No one doubted that Oprah Winfrey would wow Harvard University in our nation’s springtime tradition of commencement addresses by celebrities of various stripes and vocations. True to any speech that resonates with audiences it is not only the truths with dustings of humor, it is the glimpses of the people delivering them that keeps us captivated. In this, Oprah once again proved a remarkable ability to share her soft spots and the resiliency that has made her the success she is today.
Yet it was not her admission of the trouncing and triumph of her fledgling network, Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) that provided new insights, it was in her detailing how a little-known girl from Mississippi became the dominate force in daytime television for a quarter century. In a Nashville pageant while a teenager, she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Having to eliminate all the standard answers already proffered by other contestants that went before her, she turned for inspiration to the Today Show and Barbara Walters, whom see had seen that morning. Out of her mouth came, “I would like to be a journalist. I would like to tell other people’s stories in a way that makes a difference in their lives and the world.”
No pretending, no trying, and no looking for the “right” answers, and in a moment of, perhaps, desperation and resolution came the truth. Even in hearing her recite the line in this speech, the power of this insight resonates high above the other words spoken. Because in that moment of breakthrough not only came clarity, it was accompanied by the ability to clearly and concisely communicate it to others. When one, anyone, can do that, the doors fly open and your world starts to change.
For 25 years Oprah told other people’s stories as she shared her own—and without question she made a difference in their lives and the lives of millions of others. Still those words were not the be all end all for Oprah’s purpose. She elaborates that she felt she truly came into own when inspired by the philanthropic activity of a nine-year-old girl, she started the Angel Network and began using her enormous platform to mobilize others to do good in the world. Not a shift away from her original purpose, rather another evolution of it. She was still helping people share their stories and making a difference in the lives of others.
Even in her pursuit of another mountaintop in her OWN network, she continues to mentor others to tell their stories and make differences in the lives of others, Dr. OZ, Dr. Phil and Gail King are just a few of the noteworthy examples of gradual shift from the individual to a greater focus on the development of the larger community. And again the genius of Oprah is beautifully apparent, our purpose doesn’t change as we go through life we simply find ways to allow others to become a part of the tapestry we weave.
While Oprah extolled the graduates to live their highest purpose as their only goal; her words could only fall short of the shining example her life speaks each day. We are not the words we speak; we are the actions we live each day. Leadership is not a theory on how to get somewhere; it is how those who are committed to leaving the world a better place live each day. It is not always perfect, certainly not always pretty and it comes with a guarantee that you will be challenged in ways you may not always like. Yet, I assure you, that if you are sincere in wanting to be happy, successful, and to leave the world a better place—it is the only way to do it.
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