Editor’s note: This is an edited version of the commencement speech given by Sen. Paula Dockery before the first graduating class of USF Polytechnic in Lakeland, a campus state lawmakers this year turned into a freestanding university despite its lack of accreditation.
To the class of 2012 -- to all 214 of you -- we're here to celebrate your academic accomplishments and to wish you well as you leave your campus family. You leave armed with a degree from an accredited and well-respected university that will serve as a valuable asset in this challenging economic climate.
It is up to you to take the knowledge you have obtained here in this structured environment and continue to grow. The vast majority of what you will need to know to be successful will be learned after you leave this prestigious university.
Another major determining factor for success is character. While intellect is desired, most major corporations are looking to hire those who show leadership or the potential for leadership.
What makes a strong leader? Let's start by debunking a few misconceptions. A leader is NOT:
- someone who dictates
- someone who rules through fear and intimidation
- someone who abuses their power or authority
- someone who uses unethical or illegal actions
Unfortunately, the current political climate is one in which winning at any cost is considered success even if the outcome is destructive, divisive or wasteful. A true leader doesn't force their will on others, but rather works with others collaboratively to reach a shared goal.
Through my experiences in the Florida Legislature, I've had the opportunity to watch many elected officials attempt to show leadership in numerous different styles. The biggest mistake they make is to believe that you are a leader by virtue of a title, for holding a position does not automatically endow you with leadership qualities.
Through life’s lessons, I’ve come to several beliefs about true leadership that I have tried to emulate throughout my career:
A person of integrity is the same on the outside and on the inside. That individual can be trusted because they never veer from their inner values, even when it is politically expedient to do so. Honest dealings, predictable reactions and an absence of tantrums are all signs of integrity.
A magnanimous leader ensures that credit for success is spread as widely as possible. "To spread the fame and take the blame" is the sign of effective leadership. It encompasses a refusal to be petty and a willingness to face personal risk for principled purposes.
A true leader is open to new ideas and is a good listener. Openness builds mutual respect and trust, and supplies the team with new ideas, better information sharing and a shared sense of purpose.
A fair leader deals with others consistently and justly. A leader must check all the facts and hear everyone out before passing judgment. When people believe they are being treated fairly, they reward that leader with their loyalty.
In a nutshell, my ideal leader is a person of integrity who is fair, magnanimous and listens with an open mind.
Over the past nine months, I've had the opportunity to get to know some of your leadership here at USF Polytechnic. Both the student and faculty leadership expressed their concerns about actions to not only separate the branch campus from USF, but to remove USF completely from Polk County.
What I witnessed was a heartfelt desire to fight to protect their school from disappearing, a noble cause. They did this at great personal risk to themselves, academically and professionally.
Over the course of the nine-month ordeal, they witnessed a political system that ignored the voices of those who would be directly affected. They were frustrated by what can only be described as a textbook example of the antithesis of leadership. But through it all, they collaborated, shared information, sought consensus, treated others with respect, fairness and openness, and only asked to be heard.
I wish I could say that in the end, truth wins out or that hard work always pays off. Unfortunately, in this political climate and perhaps business climate as well, that is not the case.
You were continuously let down by every political decision that was made, starting with the Board of Governors and finishing with the governor, who signed the bill that eliminated USF from Polk County without the courtesy of meeting with you.
You are the last official graduating class of USF Poly before the law takes effect in July. It is bittersweet, but I am honored to have been with you through the battle and to be with you now for this celebration of your accomplishments.
No matter where you are in life -- moving away from home for the first time, or an adult graduating with an advanced degree -- you are starting a new chapter in your life. My hope for you going forward: you will each try to live with the courage to stand up for what you believe in.
Confronting and fighting injustice is not an easy thing to do. At times you will find yourself alone. Your friends and coworkers may be uninvolved or simply swaying with the prevailing wind.
But one day, you will have the opportunity to share your story. You can look back proudly on your accomplishments, whether you win the battle or not. Knowing you fought the good fight, and did the right thing, is a personal moral victory that no one can take from you.
Each of us has a responsibility to do the right thing. It isn't always easy and often it comes at a great personal cost, but that is the measure of one's character.
My favorite inspirational saying is from Edmund Burke, who said: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
I’ve tried to live by Burke’s credo and lead by example, and I can tell you it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it means your ideas won’t be heard. Or you might get assigned a conspicuously small office on a lower floor. Or you won’t get a chairmanship or appointed to serve on a choice committee. You can still be highly effective despite the efforts of others to hold you down.
But you’ll get to carry your head high knowing that you did your best, and maybe one day, you, too, will be rewarded with the chance to come tell another class that looks just like you, to pay it forward.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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