"What is it about people
that leaves a mark on us
and makes it so hard to
say good-bye?"

"Marie Miyashiro, the author of
"The Empathy Factor," tells us
that the people who most
effectively lead us are in fact
the people who are deeply three-
dimensional in their thinking: the
one dimensional indvidual just
does; the two dimensional
individual thinks before they
do; but the three dimensional
individual connects with others
first, and through that
connection, whether apparent or
not, they collectively compel us
to think and they collectively
press us to do."

Commencement Remarks

June 16, 2016
Merkin Hall, New York City

Delivered by Dr. James Dawson
, Head of School

To my dear friends in the Class of 2016:

Today we celebrate: each of you, each other, those who raised you, those who taught you, those who had an impact on your life. We celebrate our four honorary members of the Class of 2016. We remember some of those who have gone before us over the course of the past twelve months who touched our lives and left us seeking their presence through our memories. As disparate as the circumstances, what connects all of these people with each of us and with all of us in one way or the other is that these people touched our lives, they affected our being, they inspired us and elevated us to new heights, they affirmed and loved us, they penetrated deep into our hearts. At this very formal point of departure, this commencement of what is yet to come, what is it about people that leaves a mark on us and makes it so hard to say good-bye? What attributes are most critical to our sense of longing, our nostalgic pull backward? What characteristics most define those people who most define our lives, the people we look to and long for, the people who we feel effectively pressed us to be the person that we have become?

Simon Sinek, the management theorist, tells us that the people who most impact our lives, who leave us with the strongest memories, who develop a spot on and in our hearts, are those who have or continue to make us feel safe. People who instill in us a sense of trust, who build with us a partnership based on cooperation, have the strongest impact and leave the most potent memories. Feeling safe is all about trust and trust is what helps us to move beyond blind adherence driven by a fear of consequences toward a more fully developed social contract that compels us to do the right thing and not always the easy thing. It is an interesting aspect of trust that it takes so long to develop but that it can be dismantled so easily by something as precise as a single action. Trust allows us to step outside the simply rule-driven paradigm and allows us to take risks and prompts us to think in new ways. 

We tend to be drawn not only to those we trust and who make us feel safe, but to those who we feel effectively led us in one way or another. There is a reason that we call some people leaders. At a time when America grapples with defining who our next leader should be, we are reminded that leaders are called leaders because while they go first into danger, they are also the first to give up comfort or food or space by letting others go first when it comes to their needs; true leaders allow the needy priority, they take less food from the table, less benefits from the community and expect less special treatment. True leaders establish trust because of they way they behave, because of their ironic willingness to be last in line, because their only priority is to serve those they lead and, in making each of those decisions and in actualizing each of those choices, they instill trust in the people they serve. True leaders leave an impact and make us nostalgic to go back to a time when they were in positions of authority, when they took good care of us and when we trusted them to keep us safe.  Alas, leadership, too, centers its hold on us via our desire to be safe and via an abundance of trust.

Marie Miyashiro, the author of The Empathy Factor, tell us that the people who most effectively lead us are in fact the people who are deeply three-dimensional in their thinking: the one dimensional individual just does; the two dimensional individual thinks before they do; but the three dimensional individual connects with others first, and through that connection, whether apparent or not, they collectively compel us to think and they collectively press us to do. Miyashiro’s point, reinforcing my own comments a few weeks ago at your Senior Honors Assembly, is that strong relationships, impactful behavior, powerful inducements to trust are most often the product of relationships involving those who show strong levels of empathy. In Miyashiro’s mind, empathy distinguishes between what we are feeling and what others are feeling, and recognizes that we are separate from that person, and that while their needs are not ours, empathy provides for us an ability to understand those needs as not being met and to seek a solution to meet them. In Miyashiro’s view, empathy yields compassionate actions and ultimately provides for a more productive environment. However, you can’t be empathic if you aren’t connected and you aren’t connected, as I have said before, if you’re mistaking the electronic signals of smart phone technology with the personally significant signals from face to face, eye to eye contact. Perhaps, then, we are most drawn to those people in our lives who show empathy at the truest and deepest level. Empathic connections create a deeper sense of trust and a real sense of safety because we have an understanding marked by depth and insight.

The list of studies goes on and on: effective relationships are deep relationships. In the psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book, written way back in 1995, he writes of the strong contribution of Emotional Intelligence to workplace effectiveness. Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, reminds us that good leaders and effective relationships come from those who connect with themselves and with in others. He establishes the importance of self-awareness; he provides evidence that healthy organizations have high rates of social interchange including interactive and collaborative strategic conversations. Once again, it’s about connections; it’s about staying in touch with the people that you work with, the people that you spend your time with; it’s about paying attention. It’s about listening; it’s about emotional awareness; it’s about understanding intentions. It’s about empathy: not sympathy but empathy; not justabout feeling better or feeling heard but about doing things and developing strategies and action plans and, in doing so, meeting more needs. 

So, today, we celebrate the people in your life that you have come to know and who you have come to trust: your parents, your family, your teachers, and your friends.  These are all individuals who have, in varying capacities and in varying ways, shown leadership, displayed empathy, and made you feel safe. Now, as you go forward, you must be the individual who creates a context to develop and build trust with others.  It’s a critically important aspect of success going forward. Empathy is critical. Effective leadership is critical. Each of us has a choice as to how much energy we put into developing these relationships and connections. Each of us has a choice as to who we choose to lead us forward. Our work on these attributes will leave us, and the leaders we choose, much like those teachers and parents we celebrate today, as important and significant players in the lives of others. 

That was the end of my speech when I finished writing it ten days ago. Little did I know that the American landscape would be rattled yet once again due to violence and hatred just this past weekend – and I knew that I needed to say something today about the very stark contrast of the real life tragedy in Orlando in the face of a talk written for you about the importance of safety and trust and empathy and leadership. Little did I imagine that in a small dance club in Florida, a group of mostly young, mostly Latino, mostly gay and lesbian men and women would have their lives taken and shattered by a zealot armed with a semi-automatic weapon. If we - if you - are to create the world that I so aspire to in this talk – a safe, trusting, empathic, well led society - then we must work together. As Orlando showed us this week, we are stronger when we work together, when we are bound by our common ideals, when we are one people, united, open and tolerant of how we live, who we worship, who we love, and what we believe as a people going forward. Hateful rhetoric can prompt hateful behavior. We - you - must strive to create a nation more bound by possibility then by limits, more by justice then by anger, more by what unites us and less about what divides us, a nation that allows for differences of opinions without a tendency to personalize or demonize, a nation which casts aside the naysayers and still believes in its heart in the American dream, in the shining city on the hill, as a place where the hungry are fed, the poor are helped, the mentally ill are treated, a nation that welcomes all of its people, no matter the color of their skin, the nature of their beliefs, the choice of who they love. It is a remarkable journey that we are in the midst of; help us to create that world of trust, and empathy, and safety, and compassion and leadership and, in doing so, help to lead us to a place filled with a boundless sense of possibility and hope.

In light of that aspiration and this past weekend’s reality, I have one practical suggestion before you go. In the process of defining yourselves and in understanding the relationships that most define the list of those you love and admire, do not let too many moments go by and do not analyze this all so deeply so as to miss celebrating the moment that you live in. People have a tendency to worry about what was and to worry about what might be but we sometimes focus too much on the worries and lose sight of what IS. The right now. The right here. Sitting together as a class for the last time. As you seek the foundation of what can be and the way to create enduring relationships, as you seek to create trust and empathy and safety, as you work to be a better leader, understand the value of right now: seize the moment, hold fast these times, cherish the company of your peers, your parents, your teachers, and your friends.

Letting go of the familiar can be frightening but looking forward to new adventures can be exciting. Saying good-bye can be sad but a first hello can be exhilarating. I can’t help but think of days like today, of saying farewell to a life well known, of letting go and embracing the new and the possible. Be open to that. Our journey through life is a series of comings and goings.  I am reminded of Andrew Solomon's spin whereby, in his book, "Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years," he relates his experiences in life to a specific element of air travel, when he writes:

"As we climb above the clouds, I practice letting go of the place I've come from or the place I've gone.  Though I am sustained by the prospect of arrival, separation always tugs me toward at least momentary regret.   Even in the sorrow, however, I know that I failed fully to lvoe home until I went repeatedly abroad, and could not appreciate abroad until I had returned home time and again."

It's time to take toward the clouds my friends on a journey just now set to begin; it's time to let the landscape of home and PCS fall slowly into the brackground as your flight called life takes off and as you rise to a new height on your way to a new place.  It's time to keep the bonds of trust alive with those who have touched your life here while you build new bonds of trust with those you have yet to meet.   It's time to identify strong leaders to follow and to build your own resources so that you can become great leaders yourselves.  It's time that we can all push back against the hate and the ignorance and celebrate, embrace and cherish the diversity that gives us strength an dpower and potential.

Celebrate this moment.  Celebrate those you trust.  Celebrate those who have led you and kept you safe.  Celebrate the empathic powers of relationships.

I stand in awe of all of you; I stand elated when I think about where you are heading.  To use Andrew Solomon's metaphor, I stand, silently, on the tarmac as you lift off to a next great adventrue, climbing slowly int hte blue sky, bound for  distand place, but present just long enough in these final moments to bid you well on your journey, as you fade quietly into the vast horizon of the future that extends as far as the eye can see.

Au revoir my friends.  Until we see each other again, take care of yourself, take care of each other, and take care of the world that you are meant to inherit.