Ambassador Matthew W. Barzun De Montfort University
Leicester, UK
15 July 2015

Ambassador Barzun with two De Montford University graduates and Professor Shellard (right), Vice-Chancellor of De Montford University (Photo courtesy of Professor Shellard, DMU)

Ambassador Barzun with two De Montford University graduates and Professor Shellard (right), Vice-Chancellor of De Montford University (Photo courtesy of Professor Shellard, DMU)

AMBASSADOR BARZUN:  Pro-Chancellor Professor Harris, Vice-Chancellor Professor Shellard, distinguished guests, parents, family, friends—and, most of all, students.

It’s such an honor to be with you—to share this special day with you all.

Inevitably, this ceremony is bringing back memories of my own graduation—way, way back in 1993.

Just about the time most of you were born.

From what I remember, the only question any grown-up asked me that day was, “So what are you going to do now?”

I could see in their eyes that they wanted a strong declarative sentence:

“I will… be an attorney.”
“I start… law school next semester.”
“I have… a place on a management program.”

but the best I could offer them was a conditional:

“I…might.”

“I might go to graduate school… I might go to Washington… I might teach.”

Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about…

Maybe this feels a bit awkward.

But I want to reassure you – conditional is ok.

Saying “I might” is all right.

In fact, “I might” can be powerful. And not just for people starting out on their working lives. I can tell you that it even works for Presidents…

***

Maybe some of you saw or heard about a speech that President Obama gave last month in Charleston, South Carolina.

He was giving the eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, the African American pastor who was shot dead in his church, along with eight of his flock, by a white supremacist.

It was the one that went viral on the internet because the President sang Amazing Grace.

It wasn’t in his speech. It wasn’t planned, or rehearsed with his team.

But he sang anyway and many in America – and some here and around the world too – were deeply moved.

A few days later, the story behind that powerful moment emerged.

The President was flying into Charleston when he turned to his wife and his most trusted adviser, and he looked at them and said…

“I might sing.”

They looked back at him and both gave him the same answer…

“Don’t sing.  Please.  Whatever you do, don’t sing.”

In fact, I think the First Lady actually said, “Why on earth would that fit in?”

“I might not sing,” the President says, “I just wanted to warn you…But I think if I sing, the church will sing with me.  We’ll see how it feels at the time.”

So the President gives his speech.

He reflects on what the church had done, on what the community had done in the wake of the tragedy.

And he wonders aloud about what our country might do in response.

He talks about grace: that with it, anything is possible.

He says: “Amazing grace.”

“Amazing grace.”

And then he pauses.

For a really long time.

13 seconds actually—which may not sound like a long time but in a speech it’s an eternity.

In fact, let’s try it.   Here’s 13 seconds…

…see?

So then the President starts to sing a few bars of Amazing Grace.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing.

And then someone calls out, “Sing it Mr. President.”

And just as the President said, people slowly but surely begin to sing-along until the whole congregation is singing.

It is a wonderful moment.  A very powerful moment.

And think about it for a second:  There are actually three kinds of people in the story- three roles in this drama

There’s the singer.
The skeptic.
And those who sing-along.

I expect that you — all of you — will find yourself playing each of these roles at some point in the coming months and years.

There’ll be times when you’ll be the singer.

The one who takes a leap of faith.

Who asks friends and family for advice and then has to trust themselves and their instincts.

The one who takes on all the responsibility of leadership.

It is a tough place to be.  Out there, up at the front, with everyone watching you.

But it’s only from such leaps of faith that progress—personal or professional—comes.

Then there’ll be the times when you’re the skeptic.

And that’s fine. Good even. We all need a trusted friend or confidant, who adds a note of caution.

Sometimes it really is best not to sing.

As the skeptic, it’s your job to listen, to ask others to consider their options, to urge them to take account of different points of view—the act of which ultimately helps them end up in a better place.

You can do it nicely:  “Have you considered dancing?”

And remember to follow the example of the skeptics in this story who had the grace and good humor to admit publically after the fact that actually they called it wrong.

Finally, there will be those times when you are the one who decides to sing-along.

When you hear that pause from a friend or a colleague or a stranger- someone you can tell is thinking “I might sing”- and you encourage them. And then add your voice to theirs.

This can be incredibly powerful.  When you embrace something or embolden someone, step up, join in. Play your part.

***

So what’s the lesson from all this?

It’s that together—the singer, the skeptic, those who sing-along, all work together to make important moments happen.

And what sets it all in motion is having the courage to say, “I might.”

So when you look at your parents and your friends and say, “I might…,” say it with a sense of excitement.

Say it as if you’d say, “I might sing.”

Because after you’ve listened to the skeptics and you’re ready to take the leap, know that there will be a choir behind you to lift your voice even higher.

You’ll be ready to go confidently forward — with all of your…might.

Thank you.