The 10 powers of leadership and why they matter

Jill Geisler delivered the commencement address to this year’s graduates of Duquesne University’s School of Leadership and Professional Advancement, where she received her master’s degree in 2004. This is an adapted version of her speech.

Because I sat where you sit today, dressed as you are, I can truly say I know what you are thinking. I know that the men and women in this room are asking themselves one compelling question about the future:

What is my hair going to look like when I take off this mortarboard?

You will look fine. Trust me.

And you will BE fine going forward.

How do I know? Because I believe you have power. In fact, I want you to recognize that, fully and even ferociously. Here’s how:

Would you please turn to the people nearest you in your row and introduce yourself. Please say your name and include this simple phrase:  “I am a power hungry Duquesne leader.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Why do we laugh when we say those words? What is it about the term “power hungry” that makes it so uncomfortable, so negative? Especially for women, as I note in my book.

What’s wrong with craving power? Not a thing – provided you use that power in service of important values. Enduring values. If you use your power for good.

This is why I say today – more power to you. Go for it. Earn it. Multiply it. Share it.

But let me be specific. Let me cite 10 powers I wish for you, 10 powers that distinguish the finest of leaders, no matter where they live or work:

I wish you…

1. The Power of Appreciation: I often ask a class of managers, “Who in here gets too much feedback?” Hands rarely, if ever, go up. In fact, my experience is that employees at all levels are starving for feedback. They have bosses who say, “If you don’t hear from me, assume you’re doing a good job.” That’s asking people to accept neglect as a compliment. Or “I don’t praise people for doing what they’re supposed to.” And we wonder why some organizations struggle with employee engagement.

Now ask that same class how many have saved a thank you note from a boss, a client or a customer. Hands go up. The handwritten note of thanks is treasured, often for years to come.

I wish you…

2. The Power of Encouragement: Somewhere, at this moment, there’s a 5K run under way. Runners are trying for a personal best, or showing support for a cause, or trying to stay healthy. They’re nearing a hill, some are winded and wondering about the wisdom of this adventure – and then there’s the band off to the side, playing the theme from “Rocky,” and the people poised to clap, LOUD, and the crazy signs like ones I’ve seen that say, “They’re running out of beer at the finish, hurry up,” or “You’re so smart and pretty.” And somehow, the power of encouragement provides a second wind. When life and work get challenging, for whom will you provide that second wind?

I wish you…

3. The Power of Critical Thinking: The most important thing my academic career taught me is how much I don’t know  and why continuous learning happens via critical thinking. That’s why questions are such important tools. It’s why assumptions are to be explored before they’re embraced. It’s why biases and blind spots can overtake our best selves, or what we think to be our best selves, unless we’re vigilant. Check sources and context, challenge generalizations and inferences, and never lose sight of the core values that guide you.

I wish you…

4. The Power of Optimism: Emotions, as you know, are contagious. When you are a person of influence, people look to you for cues and clues. We all know people who make the workplace better and brighter just by showing up. They combine realism and pragmatism with hope and a relentlessly positive outlook. And we want to be a part of that person’s team.

I wish you…

5. The Power of Resilience: Resilience is the space and time between disappointment and recommitment, between sorrow and healing, between offense and forgiveness, between setback and, “So what? I’ll try another way.”

May your space and time be a short and sturdy bridge that takes you and those you lead from darkness into light.

I wish you…

6. The Power of Laughter: I write in my book that my guiding values of leadership are humanity, integrity and levity. Levity, not cruel or crude jokes, just humor that brings genuine laughter and happiness into teams and relationships. May you have the power to bring smiles to the faces of others and to laugh at yourself.

I wish you…

7. The Power of Collaboration: Here’s my secret. It’s not all that complicated. Find out what makes a great day at work for someone who does a job you don’t do. Learn what their bosses expect from them, who people in their field mention when they talk about the all-time greats, find out what obstacles get in the way of their success, discover their personal hopes and dreams – and you’ll become a powerful collaborator. You’ll be known for inclusion, always listening for untold stories and unheard voices. You’ll span boundaries and break barriers.

I wish you…

8. The Power of Apology: When they make a mistake, true leaders put taking personal responsibility above saving face. They step up and fess up. Not with squishy passive voice: “Mistakes were made…” With bold active voice: “I let you down.” Not the weasly conditional: “If anyone was offended…” but with the bold and definitive: “I was wrong.” A sincere, specific apology can not only can heal injury, it can raise credibility and build trust. Apology is a hallmark of integrity.

I wish you…

Duquesne University graduates stand during Geisler’s speech.

9. The Power of Choice: You’ve been patient with me through eight powers now, as I took the liberty of imposing my list on you. But you have equally, if not better, thoughts about the power you’d most like to have. And everything we know about motivation says autonomy – the power to choose — is a potent intrinsic motivator. We are most likely to embrace solutions and ideas of our own creation.

So I pause now, before I get to number 10, to invite you to create your personal number nine. I’ll be quiet for a few moments as you choose your preferred power. When you’ve got it, please stand up and stay standing. I’ll wait.

And now as you stand proudly here today, I wish you number 10.

10. The Power of Love: I was tempted to make number 10 the power of inspiration. But on reflection, I chose the power of love. You see, at the root of all inspiration you find love. Love of country, or of faith or of nature or of one’s vocation, love of people who are dear to us. To inspire is simply to put a beautiful frame around that love so it is on display for all to share. And that’s how I want to leave you today – framed in love. There are people who would have treasured being with you today, but could not be. Pause again for a moment, close your eyes if you’d like, and see their faces. Feel their love.

And now, turn your attention to the loved ones who ARE here today. Can you see them? Loved ones, I know you have cameras with you, so get ready to use them. Graduates, please take this moment, to share the power of love – out loud, a true shout out, with whatever words are most meaningful to those who came here to cheer for you. Go for it.

That’s my bonus – Power number 11: The Power to Make a Memory.

Never miss the chance to make a memory.

* * *

Here’s the accompanying podcast to today’s column:

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  • Anonymous

    A fellow Duquesne grad!