent cannot be dismissed.” I so agree. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Focus on being the best you!
  • Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, encouraged the graduates of Washington University to go back to their home towns, and make a difference in the communities in which they were raised. This stood out to me because it was such a unique perspective. Some reading I’ve done is showing that young people are choosing to not live in big cities and, instead, start their professional lives in smaller communities. So pick the town and city that works for you and get busy making it a great place to live and work.
  • Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money, treated graduates of Bucknell University to some straight up life and career advice. He said that life after graduation is rarely a straight path, and one must expect and anticipate twists and turns. He then said, “It’s OK to fail; it’s not OK to quit.” And he reminded the young leaders that they have more strength in them than they may realize. Cramer is so right. As I’ve written and said often, “Leadership is hard work and you need to get tough.”
  • Apple CEO, Tim Cook, was passionate when he challenged the graduates of Duke University. He reminded young leaders that they enter the workforce with more power than any previous generation before them. He challenged them to use that power for good. He also told them to avoid letting “worries stop you from making a difference. Fearlessness is taking the first step, even if you don’t know where it will take you. It means being driven by a higher purpose than by applause.” Such great advice. Remember to be bold!
  • Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, addressed the graduates of New York University. He told graduates that, “In every generation, leaders emerge because they one day awake to the realization that it’s not up to someone else to fix this problem or take up that cause. It’s up to them. So now is the time for you to lead.” He concluded his remarks with a plea, “The world eagerly awaits, indeed requires, your ideas. Your initiative. Your enterprise. Your energy. Your passion and compassion. Your idealism and your ambition. But remember that true courage is the essential ingredient in all your efforts.” I love this. Now, I’m a little biased, as I’m a Canadian, but Trudeau nails it. Every company needs leadership to be strong at every level and in every role. Whichever organization you work with remember to be the leader – don’t wait for permission. Lead!

As I reflected on the wisdom shared by this diverse group of leaders, I couldn’t help get energized myself. So, I asked myself, “What advice would I give to today’s graduates?” I thought about this a lot in the past week and came up with this:

Be mindful about the individual leader or manager you choose to work for. In my experiences, and in hearing from leaders I’ve worked with, the person you choose to work for is a critical leadership decision. While you may possess strong leadership attributes yourself, they will either be amplified by a great leader, or suppressed by a weak or mediocre leader.

Great leaders will unleash your potential. They will actively look for ways to give you exposure to senior leaders of the company. They will coach you, give you the tough feedback when you need it, and they will always be in your corner. These are the things you need to be looking for in the leaders you choose to work for. If you aren’t convinced that a prospective manager or leader will do these things for you, then my advice to you is to run, and run fast.

Now I know this advice may not be as motivational or inspiring as some of the great ideas shared above, but it is rooted in the real world. And when I think about a new generation of future leaders being unleashed on world, I can’t help but feel that this advice could make or break their career paths.

What would you say to a graduating class in a commencement speech? What insights would you share with them? Let me know. I will collect the ideas and share them in a future blog.

What advice would you give a future leader?

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