Leaders Are Made, Not Born

Editor's Note: This president's address to the class of 2007 was delivered at the 32nd commencement of the School of Visual Arts at Radio City Music Hall on May 10, 2007. It has been modified onlyslightlyfor this publication. 

As I spent almost every evening of the last few weeks going to opening after opening after opening, I was impressed—as I usually am—with the quality of student work. I was also struck by two other aspects. First, in those disciplines which are technology intensive, the level of cooperation has increased dramatically. There are more of you working together to achieve great things than has been the case in the past. We may finally put an end to the myth of the starving artist working desperately alone whose greatness is only to be discovered postmortem. This is a good thing.

At the same time, I was impressed with the level of responsibility each of you took for your own contribution to what is best described as SVA's unending, end-of-year extravaganza. Again, there was no attempt to hide one's work. No attempt to hide one's responsibility for its success or failure. In this I think art students as a whole—and certainly those at SVA—are a positive example in a world which has increasingly devalued responsibility, honor and, yes, even shame.

I was also struck by some work that I saw as decidedly selfless and deliberately mindful of others. It was work which encouraged those of us who appear and who are, in fact, privileged to give back to those who are less fortunate—and not in an easy way by writing a check, but by the investment of personal time and effort. I am frankly dismayed at the amount of money wasted by well-intentioned organizations in the constant quest for funds. Although these organizations make heartrending pleas on behalf of worthy causes, it never occurs to many of them to find a way for those of us who are otherwise engaged to participate in small but meaningful ways in these worthy causes.

Similarly, it has been my experience that the political class is interested in my opinion in direct proportion to the size of my monetary contribution. This practice is particularly unsettling when those doing the asking are very likely to have no opponent against whom to run. Over the last decades the system has gone from one in which we clearly knew that as Americans we were all in the same democracy—that our fates were intertwined, and that my doing well did not mean that someone else needed to do badly—to one in which success is now defined as admission to an exclusionary gated community.

It is time, therefore, to resurrect those institutions which gave us a sense of continuity, which encouraged us to cooperate and which allowed us to achieve some of the great things that the United States did in the 20th century: overcome the Great Depression, defeat fascism and allow Stalinism to destroy itself.

I was reminded recently that the last major United States governmental figure to resign for having failed was Robert McFarland, President Reagan's national security adviser, who was distraught at his Iran Contra failures. The last 20 years, however, show no signs of such integrity. In fact, it is difficult to think of a time in which there is so little integrity and at the same time so little outrage.

But after decades where the government has been portrayed as the enemy and some of its most essential functions privatized, it should not be surprising that the social networks—which bound us together as a nation, which framed the belief that competence was a given, telling the truth the norm—have atrophied. They are certainly not the norm of today's public discourse.

As some of you may know, Lee Iacocca, who in addition to his work at Chrysler, was instrumental in saving the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, has written a book entitled Where Have All the Leaders Gone? He is, to put it mildly, critical of current trends. Since this is a family event I have expurgated some of Mr. Iacocca's more colorful language. He says, in part:

We have got a gang steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car... The most famous business leaders are not the innovators, but the guys in handcuffs... Some of us are sick and tired of people who call free speech treason. 

Mr. Iacocca has a formula for identifying leadership which he calls “The Nine C's.” I won't attempt to recount them here, but they are obvious and obviously correct. He does make one additional important point that is worth repeating. In the last election, only 45 percent of those eligible to vote actually did. If you think your vote doesn't count, ask President Gore.

It shouldn't be surprising that when 23 percent of the population can control the levers of political power that they stack the deck against the other 77 percent. Could this be why income inequality in the United States is higher than it has been since before the Great Depression? Could this be why we have a dysfunctional health care system which, while costing twice that of the average industrial country, gives us higher infant mortality rates and shorter life spans? Could this by why we have an educational system where grants are meager and debts are plentiful? And could this be why we seem to have an economic system which encourages an almost Hobbesian war of all against all in the hope of financial success? Ultimately we don't have leaders because we don't have voters who will hold leaders to account. The question is not “Where have all the leaders gone?” but rather, where have all the voters gone?

So, as you leave SVA today, I think it best to recreate the start. Those of you who attended freshman orientation four years ago know what I mean.

I am sure by now that if I asked you if you were registered to vote, you would raise your hand.