The Last Lecture

Brown Leadership Learning Community
April 19, 2018

Perhaps it is best to ensure that we are all on the same page with the last lecture concept. Often colleges and universities have asked professors to give their last lecture prior to retirement, or to consider their demise and to talk about what matters most to them.

I found the assignment to be a difficult one for a couple of reasons, first, because I felt like I just arrived at Bellarmine. When they called to ask me last fall, I was hesitant to say “yes” and suggested some much better speakers, but in the end I conceded. However, I was hoping that they may have forgotten as the spring arrived. I haven’t actually spent my career giving lectures like many faculty routinely do, but here we go. Let’s hope that my first lecture will not be my last lecture!

Perhaps the most famous last lecture was given by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon as he was in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. He had so much to say and so little time and he wanted to leave the last lecture for his children. I have loved his book and his courage. I cannot do him justice, but I will journey on with this assignment.

Remember where you came from.

Perhaps it is best to start from the beginning. I was the third of three children born to parents who grew up together as next door neighbors. Both sets of grandparents lived in my hometown, Woodbine, Iowa, with a population of 1,400 people. There were 65 students in my graduating class. As most of you know, I am a first generation college student and I simply followed my sister to college because my secretarial skills were not sufficient (in my opinion) to land me a job in Omaha with my three best friends.

Fortunately, I loved college from day 1 and everything about it. I am not sure what I imagined it to be, but it was exhilarating and so much more. I had instant name recognition on campus because I looked like my sister and she was a respected student leader on campus. And while I will continue to introduce you to some of my story, I would rather spend my time today talking about your potential and some advice I have for you to consider as you move forward.

No hill is too high for a climber.

This is a statement of encouragement that my father often told me. This encouragement gave me confidence that I could do whatever was in front of me. I have gone back to this quote throughout my lifetime especially since my dad passed away 20 years ago. Some challenges are greater than others, but you have to start with believing that you are up to the challenge. You have walked the hills of Bellarmine literally and figuratively. You are climbers and when you graduate, you will be prepared to climb much bigger hills.

Not everyone loves their job...but they should.

This is a quote from my mother who often said to me, “not everyone loves their job, Susan,” to which I always responded to her, “but they should.” I am idealistic that way. I admire those who step away from a career or position in which they are not motivated. Life is too short to hate your profession or your workplace.

Most of you will spend a great amount of time in the workplace. Actually, you and your colleagues may spend much of your lives together. Perhaps that doesn’t happen as much anymore, but in any given week, if you are working full time, you will likely spend most of your “awake” hours in your workplace.

That is why it is so important to “love what you do.” Once you find your passion, you will never really feel like you are working. I never considered my work to be a job—I prefer to use the term vocation.

Learn more from your failures than your success.

Playing sports helps you learn how to accept defeat and how to move onto the next contest. Music performances and theatre can teach life lessons as well. I think this is the healthy aspect of competition and performance. It helps you drive toward excellence. It forces you to deal with failure and the joy of success. You learn about teamwork, how to manage conflict and to become resilient.

As you apply for jobs after Bellarmine, you will likely face some rejections. That is OK and it usually works out in the end, but that is easy for me to say. Actually, when I applied to my last institution the first time, I was rejected and I resubmitted my application a year later after I had finished my Ph.D. and received the position I had applied for a year earlier. In the last three years, I interviewed for a dozen presidencies before I accepted the Bellarmine offer. I am so glad I persisted. You have to be willing to set aside your ego and learn from each experience.

Stand up for your principles even if you stand alone.

Whether you are a leader or a colleague, you have an obligation to uphold the core values of the institution or the organization in which you work. What does that mean? We have some current examples if you read the paper or watch the news. Starbucks is recovering from an incident in which an individual manager made the decision to arrest two African American males that were hanging out in Starbucks. There were many others “hanging out” in that store as well, but for some reason, the manager decided to call the police. The police handcuffed and arrested the two African American males. It was clearly an incident of racial profiling.

Starbucks will close their stores for a day at the end of May across the country to provide racial justice training for all employees. One session will not be enough, but apparently Starbucks is committed to this and kudos to them for identifying the problem and working toward reparation.

We are all bystanders to injustices throughout the course of our lifetime. What will you do to make a difference? How will you stand up for your values? I was pleased to see ADG collect signatures of campus community members agreeing to intervene in situations of domestic violence. Raising awareness and calling for action are steps to improving the climate for everyone.

Family and friends are the most important people in your life.

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent.” Barbara Bush.

She went on to say “One thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children, they must come first. You must read to your children, and you must hug your children, and you must love your children. Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”

As a dean of students, I often said something similar. No one regrets that they did not party enough in college, but you will likely regret if you did not prepare for class and read the materials, if you did not take the opportunity to study abroad, do an internship or go on a retreat or participate in the life of the university. Those are experiences that will be difficult to replicate. The time for that commitment is now.

Find a community that shares your values.

You are in a community now that has a shared sense of values—hospitality, Merton Spirit, illumination and inspiration. Bellarmine provides a healthy balance of challenge and support which promotes your growth. We attempt to educate you as a whole person—body, mind and spirit. This is what inspires me every day. I encourage you to continue to find this sense of community throughout your lifetime, if not in your workplace, in your place of worship, in your community and in your home.

Lift up others along the way.

It is our job to pay it forward, to show others the way, to lift up others. As you lift up others, I encourage you to break out of your comfort zone and to encourage others to do this as well. Tap others for leadership, involve them in decisions, get to know them personally, learn from them and help them grow as well. The investment you make in others is the legacy that you will leave long after you depart. You will impact other organizations, communities and policies based on the investment you make in those around you.

Speak from your heart.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou.

If you speak from your heart, people will recognize who you are and what you stand for. Life is too short to think that you will be given another opportunity like the one that is in front of you on any given day. Be your authentic self.

Be humble.

If you look at leadership as a service rather than a position of power, it will not involve your ego. Always attempt to be a good listener and to learn from every situation. Servant leadership, defined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970, focuses on serving others, not on power or control. Your personality should not change when you move into a leadership position.

Respect is something you spend a lifetime earning but it can be taken away in a heartbeat.

Being respected and fair are important values for a leader. Treat everyone with respect and you will be respected in return. Acknowledge the contributions of others and give them credit. A good leader does not need to take credit for the achievement of the organization but rather should credit the collective community for the accomplishments. How you carry yourself as you advance in leadership will be observed, discussed, debated and questioned. My suggestion is that you remember where you came from and you acknowledge everyone in the organization as a companion and a colleague.

I can’t really say that I fulfilled my childhood dreams because I wasn’t even planning to attend college, yet, that is where I have spent my entire career. I can say, however, that I loved every minute of my work and none more than this year as I finish my first year at Bellarmine. This is a community that will continue to support you throughout your lives. I have witnessed that with so many of our alumni/ae and I look forward to continuing to support you on your journeys.

Are there any questions?