Servant leader visionary challenges Brenau graduates to put forth “the best in ourselves” to face the world’s adversities

May 7, 2012
Brenau Staff

Dr. Kent M. Keith, internationally renowned author of “The Paradoxical Commandments” and the chief executive office for the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, addressed close to 4,000 people at Brenau 133rd commencement exercises Friday and Saturday, May 4 and 5. He spoke at both the graduation ceremony for the Women’s College on May 4 and the ceremonies for those who received graduate and undergraduate diplomas through Brenau’s nonresidential campus and online programs on May 5. Here is the full text of his remarks:

Graduation Speaker

It is an honor to be here to participate in this wonderful ceremony. I offer my congratulations to the graduates and to all of you who helped them to arrive at this happy moment today.

My message this evening is for the graduates. Each of you has worked hard, and you have learned a lot. Now is a good time to ask: How are you going to use what you have learned? How will you choose to live the extraordinary lives of personal and professional fulfillment for which this university has prepared you?

Finding Personal Meaning

When I think about fulfillment, I think about deep happiness. What do I mean by “deep happiness”? I mean the kind of happiness that touches your spirit and connects with your soul. It is hard to describe. Some people call it self-fulfillment, or self-actualization, or being centered. Others call it living their passion, or following their bliss. For people of faith, it’s about finding the divine will for their lives, and then living that will.

We know from research and from personal experience that finding personal meaning is a key to being deeply happy. If you want to be deeply happy, you have to stay focused on what is most meaningful in life. To put it another way, if you want to be deeply happy, the most fundamental question is not: Am I a success or a failure? The most fundamental question is not: Do people appreciate me? The most fundamental question is not: Is my life hard or easy? The most fundamental question is: Is my life meaningful? If you can answer yes to that question, you can be deeply happy.

In addition to its importance in finding deep happiness, meaning has two other major benefits. It is an intrinsic motivator, and it is good for one’s mental health.

As you know, people are intrinsically motivated when they do something because they want to, not because they have to. They are intrinsically motivated when they do something because it is interesting, or fun, or meaningful. Research and common sense tell us that people who are intrinsically motivated are more productive, more innovative, more committed, and less likely to burn out than those who are extrinsically motivated.

People who are intrinsically motivated are also psychologically healthier. Edward L. Deci wrote a book titled, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self Motivation. The book included a report on a study done on six types of life aspirations. Three were extrinsic – the aspiration to be wealthy, famous, and physically attractive. The other three were intrinsic – the aspiration to have meaningful personal relationships, to make contributions to the community, and to grow as individuals. Deci reported that individuals with intrinsic aspirations felt better about who they were, and had more vitality and higher self-esteem. They displayed more evidence of psychological health than those who were focused on extrinsic rewards.

So it is important for each of us to find meaning. If that is the case, then the next question is: What do people find to be most meaningful? Over the past twelve years I have surveyed thousands of people asking them to rate various sources of meaning in their lives. I do not have any random samples, so I can’t extrapolate to larger populations. But I have surveyed people of different ages, backgrounds, and geographic locations. The surveys included a lot of college students, as well as business leaders, community leaders, non-profit leaders, army officers, YMCA staff members, attorneys, real estate agents, accountants, and public school teachers.

The results of all the different groups have been remarkably similar. All but one of the groups I have surveyed gave the highest average rating to the same source of meaning – “my family.” On a scale of 1 to 10, the rating for “my family” has always been a 9.0 or higher.

Here are the six sources of meaning that always get high average ratings:

My family

Giving and receiving love

Intimate relationships

Doing my personal best

Living my values

A sense of accomplishment

These are all wonderful sources of personal meaning.

Equally important, I think, is that all the groups I have surveyed so far have given low average ratings to power, wealth, fame, and winning. They usually get a 3, 4, 5 or 6.

What is clear from the surveys is that the things that our commercial, secular society considers to be symbols of success – things like power, wealth, and fame – provide comparatively little personal meaning. People aren’t necessarily against them; it’s just that they aren’t important sources of meaning.

Each of you has talent and ability, and you should use your gifts to the fullest. If you do, you may achieve power, wealth, and fame. That’s fine. The symbols of success are not necessarily bad. They’re just not enough. They’re not enough if you want to be deeply happy. To find personal and professional fulfillment, you need to do more than get ahead – you also need to get meaning.

The Paradoxical Commandments

One of the good things about meaning is that you can always find it, no matter what is happening in the world around you. That’s the message of the Paradoxical Commandments that I wrote for student leaders back in 1968. Some of you may have come across the commandments. Here they are:

1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

3. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.

And finally:

10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

Keith Belk Smithgall
Brenau Trustee Charles Smithgall, right, chats with Dr. Keith and honorary degree recipient Irwin ‘Ike’ Belk before the May 5 Brenau commencement program. Smithgall introduced Keith’s writings to Brenau President Ed Schrader about a year ago, which prompted Schrader to invite Keith to address graduates.

Ten Paradoxical Commandments. The Paradoxical Commandments are guidelines for finding personal meaning in the face of adversity. That’s why the first phrase in each commandment is about adversity, or difficulty, or disappointment. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. People really need help, but may attack you if you do help them.

But each statement about adversity is followed by a positive commandment: Love people anyway. Do good anyway. Help people anyway.

The paradox is that even when the world out there is going badly – even when the world is crazy – we can still find personal meaning and deep happiness. We do that by facing the worst in the world with the best in ourselves. It’s not just about what the world does to us – it’s also about how we respond to what the world does to us. And we can always respond in a way that gives our lives meaning.

We know that there are a lot of things in the world around us that we as individuals can’t control. What we can control is our inner lives. We get to decide who we are going to be and how we are going to live. And we can live our faith, and we can live our values, and we can stay close to our families and friends, and we can do what we know is right and good and true, no matter what. No matter what. The good news is that that is how people have been finding a lot of meaning for a long, long time.

Some people call the Paradoxical Commandments a personal declaration of independence. It’s a declaration of independence from all the external factors that we don’t control. Whatever the world does to us, we can still find meaning and deep happiness.

Others see the Paradoxical Commandments as a “no excuses” policy. Sure, some people are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. So what? That’s no excuse. You have to love them anyway. You don’t want to limit your life by limiting your love. And maybe the good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. So what? You don’t rush out and do bad. You have to do good anyway. That’s your character, that’s your spirit – and that’s where you’re going to find the most meaning.

I am optimistic. I think that if you do what is right, and good, and true, things will usually work out for you, and you will often receive recognition and praise. But what if you don’t? What if you put your heart and mind and soul into a program or project, and it fails? What if you do a brilliant job and nobody notices? The answer is: So what? So what? You still have to be who you have to be. You still have to do what you have to do. You still have to live your faith, and live your most cherished values, and stay close to your family and friends, and do what you know is right and good and true, because that’s where you’re going to find the most personal meaning. That’s where you’re going to find the deep happiness. And you don’t want to give that up. Don’t ever give that up – certainly not when times are tough. Certainly not then.

The Servant-Leader

Now, if you live closely to your most important sources of meaning and are focused on loving and helping others, you may find yourself assuming leadership roles. In that case, you need to be clear about what kind of leader you want to be.

I urge you to live the service model of leadership. Leaders who live the service model are often called servant-leaders. A servant-leader is simply a leader who is focused on serving others. A servant-leader loves people, and wants to help them.

Servant leadership is not about acquiring power, it’s about making a difference. So the servant leader does not ask, “How can I get power? How can I make people do things?” The servant leader asks, “What do people need? How can I help them to get it? What does my organization need to do? How can I help my organization to do it?” Thus, rather than embarking on a quest for personal power, the servant leader embarks on a quest to identify and meet the needs of others. That is the mission of the servant leader: To identify and meet the needs of others.

There are thousands of examples of servant leadership in literature, the movies, history, and daily life today. I think of historical figures like Washington, Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Albert Schweitzer, Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Mother Teresa. While there are a lot of famous servant leaders, most servant leaders have not been known outside the group or community they have served. They weren’t trying to be famous, they were trying to make a difference – and they did.

Keith and Dr.Ed Schrader at Commencement
Keith and Dr.Ed Schrader at Commencement.

Let me give you just one example. Will Hartzell is a friend of mine who learned that each year contaminated drinking water causes the deaths of millions of people around the world. He made a deep personal commitment to change that. He developed solar water pasteurizers that are a simple, low-cost, long-term solution to the problem. In spite of all the naysayers who told him it couldn’t be done, he launched his company, Safe Water Systems, in 1997. Will tells this story:

One safe-drinking-water project that left an indelible impact on me was in Africa. Our Solar Water Pasteurizers were installed in five locations near Arusha, Tanzania. One site was the Selian Hospital. The hospital was not able to afford a water disinfection system and ran the risk of patients actually contracting diseases while at the hospital.

After our equipment was installed, I was watching the patients as they came to get clean water to drink. One woman was in the hospital because her child was gravely ill. After she filled her water bottle and was headed back to her child, she stopped and looked at me. Our eyes met in one of those time-stopping moments. We didn’t speak the same language, but the nurse translated for me. She said, “Thank you. Thank you for giving my child the chance to live.”

At that moment I knew that I would do whatever it took to provide safe drinking water for as many people as I could all over the world.

Since then, Will and his colleagues have installed 4,000 solar water pasteurizers and other water-purifying equipment in 53 countries. The result is that 400,000 people in those countries no longer risk illness or death because of contaminated water. Will Hartzell is a quiet, unassuming servant-leader. He wouldn’t claim to be any different than you or me. He just made a personal commitment to serve others, and now he is saving lives every day.

Leading Change

I encourage you to be leaders of change. As we look around the world, there are plenty of things that need changing. Wars are still raging. Genocide still occurs. There are still thousands of nuclear warheads that could destroy us. Millions are dying of HIV/AIDS, leaving behind millions of orphans. Hundreds of millions go to bed hungry every night, including millions of children here in our own country. And global warming is melting the ice caps, a process that could result eventually in massive flooding of coastal cities. Then there is the economic meltdown that is affecting so many of us. There are plenty of problems in our world.

I believe that servant-leadership is our best hope for making the world a better place. Servant-leaders can be successful leaders of change because they are not distracted by symbols of success like power, wealth, and fame. They might end up with these symbols of success, but that is not their goal. They are focused on making a difference. As a result, they are willing to take a stand, and speak out. They also know that it is not necessary to tear down existing institutions. Servant-leaders know how to work with institutions, or supplement them, or simply bypass them and go straight to the work that needs doing.

Here is just one example. Muhammad Yunus was an economics professor back in the 1970s in Bangladesh, teaching about the nation’s long-term economic development plans. But things were not getting better. Finally, he went out into the villages of Bangladesh, and sat down with the people. He listened, and discovered what he could do to change the relentless poverty of his country. What he discovered was that people needed small amounts of capital. They had no collateral, so banks would not loan money to them. They could borrow from loan sharks, but the interest rates were so high that when they made money, they owed it all to the loan sharks. Yunus saw that the villagers had energy and potential, and the amounts of capital they needed were very small. So he started loaning money out of his own pocket. The first 42 loans he made came to a combined total of U.S. $27. People needed 50 cents or 70 cents to change their lives. Muhammad Yunus and his bank, Grameen Bank, launched the micro-credit revolution that has spread around the world, helping millions of people. In 2006, Yunus and his bank won the Nobel Peace Prize.

It would be wonderful if all our political and business and non-profit and academic leaders were servant-leaders. It would be wonderful if the chief at the top of every organizational pyramid had a servant’s heart. But we don’t have to wait for that to happen. You don’t have to be perched at the top of the organizational pyramid to make a difference. You just have to identify and meet the needs of others. If our focus is not on power, but on service, then each of us can make a meaningful difference. And we may be surprised – the difference we make may turn out to be a big one.

I have learned that if you care about people, and want to live with integrity, and be who you really are, and still get great results – you can! And you will not be alone on your servant-leadership journey. There are servant-leaders everywhere, quietly making a positive contribution to their families, organizations, communities, nations, and the entire world.

My Challenge to You

Let me ask you to do something. Sometime in the next few days, imagine that it is the end of your life, and you are looking back. What will you see? Who were you? Whom did you love? What did you stand for? What difference did you make? Did you do what you were born to do?

Some of you may have seen the movie, Man of La Mancha, when it came out many years ago, starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren. The story line in the movie is that Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, is arrested by the Inquisition and taken to prison, where he tells the story of Don Quixote and the other prisoners help him act it out. Cervantes said something in that movie that really struck me. He said that he had seen people dying with a question on their lips. The question was not “Why am I dying?” The question was “Why did I live?” That’s a terrible question to be asking yourself as you breathe your last breath!

There are many benefits to living the paradoxical life, loving and helping people. There are many benefits to being a servant-leader, identifying and meeting the needs of others. One of the most important benefits is that when you look back at the end of your life, you will not have many regrets. You may not have any. You’ll look back on a life filled with meaning. Even more important, you will not wonder why you have lived. You’ll know. You’ll know. And that is a blessing that I wish for each of you.

And so, this evening I challenge you to be servant-leaders. I challenge you to live the paradoxical life. I challenge you to use your new knowledge and skill not only to succeed, but to help others succeed as well. If you aren’t doing it already, I urge you to start today. Your life isn’t later. Your life is now. You are already extraordinary.

So give your loved ones a lot of hugs and thanks, and celebrate this great day, and then go – go and change the world.

Thank you…and Godspeed!

© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, 2001, 2012