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Lead With Grace

The prepared remarks of Dean James Ryan for the 2017 HGSE Presentation of Diplomas and Certificates.

Welcome graduates, colleagues, family and friends.  Congratulations to you all.

I’d like to begin by thanking all of the families and friends in the audience today.  Each year, I am amazed to hear your stories and to learn about the distances and obstacles you overcame to be here. I share your pride in the accomplishments of our graduating students and your joy at the prospects that lie ahead.

At the same time, I share in the gratitude that I know our graduating students feel toward all of you.

As I have said before, no one makes it to graduation alone.  For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience, and give a round of applause to those who helped you on this journey.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who have worked tirelessly throughout this year to help all of us, and who have worked especially hard to make graduation special for you all.  They are the heart and soul of this place, and they deserve a huge round of applause.

Last but not least, I would like to thank our faculty, who have served not simply as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends.

We will soon hand out diplomas to our graduating students, but before we do that, I am supposed to give  a speech. I thought maybe I would do something different this year, and just read a chapter from this nifty new book, entitled “Wait, What?”

I’m kidding.  Instead, I would like to discuss a topic I have long wondered about:  Grace.  And I will have a very simple suggestion to all of you:  Lead with grace.

But before we get to that, let me just say a few words about this genuinely unusual year.

This has been a year of surprises, to say the least.  Perhaps the biggest one of all was a startling come-from-behind victory that left me and a lot of others throughout our country both shocked and disappointed.  I mean, who would have guessed that the New England Patriots would win the Super Bowl after their poor performance in the first half.  Equally shocking were exploding Samsung Galaxy Phones, United Airlines handling of overbooked planes, the death of Fidel Castro, and the World Series victory of the Chicago Cubs.  It was the year of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, of course, but also of so-called fake news, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the leaking of John Podesta’s risotto recipe, the opening of the Boy Scouts to transgender boys and just recently, and tragically, the bombing at a concert in Manchester, England.

As students, you organized, lead, and participated in countless activities that brought you into the world and brought the world to Appian Way, through events like Askwith forums and debates, 3D dinners, guest lectures, and countless conferences and convenings, from AOCC to Let’s Talk to the first ever Hip-Hop Education Conference at HGSE.  You shared your stories at Double Take. You organized busses for the Women’s march in Washington, DC.  Despite less than completely hospitable conditions, you cruised around the Boston Harbor.  You also bowled, decorated pumpkins, enjoyed Oktoberfest and Thanksgiving Dinner in Gutman, tail-gated at the Harvard Yale Game, and demonstrated, once again, your seemingly unquenchable thirst for free coffee, which explains why tuition rates keep rising, because as everyone in the Higher Ed program could tell you, there is no such thing as free coffee.

You are about to re-enter a world in which disparities and injustices based on income, wealth, race, and religion continue to weaken the fabric of communities around the globe.  Divides along lines of race, class, religion and ideology are rampant and our basic ability to speak with, and to hear, those who differ from us seems to be getting weaker, not stronger.

By coming to HGSE, you have signaled that your response to these divides and inequities is through education. I applaud your choice, as I am convinced that education is the only long-term solution to these long-term problems.  For that reason, I believe that, like the cohorts that came before you, you are the luckiest graduates in the entire university, because you are going to work in education, and there is no higher calling, no more rewarding or meaningful field in which to work.  I hope and trust you feel prepared and inspired for the tasks that lie ahead.  I am confident that you will change the world and change it for the better.  

I ground my confidence, in particular, in your reaction to the presidential election.  I know that the result of the election was deeply disappointing for many of you. This is not meant to be partisan or disrespectful but simply to state a fact about the world, or at least our corner of it. What was most impressive to me, however, was your response:  in the face of the deep divides the election revealed and highlighted, you responded with concern but also with care, compassion, empathy, and, most importantly, with love.  Yes, love, which I firmly believe will always conquer fear in the long run.

I think each class at HGSE has a defining quality, and I have come to think of your class as exceptionally big-hearted, in large part because of what I saw of your collective character after the election, from a rally about solidarity to your participation in a dean’s challenge designed to offer help and ideas to teachers and principals looking to reduce bullying, discrimination and harassment.  Your big-heartedness as a group became crystal clear for me when I attended the art installation on the theme of “love in the time of,” organized by members of the AIE program.  This event, and the widespread participation it induced, seemed to me a fitting capstone for the year and a testament to your character and your motivation.

So whether you are graduating from our Ed.D. program, our Ed.L.D. program, or our masters and CAS programs, I encourage you to continue to use your hands and your heads in your effort to improve the world around you.  But I hope you will also continue to use your hearts.

Which leads me back to the topic of the day: Grace.

Let me say right up front that I truly love the idea of grace, and I have been fascinated by the word and the constellation of concepts it represents for a very long time. I have come to believe that grace is a remarkably powerful word, but it is also somewhat elusive and mysterious, as we’ll get to.  This means that, in a sense, by suggesting you that you lead with grace, which is difficult to define, I may be offering completely meaningless advice, which is unfortunate but perhaps fitting given that this is a graduation speech and I am a dean.

My own quest to understand grace began with family dinners and then a priest, which in turn led me to study Dr. J., Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy, credit cards, Greek mythology, Roman philosophers and, finally, the Simpsons.  Let me explain.

My first encounter with the term grace came when I was a young child growing up in a faithful Catholic family where we said a prayer of thanks before dinner, which we referred to as “saying grace.”  I thought, as a result, that grace meant giving thanks, and in one sense, it does. 

No sooner did I think I understood the term, however, then I was confused by it, and this was my first inkling of the versatility, mystery, and power of the word.  I became confused because my parish priest often ended mass by suggesting that we “go in peace and go with grace.”  I got the first part about peace, which is why I always waited until we got to our family car after mass before I began fighting with my sister. 

But I didn’t understand what the priest meant by “go with grace.”  Each time he said this, I reflexively looked around to see if my Aunt MaryGrace was in the church, because I thought he was literally telling me to go home with my Aunt Grace, but that seemed odd to me and obviously not what he was suggesting.  Still, I had no idea what he was talking about.  (By the way, I should say that years later I googled the phrase “go with grace,” and I discovered that Go with Grace is actually the name of a tour bus company in Michigan that takes travelers to casinos and is run by a woman named Grace—but I’m pretty sure that’s not what my priest was suggesting.)

In a way, I have been trying to figure out what it means to go with grace ever since.  I learned, through Sunday school, about the Christian concept of God’s grace—the mysterious mixture of love and mercy that God bestows on fallen mortals, regardless of whether they deserve it or not.  So for a while, I thought that grace was a religious word, and indeed it is, and an important one, not just for Christian religions but for a host of religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism.

It was Dr. J., however, who taught me that grace also has a secular meaning, because Dr. J. showed me what it means to be graceful—an adjective that is helpfully defined as having or showing grace.  Julius Erving, or Dr. J. as he was called, played basketball for the Philadelphia 76ers from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s.  I was a huge sports fan and spent a lot of time watching sports in front of the television as a kid.  Dr. J. was like no other player I had ever seen.  He moved like flowing water and eluded defenders as if they were suspended in time—indeed, he himself seemed less beholden to either gravity or time than anyone else on the court.  To watch him play was to be transfixed and to realize he had a quality that you and others lacked—and that quality was grace.  In Dr. J, grace was a combination of elegance and confidence, leavened with a certain quietness and humility.  I admired him deeply because I, too, played basketball, but I only had one of these qualities—humility—and that was appropriate because I loved the game but I wasn’t very good.  My only real talent in basketball was causing opposing players to foul me by knocking me down, which meant that I was an expert in getting run over by larger and faster players.  This was useful to my team, but taking a charge, as it was called, was not exactly graceful. 

I came to appreciate other aspects of grace through my admittedly somewhat odd obsession with first ladies. I’ve always thought first ladies have a nearly impossible job in part because they are in the spotlight but have no particular mandate.  Those who become popular are inevitably described as gracious or graceful.

This was true of Eleanor Roosevelt, who taught me the meaning of graciousness, and of Jackie Kennedy, who taught me that style and courage are also a part of grace. As for Eleanor, as I like to call her, I read a story about her once, which might actually be a myth but stuck with me.  At a dinner she was hosting at the White House, a guest mistakenly drank from his finger bowl.  To spare him any embarrassment, Eleanor immediately drank from her finger bowl, and then the rest of her guests followed.  In this small gesture, Eleanor showed that graciousness is not about good manners or following etiquette, as is sometimes thought.  True graciousness is about empathy and inclusion—about making others feel welcome.

Jackie Kennedy, in turn, had mesmerizing style, an uncanny combination of erudition, charm, and aloofness that was unique and authentic to her.  She also showed remarkable courage and composure after her husband, J.F.K., was assassinated.  Ernest Hemmingway is credited with defining courage as “grace under pressure,” and this is precisely what Jackie Kennedy showed in the aftermath of the assassination of her husband.  I’ve watched the footage J.F.K.’s funeral procession dozens of times, and every time I watch I’m in awe of the way that Jackie Kennedy carried herself.  It’s hard to describe, much like grace is hard to describe, but it was a mixture of dignity and quiet resolve.  In these ways, Eleanor and Jackie, as I like to call them both, widened in my mind the scope of grace to include not just elegance and quiet confidence, as shown by Dr. J., but also graciousness toward others, as well as authentic style and courage.

Oddly enough, credit cards introduced me to yet another wonderful facet of grace—unearned forgiveness.  This came in the form of the so-called grace period, which was the period after the official due date during which you could submit payment without incurring any late fees.  Let’s just say that the grace period was a helpful and quite familiar feature of my life in my early 20s.  I never understood why credit card companies didn’t simply shift the due date back a bit, but that’s probably because I didn’t yet understand behavioral economics.  Regardless, I didn’t complain but instead came to greatly appreciate the concept of grace as forgiveness, financial or otherwise.

So I learned from these examples that grace is about gratitude.  It’s about elegance and confidence in movement, which is what we usually mean by the term graceful, and it’s about empathy and inclusion, which is to me the true meaning of the term gracious.  Grace is also about authentic style and courage, and it’s about forgiveness.

But even these examples don’t do complete justice to the word.  Whether you look back in time or across the modern landscape, you see varied examples and descriptions of grace everywhere you look.  In Greek Mythology, the Three Graces, all daughters of Zeus, represented charm, beauty, and creativity. Roman philosophers like Seneca and Cicero considered grace a virtue, and modern philosophers continue to study grace, defining it as an intentional act of unmerited favor, or as an inclination to promote others’ interests and bring them joy.  Yet grace is not just the subject of secular philosophers.  It is also, as mentioned, a deeply spiritual word.

And yet there is still more.  There are grace notes that composers use to embellish their scores, and there is the beloved hymn Amazing Grace.  There are some who grace us with their presence and others who fall from grace.  There are graceful entrances and there are graceful exits, the latter of which our own Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot examined in a chapter entitled, appropriately enough, Grace, in her book on the subject of exit.  And the depth and complexity of the word grace is increased even further by the posse of terms with which it often travels, arm in arm like trusty companions.  So we regularly hear not just of grace, but of grace and dignity, grace and mercy, grace and beauty, and grace and courtesy.

In my view, there is no other word in the English language quite like grace in its breadth, depth and complexity.  It represents and embodies an alluring and unique collection of traits and actions that are bound together by no other word.  In this sense, grace calls to mind, or my mind at least, a classic scene from the Simpsons where Homer asks his daughter Lisa, who has declared herself a vegetarian, if she really means that she’s not going to eat meat from any animal ever again.  “What about bacon?”  he asks, incredulously.  “Or ham?  Or porkchops?”  Homer clearly thinks these meats all come from different animals.  Lisa replies: “Dad, those all come from the same animal.”  And Homer says “Yeah, right, some wonderful maaagical animal.”

Grace is a wonderful, magical word.  Grace is where style and substance meet; grace is about the seemingly superficial but, properly understood, the genuinely profound; grace is a way of moving through the physical world and a way of touching the realm of the spiritual.  It is a concept that is at once both evocative and elusive.  It is also a concept that seems somewhat nostalgic and countercultural, in a world that is often both too harsh and too coarse, a world where brashness and bravado seem far more common and rewarded than the gentler and subtler acts—and art—of grace.

All of this leaves me deeply admiring of this multi-faceted word and all that it embodies.  And it is for this reason that I would like to suggest that you lead with grace.

I mean “lead” here in two senses of the word lead.  First, when in doubt, lead with, or you might say, go with grace.  This is how I have personally come to understand what my parish priest was telling us years ago, though I’m not sure this is what he had in mind.  But to me, it’s not a bad idea, when unsure what to do or how to respond to life’s various challenges, to lead with, to go with, grace—to ask yourself, in other words, what it would mean to act or respond graciously or gracefully.  My speech last year was about essential questions.  You might think of this year’s speech as about an essential answer, and that answer is grace.

In suggesting that you lead with grace, I’m also referring to the fact that, if you aren’t already, you are all going to be leaders some day, and some day soon, in ways both large and small.  Collectively, you will lead classrooms, schools, school systems, organizations and offices.  You will lead in homerooms and in boardrooms.  You will be leaders in politics and in your families.  You will lead in your communities and in your countries.  And my simple plea is this:  Lead with grace.

To lead with grace, to me, means to lead with gratitude and with courage.  It means to lead with forgiveness and to lead in the service of others.   It means to lead with authenticity and with a combination of confidence and humility.

As I learned many years ago, grace is about gratitude, and to lead with grace is to lead grateful for the opportunity and with thanks to those around you.  To lead is a privilege, partially earned and partially due to all sorts of luck, and to lead well is necessarily to rely on others.  Those who have entrusted you to lead and those on whom you depend deserve your gratitude, and you shouldn’t hesitate to show it every chance you can.  Never be a reluctant leader—it’s disrespectful to those who are counting on you and those you are counting on.

To lead with grace is also to lead with courage.  Grace is not about being a push over in order to make everyone feel good; grace is more about quiet determination.  As leaders you will face all sorts of pressures and you may be tempted to choose the expedient over the difficult.  To lead with courage, to lead with grace under pressure, is to choose the right path, even if it’s not the easiest or most popular one. It means having the foresight and the fortitude not to respond to insult with insult but to rise above.  And to have the strength, above all, not to blame others but to instead accept the responsibility that comes with leadership.

At the same time, to lead with grace is also to lead with a forgiving heart—to recognize, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, that forgiveness is not an occasional act but a constant attitude. It is to recognize and appreciate human frailty, including your own.  To know that mistakes are inevitable, that no one is as bad as his worst act, and to believe that redemption and rehabilitation are always possible.  Above all it is to lead with an appreciation of the awesome and ultimately self-redeeming power you will possess to forgive others.

To lead with grace is to lead in the service of others.  As the story about Eleanor Roosevelt suggests, to be gracious is to make others feel at ease—to selflessly provide others, in a sense, the opportunity to feel graceful themselves.  To lead with grace is to recognize that true leadership is not about you.  It’s about creating the conditions and opportunities for others to be their graceful best, whether they are your students, your children, or your colleagues.

Grace is also about style.  This may seem superficial at first, but style matters and is inevitable—every leader has a style, whether that leader is a parent, a teacher, a principal, or a CEO.  To lead with grace means not to lead with Jackie Kennedy’s style, though that might be great if you could pull it off.  It means to lead with a style that is true to who you are.  When I was a law student at the University of Virginia, our peer advisor gave us memorable advice about how handle job interviews. He told us:  “Just be yourself, unless you are a jerk, in which case you should be someone else.”  That might work for an interview, but trying to be someone else won’t work when you are a leader.  To lead with grace you must be at ease with yourself, and you can’t be at ease with yourself if you’re trying to be someone else.

One last point, which is really two, but I’m sure you’re getting tired so I’ll combine these two points into one.  To me, grace is where confidence and humility intersect. This is what I saw when I watched Dr. J., who was confident, but quietly so, and who exuded both elegance and humility.  Most truly graceful athletes, dancers, and musicians seem to me to possess a quiet confidence in their abilities; they also communicate humility, either implicitly or explicitly.  They seem to appreciate the natural gifts they possess but also seem aware—perhaps because they are so close to perfect—that perfection is impossible. To lead with grace is to lead with this combination of confidence and humility.  Confidence in your abilities, but enough humility to recognize that you may be gifted but you will never be perfect.

Gratitude, courage and forgiveness, service to others, authenticity, and confidence and humility.  Admittedly, that’s a lot to remember, and I recognize that graduation speeches are often forgotten.  So let me suggest that you remember just one word from this speech:  grace.  Even if you don’t instantly remember all that this word means, I am confident that if you remember grace, it will help you find the right path.  You all possess grace in your own way; you are both graceful and gracious.  I not only believe that, I have seen evidence of it all year.  Embrace your grace, cultivate it, and share it with the world, which desperately needs it.  In short, and in sum, not to mention in rhyme, as you depart Appian Way to make the world a better place, may you always, always, lead with grace.


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