Joe’s “Keynote Address to The Penn State Altoona Chapter of The National Society for Leadership and Success”

Thank you, Cody  Stitt, for that warm welcome!

The very first thing I’ll do today is to break a couple of long held traditions. In many ways we are a product of our traditions. So if we want to stretch ourselves we must expand outside of our traditional patterns of doing things. So first, I refuse to start off my talk with that annoying little phrase, “We Are!…”

While we’re at it, how about if I break another tradition?

Today I will not thank all of the high ranking administrators, you know the Deans, the Chancellors, the Governors, the Senators, the Presidents.  I am not going to thank them for making today possible. Because they didn’t.   They move debits and credits back and forth on ledgers and sign their names in approval. But they don’t make important assemblies like this possible. Please join with me in thanking those people who did make today possible.

First the Officers and Executive Board of the Penn State Chapter of the National Society for Leadership and Success. You students pulled together all of the details, coordinated all of the activities, and moved the mountains, all during the busiest part of your semester. You are the reason this society survives and grows.  Thank you!

Next, is Jennifer Plank the society’s adviser, the representative of Penn State University to the Society. Please believe me that there are lots of training sessions for an adviser of student organizations to handle, things that go on behind the scenes during her evenings and weekends. She assumes some personal liabilities, serving as the first line of supervisory oversight. And even when dealing with our best and brightest students in an organization like this one, her agenda is made much more full because of her willingness to serve this function. Yolo Jennifer!

And Then, I would like to thank the tuition and  taxpayers who bear the cost of these facilities. I realize it is hard to measure, but your investment will continue to pay off over the long term.

Next, I would like to thank the visitors here today for coming out and celebrating with your student-hosts. You understand the value of their efforts during these undergraduate years and I hope you will continue to attend to their ongoing achievements. Believe me. If your student is sitting in this room today, either already a member or about to be inducted, you are going to have many future achievements to celebrate. These are our best and brightest. Your support, love and encouragement are the wind under their wings.  Watch them fly!

Now I would like you to all help me express our pride and appreciation for the student members of the Society for Leadership and Success. Joining this organization looks good on your resume, your grad school application, and it is another piece of evidence for your future employer that you are ambitious and energetic. But it still takes time and energy during the part of the year when both are in short supply. Thanks for participating, it will be well worth the effort.  You Rock!

Some of you in this room will remember that I had the honor of addressing last year’s induction ceremony, as well. I think this means one of two things. I could be a fantastic and engaging speaker, or perhaps my fee schedule is set way too low.  Either way, I am delighted to be back. Because this time of year is very special for me.

This is a special talk for me because today is the beginning of the very last week of the semester.  I am privileged to teach Philosophy and History here at Penn State Altoona; and that is a round the clock effort during the school year. Like most of you in this room, my life is comprised of rushing to get ready for the next class. Preparing and delivering fifteen lecture classes a week is tough duty and by the end of the Spring semester, I am depleted.

But in a few days I will be heading out to explore some of the most mysterious questions of the universe, like how to catch largemouth bass in any kind of weather. Why on some days the bass feed in deep water and on other days they hit in the shallows? How’s come on one day the bass will bite nothing but black plastic worms,but the next day they will only bite red ones?  So this will probably be my last week to explore some truly philosophical ideas before my own attention turns to fishing.

What I have to say today involves two philosophical concepts that are the central theme of this society, its reason for existence.

When I was first asked to give this talk,  I’ll admit it,  I wondered what a teacher of Philosophy and History had to offer on the topics of Leadership and Success.  Sure, over the years I have had professions that would be considered positions of leadership. I have been an executive officer in one of the world’s largest financial institutions, as well as an executive in a high tech manufacturing concern. Back during the Cold War, I even led a small Military Intelligence unit as a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Army. But what on earth, I wondered a few days ago, do I have to say to our best students about leadership?  I am not even sure I know what the word means!

Wait, I have taken lots of classes and seminars over the years which purported to teach leadership. I know that when those kind of trainers talk about leadership they mean such important traits as optimism, motivation, team building, goal setting, grooming, decisiveness, and communications.  Those are skills that can be taught or learned.  But taken all together, do these skills add up to leadership?

What I mean is this.  If someone could be an enthusiastic speaker, communicate clearly, motivate subordinates, and set goals, but who marched the organization at a goose step off in a wrong direction, is that leadership? Or is that bad leadership?

See what I mean? Leadership is really an ethical and moral quality. A leader must be someone who imposes an accurate moral compass on an organization, not just a decisive and commanding personality pointing the way. The enthusiasm of the march matters very little. It is the direction that matters the most.

For the good of the group and the individuals in it,  a leader must be able to point to the moral high road, cajole his or her subordinates to stick to that ethical high ground, no matter what. In good times and in bad, the morality of a decision is much more important than the short term profit or loss statement. The ethical development of the team is more important than any other consideration for a good leader. Otherwise, what is happening is not leadership at all. Because leadership must be ethical to be leadership.

This realization places leadership into the realm of ethics and philosophy. What is the right thing to do, the right way to live, and the right way for an organization to behave?

Any answers to these kinds of questions depend on the meaning of the words “right” and “wrong.”  There are various perspectives of multiple stakeholders, there is the need for a fully informed debate, and the talents of leadership would seem to be much different from what we began with.   Decisiveness, self certainty, uniformity of opinion and unquestioning obedience from subordinates, these weaknesses are not in a real leader’s baggage at all, once we disentangle the concept from the common everyday notions of leadership. A leader is someone who listens carefully, avoids decisions that discount minority voices, and who attempts to downplay self in the pursuit of a healthy and ethical organization. And that, my friends, would be a very difficult topic for a ten minute speech.

So I figured I would, instead, talk about Success.

But again, what does a Philosophy and History teacher know about success?

You already know, I hope, that teaching is not one of those fields you go into if you want to accumulate financial wealth.  Especially considering the expensive education that it takes to become a teacher, there is probably no good financial reason to become a career educator.

I am not complaining, mind you. If I were designing the whole system from scratch I would set it up just this way. People should only go into teaching for one reason, that they want to work with students.   Any educator who thinks he or she deserves to get rich probably should have gone into dentistry or investment banking.  The rewards for an educator are many and valuable. But they are not usually financial.

Also, teaching is not one of those fields you go into if you want to build an empire on an organization chart.  In order to claw our way up the corporate ranks, a teacher usually must leave teaching and become an administrator, you know, a department head, Dean, or Chancellor. Some teachers do make these choices. But most teachers recognize their roles and understand the importance of their function in the school and in society. We do not usually become bosses. Instead we are more like bus drivers. We pick up a group of students at one point in their development and take them a few blocks and let them off the bus further ahead, hopeful that their journeys will take them beyond any place on our particular route.

So having chosen a profession with little chance for promotion or financial gain, am I a success?, I wondered. If I am not a success I certainly have no business standing up in front of this society discussing success, do I?

Your invitation for me to speak today motivated me to think long and deeply about this question, and yes, I am a success. Despite the fact that I have never amassed a personal fortune, despite the fact that I am not high on anyone’s organization chart, I don’t live in the expensive part of any exclusive subdivision.  My Subaru with 160 thd miles on it only turns heads because of the old canoe that is usually strapped to the top of it. And most of my clothing comes from my favorite store, the only place I really like to shop, the Goodwill Thrift Store.

But I assure you I am a success. I have been married to the same beautiful smart woman for about twice as long as most of you in this room have been on the planet. Our smart and happy daughter is a student at Penn State (Where Else?) I have had the best job on earth teaching Penn State Altoona students.  I have mostly taught Ethics and American History, the two courses which I believe in my heart of hearts to be the most important two classes offered in the undergraduate curriculum. It has been a delight and a privilege, and yes I am a success.

But if I am a success then perhaps, just as with the word leadership, our common everyday meaning of the word success also needs some close attention.  Success can’t be measured by the size of a bank account or the proximity to the top of an organization chart. Success can mean many different things to various people. And who is to say what the word really means for anyone else?

So here I am at an impasse of sorts. I was asked to speak to you today about leadership and success. But once you strip the platitudes away from these words, their real meanings are quite different from the common everyday understanding of the terms. So I must admit, right here in public, that I am not really sure I can tell you what the words leadership and success really mean.

But I can still offer some practical advice; but to do this I have to remove the toga of the Philosophy and History teacher and put on the waders and vestments of a lifelong fisherman.  Fishing has taught me much about success!
For example, success does not mean unending happiness.   There will be miserable weather, mosquitoes, sunburn and tangled lines in your fishing future.  Success does not mean you are always comfortably gliding through the still water in your canoe with the breeze at your back.  Sometimes you will need to paddle against the wind and the current will be against you. Last Fall, for example, on a nearby river, my wife and I had parked one car sixteen miles downstream figuring we would fish with the current and get there just as the sun went down.  But the fish were biting so well in the afternoon that I forgot to make forward progress in our canoe.  I learned the hard way that there would be rocks, rapids and the dark of a moonless night to plan for, even if the fish were biting during the day. After swamping our canoe over rocks several times that night, bailing out the water at the bottom of heard but unseen rapids, and the loss of some important gear, I learned that even a successful fishing trip might not be much fun.

Success does not mean you always catch fish.  Sometimes you will be throwing your favorite lure in the best fishing hole and the fish are just not hungry that day. Any bass fisherman can tell stories of seeing big fish in the water and offering them every lure in the tackle box. It can be quite frustrating. Sometimes others around you will be catching fish, BIG FISH, while you seem to catch nothing but snags. Can you still enjoy fishing on those days? Then you are a successful fisherperson.

And sometimes, the most successful trips in your life will be measured in ways that you could never have expected. No prior goal setting, budget, or mission statement would be able to prepare you for some of the surprises in store for you. If you were to ask me about my most successful fishing trip ever, I would tell you a true story about a trip two years ago. And I can’t remember if I even caught one fish that day!

On a nearby lake, I had been fishing from a canoe in some thick lily pads. Right before sundown I heard a splash and a snort right behind me, out toward open water. I turned as a black bear was swimming right toward me, not eight feet away.  He/or she had somehow not seen or smelled me yet, and I am sure I was a comical sight with my fishing line still out from a rod held by one hand, with my other hand reaching for a camera and my third hand reaching for the canoe paddle; with my fourth and fifth hands I was already pulling up the anchor. I am lucky I did not swamp the canoe and take a surprise evening swim with a 300 lb black bear.

Instead, we both stopped and stared at each other for several minutes while I regained my wits and figured out how to open my camera.  People who know bears know that eye contact is their traditional way to express their aggression. But for me, close quarter eye contact was a kind of cross species communications, a magical moment.  He was saying, “Dude, please get out of my way I just swam across this lake and am in no mood to go back.”  I was saying, “Awwwwwwwah! Look at the cute bear with the fuzzy ears.”

But because bears are basically ethical and polite creatures, he or she backed up and swam around me. No need to show me his claws and teeth, he just backed up and successfully went around me. I got some wonderful photographs and memories. And isn’t it funny that I would classify that trip as my most successful fishing trip? And I don’t even remember getting a nibble that day!

See what fishing has taught me that Philosophy could not? Success in many ways is inside us. It is the attitude you have about the life you are leading. It is the pride you feel in the accomplishments you are making, measured not always by financial reward nor by the impression your title makes on your subordinates nor by the tonnage of fish caught or even the meeting of goals you happen to have set the day before. But If you are enjoying the trip you will probably spend more time with a lure in the water.

So here we are on the first day of the last week of Spring Semester and you have made me realize something.  I am successful! In a few days the classes will all be behind us and the final exams will be graded. I will be paddling my canoe into new waters and you will be preparing for those next semesters or grad school or a job. You are successful!

But I will be forever grateful to you for this opportunity to explore the meaning of two complex words today even if we were not entirely successful at pinning down their definitions. I wish you fabulous fishing and success in whatever way you will measure it.


About jmp479

For years I taught History and Philosophy at a community college in Central Pennsylvania. Now I am learning all sorts of things, from growing veggies and fruit, to fixing small engines and maintaining home systems. I am learning to live deliberately. Still love to hear from my past students, though. So drop me a line and tell me what you are up to.
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