Demonstrating Character


President Obama was in town last night. Yes, he came to little old Kalamazoo Michigan to give the commencement speech for the Kalamazoo Central class of 2010. To make a very long short, this high school was chosen for the President’s commencement speech from 1000 entries across the U.S. because of its dedication to excellence in education. The effort to improve our schools has been a community-wide effort, that gained significant momentum with the announcement in 2005 of the Kalamazoo Promise.

It was an event that made our city, home of the Kalamazoo Promise, proud. The graduating seniors won’t forget making history by being the only high school class ever who had a sitting president speak at their commencement.

While you read the rest of this post, please put your politics aside. Consider the character of the man, the leader, who gave the speech. Barack Obama’s character as a leader was evident throughout the ceremony. He was an example to us all as we think about what it means to be a leader, but more importantly to a group of young people who had the chance to observe character first hand.

What character looked like last night

His speech was about, and for, the kids.  It was directed at them and for them. It was in many ways a typical commencement address, with attention to the graduate’s future, inspiring them to reach high and to give back.

The man who gave the speech is the President of the United States, who could have used the stage to talk about anything, but he didn’t. It was a night for the kids, and he made sure it was for them. That’s character.

He thanked the salutatorian and the valedictorian, using their names. He referenced something specific and personal that he had learned about each of them. That’s character.

He was the last in line to shake the hand of all 280 graduates, standing behind the principal and the superintendent of schools. He spoke to each graduate (I don’t know what he said). He could have chosen to sit out the tedious task of standing up and shaking each graduate’s hand. He did not. That’s character. (p.s. many of the kids wanted to hug him. He obliged in what I’m sure was not protocol for a President).

He let the kids have their day. Aside from his speech he was on the sidelines, and not the center of attention. He could have chosen otherwise. That’s character.

What are you doing to demonstrate character today?


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

9 comments on “Demonstrating Character

  1. Mary Jo, how did you happen to get a ticket to the ceremony? What an amazing event to witness first-hand. Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. While my own graduation is not much more than a fuzzy memory, the Kalamazoo grads will likely be able to recall details from their special night for their entire lives. I hope many will choose to make a difference by leading others, living out the specific leadership qualities that they saw modeled by our President.

  2. Get Schooled: Thanks for the link to the footage. It was energizing to see how excited and surprised the kids were!

    Becky, I didn’t attend, it was broadcast locally and streamed over internet. Only students and family attended. The salutatorian actually indicated he would run for president when he could (you must be 35, so he has a few years to get ready), so I guess you could say the kids were very inspired.

  3. That’s a great story, MJ. Thanks for sharing. I think it is also a GREAT show of character for people to be able to put aside their politics and evaluate and relate to each other. Sadly, I think too many people lack character in these times, painting each other as heroes or villains based solely on politics. That should alarm us more than it does. Thanks, Bret

  4. Bret, I agree; we are all human, after all. My mom used to say, “they (whoever ‘they’ was) put their pants on one leg at a time, too”. As I watched the Twitter stream during the ceremony yesterday, I was concerned to see people using it as a time to criticize (this is too mild a word) Obama’s politics. Sad.

  5. MJ –
    Nice post. My favorite part was when he talked about what a blaming culture we have, and when he said they blame the teacher, principal… president, he looked at Simon the young salutatorian who had said he was going to run for president one day. It was such a touching nod to that young man.

    I also thought his story about Derek Jeter’s coach getting blisters on his hands from all the extra fielding practice he hit at Jeter’s request was so great. His emphasis on Mozart as a prodigy – yes – but a prodigy who had played thousands of hours of piano by the time he was six. The stories of President Obama’s mom getting him up at 5 to study allowed him to talk the talk with credibility.

    A GREAT GREAT night for anyone there, but especially for the “Giants” of Kazoo Central!

    D.

  6. Dan, Thanks for adding your favorite moments. I had forgotten them, and they were most definitely great additional ways that Obama demonstrated character. It was indeed, a very special night.

  7. Thanks for this wonderful post, Mary Jo. You’re a gifted storyteller. So glad you took time to focus on the positives – of the President as well as the graduates.

  8. Meredith, thank you. This was an easy story to tell, partially because of my connection to my community (and my children graduated from that high school) as well as the obvious character the President exhibited. I hope the kids took note!

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