First Lady Michelle Obama delivered two commencement addresses this spring. The first, in early May at Tuskegee University and the second over the weekend at Oberlin College. Respect and civility were on her mind and the narrative of her experience gave credence to the challenge she posed to graduates at both institutions: “stay true to who you are and where you come from” and “rise above the noise and shape the revolutions of your time”.
The position of First Lady of the United States is a career choice. The interview process is tangential to the candidate for president, but the spouse’s background is equally examined under the microscope of the 24×7 news cycle. In her speech to the Tuskegee graduating class, Mrs. Obama was candid in her reflections on the impact of the campaign and shared a leadership lesson in her resolve to not let others define her.
“Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me: What kind of First Lady would I be? What kinds of issues would I take on? Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan? And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse. That’s just the way the process works. But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?
But eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.
So throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about?”
The most respected of the management gurus are adamant that before you can lead, you have to know who you are, your values and what you care about. This is your anchor throughout your career.
“And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name calling, the doubting — all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back. I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values — and follow my own moral compass — then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”
At Oberlin College, Mrs. Obama acknowledged the campus culture of service and social justice and encouraged graduates to take a leadership role “to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens –- the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.”
“And the truth is, graduates, after four years of thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate here at Oberlin -– those seminars where you explored new ideas together, those late-night conversations where you challenged each other and learned from each other — after all of that, you might find yourself a little dismayed by the clamor outside these walls — the name-calling, the negative ads, the folks yelling at each other on TV. After being surrounded by people who are so dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, you might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life.
Her address continued with a call to citizenship. Recognizing the temptation to “run the other way as fast as you can…you need to run to, and not away from, the noise.”
So get out there and volunteer on campaigns, and then hold the folks you elect accountable. Follow what’s happening in your city hall, your statehouse, Washington, D.C. Better yet, run for office yourself. Get in there. Shake things up. Don’t be afraid. And get out and vote in every election -– not just the big national ones that get all the attention, but every single election. Make sure the folks who represent you share your values and aspirations.
See, that is how you will rise above the noise and shape the revolutions of your time.”