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2008 Commencment Speech: Andrew Natsios

Andrew Natsios, Distinguished Professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University

I would like to thank you Father Wild, the Board of Trustees, and the Marquette community for the honorary Ph.D. I received today and for your kind invitation for me to speak at this commencement ceremony. I am truly honored.

I could not possibly have imagined when I graduated from Georgetown 37 years ago the career that I would have in front of me, and that I would end up teaching at my alma mater. I did know one thing and that was I wanted a career in public service, a career serving in government. Some people think politics is disreputable; I believe being a politician and public service is an honorable profession depending, of course, on how you conduct your affairs. I had one other secret I have seldom shared with anyone which I will share with you today, especially since you have just graduated and, thus, I cannot be a bad influence on your studies. I had a very bad case of wanderlust while I was a student: when I was bored in class, my overactive imagination would take me to the other side of the world to exotic places. Somehow Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, invaded my genetic wiring, and I have been unable to purge him from my system. I keep a list of all the countries I have spent at least one day in, sometimes weeks and months, and the list is now at 108.

I did not want a conventional career or life and I have not had one: my career has been at times tumultuous. My father, who was a research scientist and a brilliant man but a product of the great depression, believed you should have one profession and one job and stay in it your entire life. He asked me once after I had been in the Massachusetts state legislature for 12 years when I was going to find a real job and settle down. I never told him, but I had absolutely no intention of settling down: I liked the chaos too much. I do have to admit though that I could never have taken some of these unusual directions in my career if I had not been married to my wife of 33 years, Elizabeth, who has put up with this chaos without complaint and sometimes with a smile for the crazy crisis I have gotten myself into.

My work has taken me to places and cultures I did not know existed in 1971. I do not regret any of it.

Rather than speaking on some major policy issue and either boring or infuriating 11,000 people simultaneously, I thought I would give each of you graduating some advice about what is important in life from my perspective.

Before the President would nominate me to be the Administrator of USAID I had to be interviewed by Colin Powell, whom I would report to even though USAID is an independent agency. It was my most memorable job interview, with a man I deeply admired then and even more now, as a solider, diplomat and public servant. He asked me to call him Colin, which I had trouble doing because I had retired from the army reserves as a LTCOL and he, for me, was still a four-star general even though he was Secretary of State. Colonels do not call four-stars by their first name. I did not know Colin Powell when he interviewed me and, in the course of that first conversation, we talked about leadership and what it was all about.

We both kept a painting of the same man on our office wall in USAID and State: George Marshall, one of our great Secretaries of State, which is probably why we got along so well. In the course of the conversation I gave my list at the time of my own 18 leadership principles I had been developing and using for twenty years. He pulled out his list and we compared notes. Half were the same and half were different, probably reflecting our different temperaments. General Powell was a little annoyed because some business school professor had taken his principles and written a book without his permission called Colin Powell’s Management Principles and was apparently making a lot of money on the book. I have taken a few of my principles today and added a few not on the list and would like to speak to you about them.

Do what is right. Hold fast to what is good and true. The Epistle of St. James has an obscure verse in it I often repeat to myself. “Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t not do it, sins.” This is the inverse of what we commonly define as sin. Sin is doing bad things, lying, drinking too much, loosing your temper, hating someone. But here James tells us the failure to act is a sin when action is needed to accomplish the good.

Some of my friends say this is my boy scout principle. Well I don’t quite see it that way. You can make your own judgment. Doing what is right is most often difficult and involves taking risks and making choices. Because what is right is seldom clear, it requires careful and dispassionate thought and analysis. Let me give you an example. Just after the first defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan in early 2002 USAID began a school construction effort in the country. I gave orders to build the schools to earthquake standard 4–a very rigorous standard–because I had been to the aftermath of some terrible earthquakes to do the humanitarian relief response where school buildings had collapsed on children and killed 10,000’s of them. At the time this seemed like a simple decision. It was not. The schools cost twice as much and took twice as long to build, so we ended up building 673 schools instead of 1500, and they were costly. We were widely criticized for these schools by the media, the Congress, and the Pentagon. We held our position, but at great political cost.

Last week I received an e-mail from a retired USAID officer who had worked on the project, and he attached a New York Times article explaining why so many school children had died in the Chinese earthquake; the schools were not earthquake resistant. What we did in Afghanistan was the right thing to do, but it made USAID and my staff a target of the critics. Do what is right anyway. Over time (sometimes it won’t be until the next world) your good decision maybe recognized. It is said in Washington that no good deed goes unpunished. It is sadly true, but does not change the principle or its importance.

Integrity is non-negotiable. This has always been the first on my list of principles. Tell the truth. Keep your promises or don’t make them. Don’t cut corners. Compromising ethical standards is a short road to disaster.

A friend of mine’s son asked to see me a few years ago for some job counseling. He was a very bright and ambitious young man; he had joined a management consulting firm at a good salary and had promised to stay for at least three years. He was one year into the job and had another job offer by a competitor firm at a very high salary and was thinking of taking it. I asked him if he was being treated with respect in his current job; had his company fulfilled what they committed themselves to when they had hired him. He said yes. It was a good job. I asked him if he was a man of his word; he said, of course. I asked him: Why we were having this conversation? You made a commitment for three years, the company has fulfilled its promise to you, why are you not doing likewise? Do not give your word unless you are prepared to be faithful to your commitments.

Make character and integrity the watchwords of your lives. These qualities are not negotiable; they do not change. They are ends in themselves.

Know yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses. The classical Greeks taught us that the unconsidered life is not worth living; and that the mature person is self-reflective. Everyone has weaknesses. Everyone has some handicap, even if it is not obvious. The question is whether you let your weaknesses and handicaps dominate you and become your demons, or whether you compensate for them and overcome them. You know one of my heroes, Winston Churchill, whose picture has been on my office walls for 35 years, saved western civilization twice with his speeches—once from Hitler and then from Stalin. Do you know he had a speech impediment and there were certain words he could not pronounce well, so he made a list of those words and never used them, substituting other words he learned when he wrote his speeches. And so he took a serious weakness for a politician and orator and developed such a command of the English language that he became one of the greatest orators and writers of the 20th century. By compensating for this weakness he grew stronger and more powerful.

Regard every job you have as the last you will ever hold. Theodore Roosevelt followed that rule so he would not make decisions in one job to prepare for his next job; it would compromise his judgment too much, he said. Do well the task you have in front of you. I have tried to follow the same rule. It is, I believe, much easier to show integrity in a job when you don’t think you have a future. And in my case sometimes you don’t. This rule is completely out of touch with Washington politics, but I think it would be usefully revived just now.

Take some risks. The greatest opportunities in your lives will likely involve the greatest risks, and these opportunities may be for a job you have no interest in. The two most challenging and interesting jobs I have been offered, I did not want and in fact resisted taking. They involved great risk and a great potential for disaster. One was the Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in USAID and the other was CEO of the Big Dig in Boston after massive cost overruns. They were high stress, but fascinating and fulfilling experiences. I am glad I took the risk– particularly now that they are behind me.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, my church, we have during the liturgical calendar of Holy Week vespers sung which have a verse in it which reads “Blessed is he who rides the crest of the wave in a storm.” I would add the Natsios corollary: particularly if you don’t drown in the process. Take some risks; ride the storm carefully.

Take care of yourselves and your family. Unless you are a historic figure, and there are precious few of them who change the world for good or evil in a permanent way, much of what you have done with your life will be lost in history in a generation or two. What won’t be gone are your children and grandchildren, for those of you who have them and most of you I suspect will. Marry well, someone who is mature and of good character. Do not take lessons on marriage from Hollywood and television: they are generally terrible examples and yet they seem to have a great influence over what we regard as romance, glamour, and happiness. Take care of your families; take care of your children. They are all that will be left of you one day.

You know for decades surveys have been taken on what were the most important things to the American people, and for 40 years most Americans have said their families were number one. Around 1970 that began to change—people began reporting their first priority was their careers, self-fulfillment, enjoying life, success, the accumulation of wealth. Children dropped down to 10 or 12 of the list. It was also around this time that the indicators of quality of life for our children began to deteriorate—even though we were spending massive increases in funding for services for children. The most important factor in the quality of life for your children will be your care and attention: not to smother them, or try to control everything they do, but to pay attention, to teach them your values, and make your families your first priority. It sounds easy, but it is not.

Cultivate the inner life, the life of the spirit, or you may miss what is most truly human in you. Crises will come in your lives, they always do. A rich inner life will provide you with the strength to overcome adversity and crisis. Most of you in your family history have come out of one of the great religious traditions of the world, I would suggest you search those traditions for meaning and purpose to your lives.

In Periclean Athens, one of the great golden moments of civilization, 19-year-old boys became men as soldiers and citizens at a ceremony at which they would repeat an oath which included these words:

“I will transmit my native commonwealth, not lessened, but larger and better than I have received it.”

My charge to all of you is to transmit your country to the generation that follows you, greater and better than you received it from your parents, as I believe my generation of leaders has done from our parents. You can do that by showing integrity in all you do, doing what is right, paying attention to the work you have in front of you, caring for your families, and keeping the faith, and then you can transmit America to your children greater than you received. This is no small task given the remarkable events of the 20th century, which after terrible darkness concluded in a note of great hope and in a remarkable movement forward in human progress. The world will soon be in your hands. Treat it with great care.


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