May is the season of the graduation speech. Recently, Sheryl Sandberg, executive at Facebook and author of Lean In, gave the graduation speech at University of California at Berkley, while President Obama spoke to the graduates at Rutgers University. Their speeches took on different topics, with Sandberg speaking about lessons learned from her personal life and Obama addressing a variety of cultural and political issues. Laced through both, however, were threads of advice, dispensed wisdom for the next generation.
Chances are, you are not one of the limited number of people who will be giving a graduation speech this month, but what if you were asked to give one? What would you speak about? What distilled sagacity would you offer?
As we march through the month of May into the summer months, we’re well into 2016. It’s a good time to stop and reflect on what you’ve been learning and what challenges may lie ahead. The habit of reflection is important for leaders, because the crush of appointments and deadlines often obscures our ability to consider all the myriad things happening around and within us.
If you were giving a graduation speech, you would probably focus in on two or three big ideas you wanted to communicate to the gathered students. Nobody enjoys listening to abstract pontification, so you would probably share stories from your own life throughout your speech. You would think about the things that you have been learning recently, some of the major events that have shaped your life in good and bad ways. You would basically be listening to your life, considering all the people, places, events, and ideas God has brought your way.
This habit of listening to your life begins with recognizing that you are not the lead actor on the stage of your life. God’s activity is always primary, but we often get consumed and distracted by our own actions and activities without recognizing and praising God for his role in our lives.
After you’ve thought through and considered the lessons you’d want to communicate to the audience, you’d naturally begin to think about how to shape your speech. You would deliberate on the various stories and counter-stories that are present and active within each person, shaping the way they live. Howard Gardner, in Leading Minds, argues:
“The audience is not simply a blank slate, however, waiting for the first, or for the best, story to be etched on its virginal tablet. Rather, audience members come equipped with many stories that have already been told and retold in their homes, their societies, and their domains. The stories of the leader—be they traditional or novel—must compete with many other extant stories; and if the new stories are to succeed, they must transplant, suppress, complement, or in some measure outweigh the earlier stories, as well as contemporary oppositional ‘counterstories.'”
As you put your speech together, it would take a certain form or shape. Then you would start to think about if the advice and wisdom you are giving matches up with your own life. Howard Gardner again: “It is important that a leader be a good storyteller but equally crucial that the leader embody that story in his or her life.”
These are all simply things to ponder as you stop and reflect on your life and leadership. Most of us will go our lifetimes without ever giving such a speech, but as Gardner reminds us, in reality, our daily words and actions, accumulated slowly into our lives, are our graduation speech. Each of our lives is telling a story, and as redeemed persons who have been purchased by the blood of Jesus, our task as Christians is to simply tell of what God has miraculously done in us. Lives lived in gratitude tell a story much greater than our own contrived narratives of success and rising to the top. That is the speech worth sharing with our lives, giving all glory and praise to God for all the great things he has done.