Leadership Moments

Some of the world's greatest leaders have spoken at Wake Forest over the years. Who were they? And what did they have to say?

Illustration by David K. Stanley

Fall 2019


For years Wake Forest has attracted and cultivated leaders of international significance who have discussed guiding principles, turning points and personal lessons learned. Enjoy a selection of excerpts from archived recordings and transcripts from the University and Z.Smith Reynolds Library.

(Jump to profile by clicking names)

Elie Wiesel (D. Litt. ’85)

Holocaust survivor and author

    • Founders’ Day Convocation
    • Wait Chapel / Feb. 2, 1985

Where are we? What is our place in the world? What is our place in history? What are we doing with our life? In my case, the answer is dramatic. Forty years ago, I was younger than most of you, students, are now. Forty years ago, I lived in a time of turmoil and darkness, thinking never will the darkness be lifted. Forty years ago, when death had all the appearances of usurping God’s role, I was convinced that even if death yields its place to God, we will no longer be there to see it. Forty years later, I still wonder, where is my place? Where am I? If I go back 40 years and stop there, then only despair will be the guiding light.

Forty years ago, more or less, the darkness lifted. A very young boy — me — very religious still, was convinced that I had to do something with my life, for I had done nothing to survive. I should have disappeared, but yet, I don’t know why, I remained, and therefore I felt I had to do something with my life. What I had to do was bear witness. I do not know why I am alive, why I am here, but I do hear the question, “Where are thou?” That may be God, or it may be another young boy who simply was one line ahead of me; and therefore, he died, and I didn’t. And it is that boy who asks me now, “Where are you?”

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Sen. John McCain (LL.D. ’02), R-Ariz.

War hero, senator and presidential candidate 

    • Commencement address
    • May 20, 2002 / Hearn Plaza

You and your generational cohorts, after all, will be responsible for the future course of civilization. But will you specifically, with all the confidence and vitality that you claim today, assume the obligations of professional, community, national or world leaders? I’ll be damned if I know. I’m not clairvoyant, and I don’t know you personally. I don’t know what you will become. But I know what you could become. What I hope you will become. No matter the circumstances of your birth, the very fact that you have been blessed with a quality education from this prestigious university gives you an important advantage as you seek and begin your chosen occupations. Whatever course you choose, absent unforeseen misfortune, success should be within your reach.

All of you will eventually face a choice whether you will become leaders in commerce, government, religion, the arts, the military or any integral part of society. Or will you allow others to assume that responsibility while you reap the blessings of freedom and prosperity without meaningfully contributing to the progress of humanity? Such responsibility, to be sure, is not an unalloyed blessing. Leadership is both burden and privilege. But I don’t believe a passive, comfortable life is worth forgoing the deep satisfaction, the self-respect that comes from employing all the blessings God has bestowed on you to leaving the world a better place for your presence in it.

No one expects you at your age to know precisely how you will lead accomplished lives or use your talents in a cause greater than your self-interest. It has been my experience that such choices reveal themselves over time to every human being. They are seldom choices that arrive just once, are resolved at one time, and, thus, permanently fix the course of your life.

Once in a great while a person is confronted with a choice or a dilemma, the implications of which are so profound that its resolution might affect your life forever. But that happens rarely and to relatively few people. For most people life is long enough and varied enough to account for occasional mistakes and failures.

You might think that this is the point in my remarks that I issue a standard exhortation not to be afraid to fail. I’m not going to do that. Be afraid. Speaking from experience, failing stinks. Just don’t stop there. Don’t be undone by it. Move on. Failure is no more a permanent condition than success.

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Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y.

First African American member of congress and history-making candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972

    • “Protest, Order, and Justice (i.e. The Social Revolution in America Today)”
    • Carlyle Lecture  /  March 9, 1975

Look at me. I’m a part of two segments in society that has been denied for a long time. I’m a black person, and I am a woman. I want to tell you something: that if I didn’t have confidence in myself, if I didn’t have some kind of faith, I couldn’t stand before you this evening.

I’ve learned one thing — young people, listen to me now … even if you don’t agree with me, OK? Listen to me now. You can’t change anything by being on the outside tilting at windmills. You can only begin to effect change when you move on the inside and be in a position to assess the weaknesses and the strengths so that when you begin to move you know why you’re moving and how you’re moving, and you’re not using all of that beautiful physical and mental energy and strength that you have in constantly tilting at windmills that keep getting away from you.

Yes, I’m a part of the system. … Look at where I am today in spite of everything. I have a certain amount of influence — a certain amount of power, you might call it. But what young people have got to realize — and I know it’s hard for you to realize it — is that Rome was not built in a day.

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Hubert Humphrey

Vice President (1965-1969)

    • Inauguration of WFU President James R. Scales (Installation Address)
    • Wait Chapel / April 11, 1968

These are very strange times. Somebody would say they were the worst of times. And if they are then they call for the best of things. But this is a time for discontent in America and we cannot ignore that. But is that good or is that bad? Here are some wise words on discontent that I found in an old collection of Americana:

“There are two kinds of discontent in this world: the discontent that works, and the discontent that wrings its hands. The first gets what it wants and the second loses what it had. There is no cure for the first but success and there is no cure at all for the second.”

There is a great simple message there. This discontent that can lead to action. I’ve forgotten who it was that said that the purpose of knowledge is action and of course the greatest duty of a university is to be involved in the action of the life of a nation, in the life of a community. …

Thomas Carlyle once said that the great law of culture is to let each become all that he was created, capable of becoming. What is then the purpose of education? To release first of all this talent that is God-given and then to develop it. The constant process of emancipation and enrichment is what it’s all about. We do not judge a civilization by its good or its wealth but the kind of man that it produces, the character of the people.

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Rep. Barbara Jordan (LL.D. ’75), D-Texas

First African American and first woman to deliver WFU commencement address

    • Commencement address
    • Hearn Plaza / May 19, 1975

We are discomforted by poverty and hunger silhouetted against wealth and abundance. We are bewildered by an illiteracy rate which makes no sense when it’s juxtaposed with the knowledge explosion. We are at once both sick and well, rich and poor.

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Gerald W. Johnson (1911, D. Litt. ’28)

Journalist and author

    • “The Gold of a Vision”
    • Wait Chapel  /  Nov. 3, 1959
    • Printed in The Student magazine, November 1959

What are you doing here? You are spending a great deal of your time and a great deal of money, whether your father’s, or your own if you are working your way, on this campus. What for? What are you after?

If your purpose is to learn how to live, all well and good. But if your aim is merely to learn how to make a living you are in the wrong place. Go home. Go to a technical school. Go into a business office, or an industrial plant. But don’t spend four years hanging around a liberal arts college, for this isn’t a training school, this is an educational institution, and the greater part of what you learn here will never bring in a cent.

Is a liberal education then worth the time and money it costs? No, not to everybody. There are people, and I don’t mean idiots, either, for some of them have shrewd and vigorous minds, who are simply not capable of abundant life. No doubt the greater number are too dull even to take high training, not to mention high education, but not all. …

To live abundantly requires a special knowledge of life, which is most readily obtained by learning how the great and good have lived in times past.

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The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Minister and civil rights advocate

    • College Union Lecture Committee’s first lecture of the school year
    • Wait Chapel  /  Oct. 11, 1962

Immoral methods cannot bring about moral goals. And it is beautiful and wonderful to have a method of struggle that makes it possible for one to seek to gain moral ends through moral means.

Another thing that can be said about this method, is that it makes it possible for the individual to apply the love ethic — the law of love — in a social situation. It makes it possible for the individual to struggle vigorously for that which is right with love in his heart. And this is very good because we know now that hate is destructive not only to the hated but also to the hater.

Psychiatrists are telling us more and more that many of the strange things that happen in the subconscious, many of the inner conflicts that develop are rooted in hate. And so they are saying now, “Love or perish.” And the beauty of the nonviolent movement is that it makes it possible for the individual to struggle with determination for freedom and justice and yet maintain an attitude of active love and goodwill for the perpetrators of that very system that is oppressing the individual.

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Colin Powell (LL.D. ’04)

Secretary of State (2001-2005)

    • Commencement address
    • Hearn Plaza  /  May 17, 2004

In my profession, soldiering, character is perhaps the most important trait we seek and expect in our leaders. Character which inspires trust in others, character which gives confidence to others to follow you into the darkest night. Character which keeps you pointed toward true north no matter what winds or waves come to try to push you off course onto the shoals of doubt, dishonesty and despair. Character which always presses you to do the right thing. … Do the right thing, even when you get no credit for it, even if you get hurt by doing the right thing. Do the right thing when no one is watching or will ever know about it. You will always know.

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Bill Moyers (D.Litt. ’70, P ’84)

Journalist and former deputy director of the Peace Corps

    • Carlyle Lecture
    • April 11, 1979

I know there have been many dark moments in our history. I know the American character can be angry, cruel and irrational. I also know it is capable, too, of marvelous demonstrations of benevolence, magnanimity and courage.

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Gary Chapman (MA ’72)

Minister and author of “The 5 Love Languages” series

    • School of Business
    • March 4, 2015

If you are not a loving person, you will never be a servant leader. If you use the concept of servant leadership in order to simply increase the bottom line of a business, that’s manipulation. That’s not love. And chances are you’ll not be able to pull it off. Because if a sense of service is not at the root of who you are, it’s hard to put it on when you’re in the business world. … I believe if you have a sense that our business is here to serve people, and we’re here to serve each other in our business, and we’re here to serve our customers, you will be more successful in the business. I really believe that’s true.

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Hank Aaron

Baseball Hall-of-Fame inductee

    • College Union lecture
    • Wait Chapel  /  Feb. 26, 1980

If there’s one message that I’d like to leave with you, it’s this: Give life your best shot. Why be an also-ran when you can be a champion? Who would have thought the United States’ hockey team would have won a bronze medal, let alone a gold, but they did. Who would have thought “Jimmy Who?” would be president of these United States? He had one chance in a million, and he took that chance.

We are facing a loss not only of faith but of hope for better days. I believe our country is heading for serious trouble when people stop having faith. A country is already in trouble when the people stop having hope. You young people have your future still ahead of you. Do you have faith in our American way of life? Do you have hope for the future, your future and the future of America? Even in the worst of times, the American people have still had faith, still had hope, that one day things would be better, if not for them, then for their children and their children’s children. Where is the faith? Where is the hope?

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James W. Mason (JD ’38, LL.D. ’96, P ’67)

Chair, Wake Forest Board of Trustees

    • “Some Observations about Academic Freedom”
    • State chapter of the American Association of University Professors
    • Oct. 1, 1978

Last June I told the national meeting of the AAUP that on no future day would I be more proud to be an alumnus and trustee of Wake Forest University. That statement still holds true. To be applauded because one’s university has done well in the defense of freedom is immensely satisfying.

But there is always the worm of uncertainty. I asked myself later: “Did we really deserve it?” I think so, although I do not recall the phrase “academic freedom” being used in any of our deliberations.

We had decided not to punish a small student group for inviting an unattractive character to campus, and we had decided not to return a portion of a Federal grant that the Baptist State Convention thought should be returned. …

Trivialities have a way of cascading into major issues, and what was essentially a student prank led us into what was far more than a border skirmish. Be that as it may, I see the (Larry) Flynt issue as being more obviously concerned with the principle of academic freedom. In accepting the contested portion of a Federal grant, we simply made it clear that we were not relinquishing our trusteeship and that the University must make its own decisions.

President Scales was a great help to us. He is patient and courageous. When we lamented the poor taste shown in inviting Mr. Flynt (then publisher of Hustler magazine), he reminded us that Wake Forest and the State of North Carolina (have) been hospitable for years to speakers of all persuasions and that every so often a group of students will push to the limit the University’s devotion (to) the First Amendment. Devotion to freedom has a wondrous Fourth-of-July sound when one talks about it in theory. Or when one supports it vigorously because one’s most cherished beliefs are under attack. It is less attractive when that same principle of freedom is applied so that a scoundrel may speak or so that principles we despise may be espoused. It is somewhat like clutching a viper to one’s bosom.

That is the lesson I am beginning to learn. Freedom’s special advantages must be free for all. As a country lawyer, I’m still wrestling with that angel. And I urge you to continue wrestling with that angel, too. …

— He made the remarks a few months after accepting the acclaimed Alexander Meiklejohn Award for Academic Freedom on the University’s behalf in June 1978.

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SIDEBAR:  Click here to read more about the historic leadership moment that earned Wake Forest the Alexander Meiklejohn Award for Academic Freedom  

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