Harry C. Stonecipher
The Boeing Company
"Overcoming Your Advantages"
Notre Dame University
Engineering and Business Students
South Bend, Indiana
November 02, 2001
Here is a pop quiz. Over the past 150 years, there have been only three elected American presidents who did not go to college. Can you name them? One is the largely forgotten Grover Cleveland. The other two are Abraham Lincoln and Harry S. Truman.
Lincoln and Truman overcame great disadvantages. That is one kind of challenge. As members of a very elite educational institution that is equipping you with the tools you need to go into engineering or business, you face a different and, in some ways, a more difficult challenge. That is, will you be able to overcome your advantages?
This, to my mind, is a very serious question, and it goes to the heart of what I will say to you this morning.
When you emerge from Notre Dame, each of you will be superbly equipped to handle the technical aspects of being an engineer or a business person trained in finance and accounting. But that is only the beginning - and not the end - of the many different ways in which you will be tested in the years ahead. You will be tested on your inter-personal skills. You will be tested on your communications skills. Last but not least, you will be tested on your capacity for personal growth.
I love engineering and business both. To my way of thinking, engineering is really the study of logic; it is knowing how to think and how to analyze problems. Those of you who are engineers are coming of age at a time when there are huge technological challenges to be met in securing the future growth and safety of our world. At the same time, I regard business as one of the most exciting and fulfilling of professions.
But I am not going to urge you to study hard in your elected majors. I take that as a given. Unlike some other prestigious universities, Notre Dame has a full slate of requirements outside one's major - including two philosophy courses, two theology courses, and a writing course. Beyond that, the university offers a great wealth of electives. So here's my one big piece of advice: Don't just slide through the courses that are outside your major. Rejoice in the fact that they are there. See them as an opportunity to open up your eyes and your mind and your soul. Take extra courses in history, art, literature, and the social studies. Be a human being, not a technocrat!
You can be the most brilliant scientist or engineer, but if you are unable to communicate clearly, your best ideas are all too likely to experience the fate of the proverbial tree in the forest - falling to the ground unnoticed and unlamented. At the very least, if you have a hard time communicating with people outside your own area of expertise, you will spend so much time and energy struggling to sell your idea that you are likely to feel frustrated and bitter. Like the Dilbert character in the cartoon strip, you will resent your boss and all the other people who quote JUST DON'T GET IT close quote. I have seen this happen to some extremely bright and talented people.
If you are a technocrat, you must ask yourself: Why don't they get it? It may be that you are speaking the wrong language. Mathematics is the language of engineering. It's the language of accounting and finance . . . and of computing as well. But ordinary people don't talk to each other in complicated sequences of zeroes and ones. They use English - or some other non-mathematical language.
Now I have a confession to make: For much of my own life, I was an unrepentant and unreconstructed TECHNOCRAT. If anything helped to mitigate some of the worst aspects of that condition, it was the fact that I had the advantage of having to overcome at least a few disadvantages associated with coming from a less than affluent background.
The turning point for me came in 1982, when I was running GE's aircraft engine division. Fortunately for me, GE had an enlightened policy of encouraging its executives to broaden their horizons. In truth, even though jet engines are about as good as it gets if you like the excitement of high-tech challenges, I felt that there was something missing in my mental makeup. So I signed up for a month-long sabbatical at Dartmouth, and I signed up not just for me but for Joan, my wife, as well. We moved into a college dormitory. And WE . . . LOVED . . . IT!
Before we even got there, we had to read about 30 books, reaching across a vast range of subjects. Then we entered a novel situation, for us anyway. The head of the religion department would teach the Bible; the head of one of the science departments would teach Big Bang; and the class would go from there into a breakout session on how the universe was crafted - whether it was according to Big Bang or the Book of Genesis.
Every time you have a conversation or go into a meeting like that, you aren't judged on whether you win an argument or not, but on whether you can contribute to understanding . . . and begin to look at a complicated issue from perspectives other than your own.
I came out of Dartmouth feeling that I had really and truly changed. I had discovered a wealth of new interests. I had ceased to be a technocrat. Without a doubt, Dartmouth gave me the energy and confidence to go on and do certain things that would otherwise have been beyond my reach. I had always been interested in leadership - why some people succeed in that role and others fail. Now I became passionately interested in the subject.
Someone once said, There are certain things that cannot be taught; they can only be learned. There is some truth in that. However, art, literature, and history often provide the next best thing to actual experience. Even more than that, they give us added capacity to learn from our experiences and to continue to grow as human beings.
At a very young age, self-educated people of the caliber of a Lincoln or Truman develop the habit of life-long learning. Now that's a fantastic advantage. But it's one that you, or I, or anyone else, can emulate, if we choose to. So, too, is the habit of self-deployment - of not waiting to be told to do something or learn something important.
You remember stories of how the young Abraham Lincoln devoured every book he could get hands on. Upon arriving in the White House, Lincoln checked out and read every book on military history in the Library of Congress. Though he had almost no military experience going into the Civil War, he became a superb Commander-in-Chief.
In contrast to Lincoln, who so visibly grew in office, his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, a West Point grad and a veteran of the Mexican War of 1846, seemed only to shrink. But Davis, who seemed so well prepared at the outset of the war, had a fatal weakness. He thought he already knew everything there was to know. He was very sure of his own opinions and not very interested in the opinions of others. He grew increasingly estranged from his own generals and his own people as the war drew on.
Let me say a few things about the realities of life in the corporate world today. Over the past ten years or so, companies have opened up tremendously. They are much less bureaucratic and much more human today than they used to. That's the good news. Wherever you go, you are likely to find excellent programs aimed at accelerating your further development. At Boeing, we are investing more money and effort on people than ever before. We think that we have the best leadership/learning center in corporate America. On top of that, if our people want to pursue further education on their own, we are prepared to pay their full tuition and to award them stock for completing degrees. That's how serious we are about transforming technocrats into real thinkers and leaders.
The bad news is, you can still fail. Wherever you go - whether to Microsoft, Boeing, or any other company - the SYSTEM is not going to save you from yourself. It will let you succeed but it won't proactively save you from any shortcomings in inter-personal skills, communication skills or leadership skills. It is up to each person to make the most of his or her opportunities.
No doubt Notre Dame has prepared you very well. Just remember, however: When your formal education ends, your informal education will be just beginning. And you can get a good jump on what is required there by developing a passionate interest in subjects that are not required . . . or not a part of your elected major.
Can you overcome your advantages? At the outset, I asked that of you as individuals. But clearly, this is a question that applies to our nation as a whole in the changed, post-September 11 world of today. Can we overcome the great advantages that we enjoy - the advantages of being rich, powerful, technologically advanced, and free? No other nation in history has ever been favored with so many wonderful advantages at one time. But that is at least partly why we are the target of so much envy and hatred today.
Does anyone doubt that this, too, is a multi-dimensional challenge . . . and not just a technical or a military one. Our relations with other countries gripped with destructive fervor will be an awesome test of the interpersonal and communications skills of our people, and especially our leaders. Some of you are destined to be among those leaders. But Domers are doers, and I know that you will not fail when your time comes.