Elsewhere on the Web I’ve read the commencement speeches of Steven Jobs at Stanford and of Neil Armstrong at the University of Southern California. My favorite commencement speech of recent years, however, is the one given by Jeffrey Immelt, the 49-year old chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric.
Following Jack Welch as head of GE, Immelt now seeks to fill some of the biggest shoes in American business history. In June 2004 Immelt gave the commencement address at the Dartmouth College graduation ceremonies in which he also received an honorary degree. Immelt himself is a 1978 graduate of Dartmouth.
When Immelt was announced as the commencement speaker, the college newspaper (The Daily Dartmouth) published a painfully predictable article decrying his selection: “Students question choice of CEO as graduation speaker.” The article cited an impressive roster of commencement speakers at other graduation ceremonies as preferred alternatives: Kofi Annan, Sandra Day O’Connnor, Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart.
We wrote about the 2004 commencement address Annan gave at Harvard in “The lemmings in Harvard Square.” Mrs. Trunk attended the Harvard graduation ceremonies last year and walked out on Annan’s speech. I’m sure the addresses given elsewhere by O’Connor and Clinton that year were better, but probably not much.
And I’m sure Stewart’s was funnier than Annan’s, but I doubt it was funnier than Immelt’s. Here’s how Immelt began his commencement address:
This is the second graduation I have attended at Dartmouth, and here is what I remember from the commencement speaker at my graduation. Hmm, hmm, see, so I know my role today is to be brief and I promise to pay more attention this time…
[T]o be honest I’m a little intimidated [giving this speech]. You know The Dartmouth quoted students calling me an uninspiring and uninteresting choice for commencement speaker. You would have preferred Bono or Jon Stewart or Colin Powell and you have every right to expect that the fortune your parents paid for your education should get you a world leader. But do you really believe that an aging rock star would speak to the class that created Keggy, a human beer keg, to be the new college mascot?
I mean even this, though, by the way, beats the last time I was mentioned in The D in 1974 when my roommates and I borrowed the Christmas tree from the Hanover Inn and put it in our room in South Fayerweather. We were actually streaking at the time, but there are parts of this story that GE shareholders need not know.
But from the outset, I want you to know that there are some positive aspects to having the chairman of GE speak at your graduation. For instance, if any of you need a jet engine right now, I can hook you up, wholesale. And as the leader of the NBC network and Universal Studios, I have unique power. We actually have a TV show called “Fear Factor.” This is a reality series watched by 40 million Americans every week — go figure. In this show, contestants complete dangerous physical stunts and feast on delicacies like cockroaches and cow eyeballs until one of them passes out. And as an alumnus, I could rename the entire show “The Dartmouth First Year Show” or “Saturday Night on Webster Avenue” just for you. And if these credentials still fail to impress you I will shamelessly add that I could actually give you a job. At least, uh, at least that got your parents’ attention. These are things Bono and Jon Stewart just can’t do.
The body of Immelt’s speech provided the thoughtful advice appropriate to a commencement address. Immelt then concluded perfectly with a peroration that embodied his advice:
I worked hard to get where I am but I’ve also been very lucky. And the peak of my good fortune was coming to this campus 30 years ago. Every time I cross the Connecticut River bridge, no matter how old I am, I think of my parents. It was their sacrifice and vision for education that brought me to Dartmouth and this lucky break I got, this great education, has allowed me to lead the company where my father worked for 38 years. So before you leave here today, you might want to tell your parents “thanks.”
So I may not be what you wanted, I’m not special. I’m okay with who I am and I don’t really want to be anybody else. I’m a son of Dartmouth, a husband, a father, a business leader; I’m loyal to my friends and I love my family. I am, and always will be, an optimist. But the great part about life is that sometimes ordinary Dartmouth grads, people like you and me, get a chance to do extraordinary things. And if you’re sitting out there wondering about the future, sad to leave your friends, or hoping desperately for this speech to end, I want you to know that there are some amazing days ahead. Ultimately you define your own success. Some of you will be doctors or lawyers or parents or teachers, but make five choices: that you will keep learning; that you will live and work with passion and courage; that you will give of yourself to earn the trust of others; that you will always take on the world’s toughest problems; and that you will be an optimist. Live the values of Dartmouth — a commitment to be both great and good in a world where the journey truly counts.
I can think of a few gentlemen well past their college years and holding high office who might profit from this advice if only they would heed it.
UPDATE: Reader Craig McLaughlin reminds me of the one of this year’s commencement speeches that I meant to recommend: “Vice President’s Remarks at Auburn University Commencement.” Here’s the sentence I wish I would have written: “A grateful heart is an honest understanding of all that we have been given, and all that is expected in return.”