Mary Uhl-Bien

Dr. Mary Uhl-Bien, Professor of Management, Howard Hawks Chair in Business Ethics and Leadership, and Co-Director of the Institute for Innovative Leadership, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on December 17, 2010.

Nebraskans Leading the Way


Graduates, regents, faculty and administrators, friends and family, welcome, and thank you for inviting me to be here with you on this very special day.

So let's get right down to it: You're graduating! What a great feeling! It's so nice to be on this end of it, isn't it? To have made it through all the trials and tribulations, the stresses and sacrifices, the lost sleep. To be about to hold in your hands that piece of paper you've dreamed of for so long...and the anticipation of which has kept you going. How exciting, and what an honor for me to be sharing this day with you. I remember my own graduation, especially my doctoral hooding. It truly changed my life. Attaining education enabled me to do things and to contribute in ways I would never have imagined.

Since then I've experienced graduation differently, but no less significantly. I experience it in the great joy we see here today. I see it in the countdown clocks of Executive MBA cohorts, the workup to the final dissertation or thesis defense, the graduation dinners and celebrations, and meeting the families who are the "silent partners" in these degrees (without whom many of us would not be here today).

I often view getting a graduate degree as like being a parent: No matter how much you think you know, you can't really understand it unless you've been there.

So what now? ...Other than catching up with your loved ones and friends who've had to be put on the sideline, and the TV shows you've been missing? What now?

Well now is the time to take stock. Now is the time to think about the fact that you are the leaders. You hold the key to our future. You have the knowledge and potential to do great things. I'll pause here for a minute to allow a collective rolling of the eyes: Here we go, same old graduation leadership speech.

Well let's not make it the same old. Let's talk about what's new in leadership, and what's new about the future for you.

You may already know this, but we're in a time of a tremendous shift in the world. It's as significant as the transitions during the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. In fact, it's another kind of revolution, the Knowledge Revolution.

The Knowledge Revolution is a fundamental socioeconomic change from a focus on physical assets, efficiency and control to intellectual assets, learning, and adaptability. It involves a shift from hierarchical thinking to a connectionist view. What it means is that leadership is no longer reserved to formal, managerial roles but is the domain of those who demonstrate the capability to advance new ideas and get those ideas to "stick."

You are taking part in this Revolution by investing in your education and learning. You are enhancing your intellectual assets so you can be a critical source of knowledge for those around you.

But the key becomes what you do with that knowledge and how you use it. You have choices. You can use that knowledge to enrich only yourselves, or you can use it to enrich society. We see the results of these choices every day. We have wonderful and inspiring examples of Nebraskans leading the way. Nebraskans like Regent Howard Hawks, who is with us today.

Regent Hawks endowed the Howard Hawks Chair in Business Ethics and Leadership that I am proud to hold. He and his wife Rhonda, through the Hawks Foundation, are working to tackle challenging societal issues and build strong community. They represent the true spirit of Nebraskan values.

We could only wish that all leaders were like Howard and Rhonda Hawks. Unfortunately, we have too many examples of cases where leaders use their knowledge and power to advance themselves at the expense of others.

And I have to be honest, what I see worries me.

As Nebraskans we are all too familiar with the Enron case, but do you know the story of Satyam? Satyam is "the Enron of India."

Satyam was a leading outsourcing company in India... and its founder, Ramalinga Raju, was legendary for his social entrepreneurship and benevolence to the poor. That is, until it all came tumbling down when it was discovered the numbers were faked, and the money had been laundered to the Raju family through a shell company called Maytas, which is Satyam spelled backwards.

Do you know what the word Satyam means in Sanskrit? It means TRUTH. And MAYTAS, the company used to launder the money? Truth spelled backwards.

Examples like this are too many, and the consequences are horrific. What they tell us is that we have to begin to think about leadership and ethics differently. We can't just leave ethics to those "in charge."

We have all heard the calls for ethical leadership, but what about ethical followership? Although I am referring to it as followership, it's really more about leading than following. Recognizing it helps address what I believe is a fundamental problem in leadership and ethics: the problem of hierarchical thinking.

On the leader side, the problem of hierarchical thinking is reflected in the hubris of leaders who lose perspective in the face of our overly glorified, hero models of leadership. On the follower side, it's reflected in the blind obedience of followers who believe that, because they are not the leaders, they are not responsible, or powerless. The problem of hierarchical thinking can be summed up with a quote from Adolph Hitler: "What good fortune for those in power that people do not think."

So, I challenge you. As you look to your future, use your newly developed knowledge to truly think, and share the product of that thinking with those around you. Share it as you lead not only down, but, up and out. Recognize that leading up and out means you don't have to be "in charge" to be a leader. What it does mean is that you take responsibility and demonstrate initiative. You do not leave the responsibility for ethics to others, or make excuses about why you can't, or don't have to, take an ethical stand. It isn't a cliché: Ethics and leadership truly does start and end, with us.

In the world of today, we have not only the capability but the responsibility to make positive change...and in this Nebraskans can and are leading the way. So, to our new Nebraska graduates, I not only congratulate you on this tremendous achievement... but I thank you. You have demonstrated that you have the intellect, self-discipline, and dedication needed to lead the way in this knowledge era.

And don't let this be the end. While you might be receiving what you believe for you is a "terminal" degree, there is no terminal in the need for knowledge today. The world needs people who can think and act in creative and ethical ways. Lock in your ethical compass and don't let it drift in the face of tempting situations. And keep at the forefront of your mind the critical importance of strong ethical leadership—in all its varied forms—from each and every one of you.

Congratulations, and enjoy this day!