2004 Convocation Remarks

President Scott S. Cowen
President's Convocation for New Students and their Families
Tulane University
August 21, 2004

Leadership, Integrity and Wisdom

It gives me great pleasure to welcome the classes of 2008 and 2009 to Tulane University. Today, you begin a journey unlike any you have taken in the past, a journey to shape the rest of your life in ways that will have a profound impact on whom and what you become.

The Tulane community you join is a proud, accomplished and historic one. Our university was founded 170 years ago as the Medical College of Louisiana. Since that time, the university has evolved into one of the most distinguished and respected institutions in the United States and world. Our graduates have gone on to highly successful careers in every walk of life and stand among the most accomplished alumni groups in the country.

Your class is testimony to our continued strength, for you are among the most accomplished students to enter any university in the country this fall, as determined by your academic achievements in high school and in your communities. Much is expected of you, and I have no doubt that you will prove, over time, to have the will and strength of character to realize your awesome potential.

You also enter college at an interesting time in our country’s history. The tragedy of 9/11 looms large in our minds and hearts, our country is engaged in a war against terrorism, our troops—many of whom are your age—are engaged in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are about to take part in another presidential election of monumental importance to the future of our nation. These are perilous times. Hope still reigns, but seriousness of purpose is demanded of all of us as we meet the challenges ahead.

Your seriousness of purpose begins today as you embark on your studies and develop the habits of the heart, mind and spirit that will determine your future.

How will you use this extraordinary opportunity? My hopes for you would be that you use this gift of education to expand your intellectual horizons, to engage in advanced citizenship, and to use every experience as a chance to learn more about yourself, those around you and the world. In essence, I want you to use these college years to hone and develop your intellectual, interpersonal and social skills so you can become extraordinary leaders.

One of our highest priorities at Tulane is to provide an environment that will allow you to explore and develop your capabilities to lead—and to lead with both integrity and wisdom. As a longtime professor of management, in addition to my role as university president, I have always been fascinated by the concept of leadership and the characteristics that distinguish effective leaders.

I would like you to think for a moment of someone you consider an incredible leader. It might be a teacher you’ve had, or your parents, or a friend, or even a public figure. Think about what it is about that person that makes you consider him or her worthy of respect or admiration. Is this person an effective communicator? Trustworthy? Empathetic? Or some combination of these or other personal characteristics?

The person who came to mind when I did that exercise was Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 26th president. Teddy Roosevelt overcame physical handicaps to achieve remarkable things. He was a man for all seasons, intellectually and practically. A man of courage and character, demonstrated time and time again in everything he did. A visionary when it came to global and environmental issues. A man of honor, with the important characteristics of wisdom and integrity.

Teddy Roosevelt held an important position as a world leader, of course, but one reason I wanted you to think about your own leaders in terms of teachers or parents or friends is that leadership really is not about what position you hold in life or how much wealth or power you obtain. Leadership is about your ability to inspire and motivate others to achieve things they did not think were possible.

Matter of fact, as I think of other leaders I admire I often think of Tulane students much like the ones in the front today who organized this very successful orientation program. I know many of these students personally and I am often inspired by their dedication to this university and the community. They excel in the classroom and always seem to have time to give to others. These students are leaders in the best sense of the word. Emulate them, and you are off to a good start.

Now, you may be thinking, “I’m not a leader. If I were, I’d know it by now.” But I’m here to tell you that leadership skills can be taught—it’s not a “gene” you must be born with in order to become a leader, and my aspiration for all of you is that you will use your years here at Tulane to learn those skills that will help you take your place in society, whatever that place may be.

What are these leadership skills? Many, when they think of leaders, focus on people with charisma, that magnetism of personality that tends to draw people to them. While charisma is sometimes a helpful trait to have, it is a trait of personality, not of leadership.

Leaders generally have other, learnable traits: being able to communicate effectively; relating to all different types of people; focusing on results; and-—most important—acting with integrity and wisdom.

Integrity is, quite simply, the most important characteristic of an effective leader. Integrity implies trustworthiness, candor and openness in communications. A person of integrity does the “right” thing, not the “easy” thing when faced with difficulties. Integrity inspires belief, loyalty and trust. And without trust, there is nothing.

Wisdom is a more elusive concept but is equally important in becoming an effective leader. Wisdom is achieved by always striving for knowledge, having a willingness to listen and learn, assuming reasonable risks in life, and constantly questioning. Individuals of wisdom are a rare breed to be nurtured and emulated whenever possible.

You might still be wondering how this applies to you, how you can work on this “leadership thing” while attending classes, learning a new environment and, yes, even having a social life. You might already have leadership experience and be interested in some of the obvious means of working on your leadership skills—joining organizations, participating in athletics, or taking part in community activities, for example.

But if you’re not a joiner, don’t despair. You can provide exemplary leadership by your individual actions as you live your life responsibly and wisely. Everyday people doing everyday things can show exceptional leadership to those within their sphere of influence.

And as paradoxical as it sounds, sometimes you can lead by following. It takes wisdom, self-confidence and often even courage, to recognize when it’s better to stand back and let others point the way rather than always thinking your way is best.

Above all, get out there and take part in the life of the university; much of what you learn here about leadership takes place in the classroom as well as in co- and extra- curricular activities. You will be enjoying life in a rich cultural mix of people and ideas and beliefs. Listen, learn and discern. From that, leadership will grow. Set high standards for yourself and don’t be satisfied with anything other than your best effort.

My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, gave us all sage advice: “Keep your eyes on the stars,” he said. “And keep your feet on the ground.”

And, I might add, keep your feet out of the French Quarter on Saturday night, but that is a topic for another day.

You start your Tulane life with a clean slate today. What you have accomplished in the past resulted in your admittance to the university. It is now time to add another important chapter to your life’s record -- a chapter that will significantly shape your future. Avail yourself of all the wonderful opportunities this university has to offer and make every minute of every day count. This education is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- don’t waste it. Make wise decisions, seek help if you need it, and keep in touch with your parents. This will keep them happy, and happy parents are always more understanding and generous.

I close today with two keys messages to the parents in the audience. First, don’t worry, they will be fine. You have done your job and gotten them this far. It is now their turn, with our assistance, to complete the next phase of their journey into full adulthood.

Second, there is definitely life after you leave them this weekend. Enjoy these times, go out more, read more books, take long walks and don’t get a dog.

Thank you, and welcome to Tulane.

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638