Making a Positive and Lasting Difference

Written for our Presidential Leadership Academy blog.

Life should be about making a positive difference in the world around you. That is the vision of our college:

To educate men and women who will have an important and ethical influence in the world, affecting academic, professional, civic, social, and business outcomes.

It is important that we specify “positive” and “ethical” when we talk about someone’s impact on the world. In fact, when I first arrived at Penn State our vision statement did not have the “e-word” in it and it was one of the first things we changed. Everyone has some sort of impact on the world, just take a look at It’s a Wonderful Life.

Some will leave deep and indelible marks, others will tread more lightly. Some leave a lasting legacy of good will and benefit to humanity and the world, while others, well, let’s go ahead and invoke Godwin’s Law. A question we must ask ourselves on a regular basis is what sort of impact am I making in this world?

Once I became a parent this became even more apparent to me. (Did you like what I did there? Cute, no?) Whether we like it or not, as parents or children, there is no doubt that this relationship is formative and lasting for both parties. The way I handle a flat tire on a road trip will be remembered by my children far longer than the monologue they heard me deliver at Late Night with the Dean. That is a fairly heavy burden to carry around. Yet the rewards are incredible, to say the least.

What choices will you make?

For those of us at Penn State this has been a year-plus of assessing the impact of others on our community and making decisions about what sort of influence and impact we are having on those around us. As leaders have stepped aside or left the university and new positions have been created, new men and women have stepped up and in. I was particularly impressed when I read a story about our new General Counsel (a position we had not had on a permanent basis before), Steve Dunham, who was asked why he would want to leave Johns Hopkins and take on this position at Penn State at this time. His response, “I am a lawyer. My job is to step into messes like this and help makes some sense out of it all.” I can no longer find the article, by the way, but have talked with Steve and he says my recollection of the quote is accurate. His feeling is that why take on a job that is not presenting a challenge and an opportunity to do good.

We can add Bill O’Brien to this list as well. In the last few years many often quipped that they would hate to be “the man following the man.” Yet Bill stepped into a seemingly impossible situation and, as I write this, led the 2012 team to a remarkable season and is well on his way to recruiting another great team, even without scholarships. Why stick around? Why take on the job in the first place? Because he knew he had a chance to make a real and positive difference in our institution and in the lives of those involved with the football program.

Dr. Erickson, Dr. Pangborn, many board members and many, many others have also stepped into the breach, enduring criticism even before they had taken up their new positions, all because they understood that we all have an impact on our community and our world. They took on these responsibilities because they wanted to make sure that their impact was positive and constructive, not passive or pathetic.

We will not always live in such “interesting times,” but there will always be moments of decision for each of us. I am not suggesting, by the way, that we are to always live in a heightened state of awareness, constantly considering how our choice of breakfast cereal or shoes is influencing someone or impacting the world. Those decision can be important, but life has to be lived and not simply contemplated. By contemplating it now, however, we prepare ourselves so that our actions become not only positive in nature, but instinctive.

So now and again, do consider where your breakfast cereal came from and whether or not the people who made your shoes earned a fair wage. Think about how your angry comments online are influencing others’ views and contemplate whether inaction is a form of condoning. What impact are you having on the world around you?

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