"Setting a Steady Course:
The Value of a Strong Moral Compass"
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Chairman
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
St. Peter's College
(Held at PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, New Jersey)
Jersey City, New Jersey
May 16, 1999
Good afternoon, Father Loughran, distinguished guests, graduates, family members, faculty, ladies and gentlemen. I am deeply honored and pleased to share in this celebration as your guest for the 108th Commencement Exercises at St. Peter's College. I am excited for you-the graduates-because, two years ago, I had the privilege to sit here myself in anticipation of receiving an honorary degree from St. Peter's College, and to be asked to return to deliver the commencement address is a rare distinction indeed.
For you, the Class of 1999, this is decidedly a momentous and memorable occasion-a milestone, a completed achievement, but, as commencement always means, a beginning-a beginning for you on the threshold of a new millennium. A millennium the likes of which we know not, but one where the achievements of science and technology hold out much promise, and one where the complexities of man's interrelationship with man often defy us, especially when faced with what is/has been occurring in places as distantly separated geographically and culturally as Kosovo and Littleton, Colorado. At the same time, the complexities of life and the promise of the future create opportunities for you, and, without a doubt, will propel you through your lives and careers at a dizzying pace.
So, with pride and support, I say to you-the graduates, "Fasten your seatbelts. This is where it all begins."
Each of you has arrived at this point by a unique path-using your own study habits, conquering your own obstacles, motivated by your own particular interests and goals. You have worked together, collaborated on projects, competed for recognition, and encouraged one another through rough times. For most of you, our celebration today-the awarding of your degrees-represents the last lesson you will take together, the final point at which all your paths intersect. From this point forward, you will be moving into uncharted territory.
How will you navigate that territory? Until now, you have had your parents, your professors, your textbooks, your course guides, your answer keys-but which of these will you use tomorrow? Where is your "textbook" for entering the job market? The "course guide" for your new career? Or the "answer key" for raising a family? Life is like an open-book test, in which one finds that most of the pages have been left blank-where there are no obvious answers, and, indeed, where even the next question is not obvious. To each one of you, life will present a unique set of variables and challenges, and not even the most protective parent or the most devoted teacher can control or anticipate exactly what those variables and challenges will be. You are leaving the harbor, so to speak, and heading into the open sea.
This is not to imply that you are embarking on this voyage unprepared. On the contrary, I have great admiration for the emphasis that St. Peter's College places on instilling in its students not only learning, but also wisdom and goodness. Given that emphasis, these "commencement exercises" are recognition of what you already have achieved, and anticipatory celebration of your future success. However, just as a pilot, or a sea-captain, makes a last inventory of provisions, equipment, and the soundness of the vessel before setting out to sea, I would like to draw your attention today to a particular navigational tool-a tool that I believe will be essential as you seek to chart a steady course. I speak to you today of the personal importance, for each individual, of having a strong "moral compass." Further, I would like to explain why, in my view, a strong "moral compass" not only is essential for true personal success, but also makes a key contribution to organizational success, and forms the basis of enlightened leadership.
Now, many people speak of a "moral compass." What do I mean by it? I refer to that inner core of personal belief, grounded in all you have been taught-by your parents and your teachers-the set of principles that will provide the point of reference for your personal choices, much like a magnetic compass provides a point of reference for the traveler in unfamiliar terrain. What are your core values-the principles on which you will refuse to compromise? What defines your identity? What are your goals? What are your priorities? When you are presented with a significant conflict-when the achievement of a particular goal seems to require you to compromise your values, what will you do? How will you make that choice? What are the measures that, for you, define success?
Up to this point in your lives, your parents, your teachers, your mentors, and your religious leaders all have tried to instill in you sound principles that will guide your future decision-making. These principles, however, are meaningful only if you make them your own. You alone are responsible for the creation, development, and application of your internal guiding light. But, at the most basic level, I offer each of you this. Resolve to maintain a strong work ethic-it got you this far. Be an attentive listener. Appreciate divergent opinions. Always adhere to a strict ethical standard-it will keep you out of trouble. Do not be afraid to depend upon others, or to give someone else the opportunity to lead and to grow. Treat your body with respect. In the presence of fear or anger, remember to breathe deeply. Take time for meditation and introspection. Appreciate good humor. Esteem the wisdom and dignity of the elderly. Nurture the young. Be slow to accuse, and quick to forgive. Handle every challenge as an opportunity, and every failure as a lesson learned. Think outside the box. Remember where you came from, and be grateful for those who helped you along the way. Help someone else.
This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list, nor am I demanding that you adopt each of these maxims as your own-but these are the kinds of principles which, when put to use, I have found to be very helpful and which define, for me, success in its truest sense. Having a moral compass does not imply rigidity or a lack of adaptability. On the contrary, it gives freedom, because it provides a frame of reference for decision-making that will serve you equally well in every setting-whether the "open sea" turns out to be the corporate boardroom, the research laboratory, the classroom, or the halls of government. Such a frame of reference will help you to achieve an equilibrium and confidence that is not easily shaken, a natural equanimity toward which others gravitate.
How does a personal moral compass translate to the success of an organization? A healthy, successful organization also must have a clear operational vision, a set of guiding principles which lends coherence to all organizational functions. To illustrate, consider briefly with me my own agency, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The NRC is charged with the safety oversight of civilian uses of radioactive materials-including but not limited to nuclear power reactors, and other elements of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication facilities, and the storage, transportation, and disposal of radioactive wastes. We also regulate many more narrowly focused, less well-known technologies which have a substantial positive impact on our daily lives.
To oversee these activities, the NRC must make decisions that are as objective as possible, coherent, defensible, and open to public scrutiny. The NRC must have a set of guiding principles with wide application. First, and foremost, the NRC is guided by a vision rooted in its fundamental mission of protecting the public health and safety, the environment, and the common defense and security of this country. A second guiding principle at the NRC is the continuing effort to increase our effectiveness as regulators-we are not perfect. And a third, fundamental, organizational principle is the anticipation and preparation for change.
Turning this back again to you as individuals, having a clear vision of who you are and where you want to go, striving to become ever more effective professionally, and in your personal relationships, and embracing change will allow you to enter the next millennium with confidence and excitement.
Finally, as I said at the beginning, a strong moral compass forms the basis of enlightened leadership. Every commencement ceremony is a passing of the torch, a celebration of our future leaders. In the years to come, some of you will assert your leadership in ways more visible than others, but each of you will be a leader in some way, as a teacher, a parent, a counselor, and a mentor-or within an organization. As a result, your conduct inevitably will affect not only your own success, but will affect the experiences and direction of others.
Thirty-one years ago [a number I would hesitate to advertise, except that it is a matter of public record], I sat in the Dupont Athletic Center at M.I.T., full of anticipation, waiting to be awarded my Bachelor of Science degree. In the three decades since, I have had the good fortune to follow an ever-ascending career path through industry, academia, and government. Those three decades, spanning three very distinct spheres of my professional life, have caused me to think about the nature of leadership.
Many of the principles I discussed earlier, such as hard work, creative thinking, adherence to ethical standards, and an appreciation for divergent opinions, are crucial to leadership. But the other principles also pertain.
Regardless of the career field, an effective leader must be able to develop and articulate a shared vision to motivate those he or she leads, to build consensus among diverse stakeholders, to delegate responsibility in a manner that continues to build other leaders, and to make, and take responsibility for, difficult decisions. In addition, at this time in history, a leader must have, and must be able to instill in others, a global consciousness-an awareness of how the decisions of a given organization, or community, can be of benefit, not only to one's immediate society, but to humankind around the globe. In this way, the enlightened leader is the guardian not only of his or her own moral compass, but also of the operational vision and set of guiding principles that give direction to an organization or a community.
Just a few minutes from now you will become graduates-alumni of St. Peter's College. This ceremony in which we participate today signifies that you are entrusted with your own futures. Your diploma is an implicit, yet tangible symbol of trust.
So I set forth this challenge to each of you, graduating members of this class of St. Peter's College for the new millennium. Will you be the traveler of careless fortune, tossed about at the mercy of every new prevailing wind? Or will you be the seafarer of purposeful destiny, setting a steady course, guided by a clear and reliable moral compass? The open sea lies before you. Your parents and teachers are standing by, full of pride and eager to witness your success. With them, I wish for each of you a long and prosperous voyage.