Distinguished guest speaker, parents, family and friends, and dear Class of 2008, welcome to the fourth graduation ceremony at Ashesi University.
Class of 2008, congratulations on reaching this very important milestone in your lives, and thank you for the enormous contributions you have made to your alma mater. Thank you for giving us the occasion to celebrate your accomplishments and for the optimism you give us about the future of Africa. Many thanks also to your families, friends and members of the Ashesi community whose hard work and support have helped bring you to this moment in your life’s journey.
I recently had a conversation with a technology manager in the US, who shared a profound insight with me. It was this: that just as every organism on earth has a built-in ability to confront its most dire problems, every organization and every society has a native capacity to confront its gravest challenges as well.
For organisms, one thinks of genetics and immune systems, instinct and adaptability. For corporations and societies, our minds are drawn to technology and innovation; character and intelligence.
For Africa, the intrinsic power to cope with our gravest challenges and to chart a new course rests in the African people -- especially in those people we call our leaders. Our understanding of the power of enlightened leadership is what drives us at Ashesi to strive for excellence, and to infuse into the fabric of this institution a collective commitment to ethical, entrepreneurial and courageous citizenship.
Class of 2008, over the course of your four years at Ashesi, you have demonstrated the kind of audacity and leadership that would make any teacher or university president proud. Your decision to adopt an exam honour code for all members of your class was unprecedented in the history of this country. It was a singular act of courage for which you should be enormously proud, and for which the Ashesi community will be eternally grateful.
Just a month ago, at a dinner with some of the most influential leaders in this country, I described the bond of trust that your decision to adopt an honour code has helped foster between students and faculty at Ashesi University. Many of those leaders were familiar with similar systems at institutions outside Africa. Yet, they were surprised to hear that a group of students in Ghana had decided to stand this tall. They were shocked to learn that there are students on this continent for whom exams need not be proctored by faculty. And they were inspired by the implications of your action for the future of the Republic of Ghana.
Imagine what a difference you will make to your alma mater when others build on your example. Imagine what a profound change you would have caused in Africa if the students of every institution of higher learning decided to follow your example, to work and live by their honour, and in so doing develop the habits that will unleash a wave of inspired leadership across the African landscape.
The reactions of those who expressed both surprise and hope after hearing about your recent achievement, speaks to a topic that I would like to discuss with you today, namely, the debate about whether leaders should be primarily concerned with the way things are, or the way things ought to be.
As you climb the ladder of leadership in your professional organizations and in your country, you will face this very important question: “to be or not to be.” And you will no doubt encounter those who will advise you to pay more attention to the way things are, to accept the circumstances of our time and to avoid taking the risks necessary for a renaissance on this continent. Some of those who advise caution and acceptance of the status quo will do so out of cynicism and ill-intent, but many of them will give you this counsel out of a genuine concern for your safety.
You will be sorely tempted by the passionate arguments of this latter group in particular.
Yet, you will also encounter a third group –those who dare to dream, who question the status quo, and who believe in the inherent ability of each of us to advance the human condition. I urge you to listen to this group.
I am convinced that the ability, indeed the resolve to think about how things ought to be, and to act towards achieving a more perfect society, is fundamental to leadership. Show me a person who limits himself or herself to how things are, and I will show you a person who is not a leader. Leaders are defined by their ability to seek a better way and to inspire others to follow that path. It is no surprise that the most admired leaders in the history of humankind have been those who chose to explore the question of how the world ought to be, rather than accept the world as they met it.
Consider scientists such as Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur. Thanks to their achievements, we now have a better understanding of chemistry and biological pathogens. Because of their leadership, humanity is now better able to fight disease causing organisms.
Consider engineers such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Martin Cooper (the inventor of the mobile phone). Because of their contributions, much of the world is plugged into a communication system that brings us closer together than ever before. We take for granted, the idea that computers can be small devices that fit in our pockets, that are easy to use, and that enable us to communicate with anyone in the world. But not too long ago, the status quo was computers that filled entire buildings and were accessible only to a few. And people around the world were severely separated by geography.
Consider political leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. Mohandas Gandhi, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Each contributed to a better world by engaging the question of how human societies ought to be structured. None of them was satisfied with how things were in their time. And because of their courageous leadership, we now have a near global consensus that “all people are created equal,” that the enslavement of other humans is evil, and that discrimination against others is objectionable.
Consider economists and philosophers such as Mohammed Yunus, Adam Smith and John Rawls. Because of their pioneering work, the world is steadily moving towards a consensus about the need for efficient markets and a global economic system that includes everyone.
These leaders made a positive contribution to humanity, precisely because they dared to explore the unknown, to ponder the question of what could be, and to determine how we might achieve it.
Yet, a lot of work remains still to be done around the world, and especially in Africa. For far too long, Africa’s leaders have accepted deplorable conditions on the continent, and have often blithely contributed to depravity. For far too long those among us who have had the greatest opportunities in their lives; who have been charged with running some of the most important institutions in their society; and who we rightly expect to be the keepers of their society, have instead turned their conscience away from their fellow Africans.
Let me not overstate my case. There is progress in Africa today. Many countries have adopted democratic governance systems and are beginning to show greater concern for the advancement of their societies. But a lot more needs to be done, and your generation must engage the task at hand.
Class of 2008, your decision to live by your honour and to demand the same of your peers --your decision to seek a more excellent society-- was one of the most inspiring episodes at Ashesi University. You demonstrated true leadership and confirmed for us the idea that the solutions to Africa’s problems are already built into the fabric of this continent, in people like you.
So I urge you, when you encounter those cynics who would have you do nothing, just ignore them. When you are counseled by those who out of genuine concern for your safety urge caution, have them help you find a way to mitigate risk. But also tell them that you will not cease from thinking about a more perfect world, a more effective technology, a more efficient business process. And when you encounter those who are inspired to reach for greater heights and who encourage you to do the same, join with them. Together we can make our society better, simply because we lived our values.
I eagerly await your contributions in the years to come. Thank you and God bless.