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Virginia Executive Institute Graduation

June 27, 2014
Richmond, Virginia

Thank you, Jim.

You do great things with the Virginia Executive Institute, and you’re a wonderful example of leadership in our commonwealth. You’ve motivated hundreds of leaders across Virginia to get things done, and for that we all thank you.

And Linda, your breadth of talent, expertise and especially your professionalism elevates the experience for everyone who the Performance Management Group serves. You’re a great ambassador for VCU and all of its brands.

Of course, it’s a great privilege to have the first lady of Virginia, Dorothy McAuliffe, with us this morning. Dorothy, thank you for the profound difference you’re making in the commonwealth, especially for our women and children. You and Gov. McAuliffe are truly improving the lives of thousands of Virginians who need a voice and a strong advocate.

And my congratulations to all of you on a job well done. You’ve got so many important opportunities ahead of you now.

Thank you for the opportunity to join all of you this morning for a brief conversation about leadership.

I was granted the privilege of speaking to the VEI graduates for the first time last year, and it was a highlight for me. So I was surprised and appreciative to be invited back to talk with a room full of leaders who convince me that our commonwealth and its future are in very good hands for a very long time.

Like you, it’s been a great honor in my life to help lead an important and remarkable entity in the commonwealth of Virginia. VCU is a proud public university that’s committed to transforming our state and the lives of the 8 million people who live here. We are doing this with many of you as our partners, and I thank you.

All of us are very fortunate to live and lead in a state with so much talent, and so much capacity to achieve. And so our focus as leaders and as public servants in Virginia has to be on exactly that — on getting done the things that matter most to our people.

We are appointed to positions of leadership so that we can get things done — no matter how complex or difficult they may be, and no matter what kind of politics or culture may sometimes get in the way.

But people expect more from us. They’re counting on us to get things done. From my perspective, there has never been more of a time that Virginia needed us to get things done.

Let’s use our time together this morning to talk about how we might do that, looking at the examples of three people who got a lot of things done — two who are famous, and one who isn’t.

In November of 1963, just days after he was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One on a runway in Dallas, Lyndon Johnson held a meeting with a group of advisors in his Oval Office. They were deciding what to do about the escalating civil rights divide in America.

It was growing very late when a staff member advised the president not to waste his time or new political capital on lost causes — and civil rights, he tried to persuade the president, was a lost cause.

President Johnson listened to this and responded: “If we can’t achieve what’s difficult or challenging, if we can’t get things done,” Johnson told him ? “Well, what in the hell’s the presidency for?”

The next day, Johnson spoke to Congress and to the nation in his first address as the new president. He used that podium and that occasion to move the nation from eloquence to action, saying, and I quote: “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

The result, you know, was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which changed our nation in extraordinarily important ways — to the benefit of all of us. Most historians assert that this landmark legislation would not have happened without LBJ as its champion, without his focusing on getting something done that was difficult and, at that time, pretty unpopular in many places.

We can learn something from LBJ, and that is to focus on getting done the big things that really matter to people.

Because if we can’t get big things done, well, what is leadership for?

No matter which position we hold as leaders — and I would tell you that your capacity to lead has very little to do with your capacity to hold an office — we are all here to make a difference. Everything we do is about making a difference for others.

For me, it’s about our tens of thousands of patients; 21,000 employees; and most importantly, more than 30,000 students.

Students like Jackie Britz, who has a great passion for bringing medical care to underserved populations. Jackie, who is a first-year medical student at VCU, recently presented her work on addressing the health care needs for immigrant populations to the American College of Physicians’ Internal Medicine Conference.

The things that Jackie Britz will get done will save lives.

So the question I ask myself every day is, “How can I use this presidency to help people like Jackie succeed? How can I advance opportunities for her, and for the students who will follow Jackie to VCU, beginning this fall, or next fall, or 10 falls from now?

“How am I using the presidency I am privileged to hold, and my human capacity for creative thinking, to focus on why I’m doing what I’m doing?”

It’s for them.

I have a passion for our mission, which is helping to ensure that students can succeed, that their lives are transformed, and that they, in turn, help transform their communities and the lives of people around them.

My job — and yours — is really about getting done the things that matter most to people and to society, so that other people can get things done too.

But too many people focus only on whatthey’re doing, and don’t think enough about why they’re do it.

Steve Jobs can help us avoid this.

By any account, Steve Jobs was a brilliant man — although he dropped out of college. And to be clear, this is not the path that I recommend for getting things done!

He brought us Apple, Pixar and desktop laser printers. He delivered one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time and, perhaps, the most famous commencement address ever given. He’s been called “The Father of the Digital Revolution” and a “Master of Innovation.”

But Steve Jobs’ true brilliance wasn’t only what he did. It was the way he thought about what he did. He didn’t simply build better computers — in fact, one could argue, that his computers were no better than his competitors’.

So why was he outselling them nearly 4-to-1 by 2008? It’s because he thought about why he wanted to build computers in the first place, and designed everything around that.

Some of you may remember that in August of 1981, Jobs placed a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal. The ad began, in huge font, with the words “Welcome, IBM.” In fact, the word “IBM” was much larger and much more prominent than the small Apple logo at the bottom of the page.

The ad goes on to say: “Welcome to the most exciting and important marketplace since the computer revolution began 35 years ago.” Then Jobs gets to the “why” — and, in doing so, shows why his company would come to dominate the market.

“What we are doing,” the ad says, “is increasing social capital by enhancing individual productivity.”

In other words, Apple wanted to sell you a new way of life. IBM just wanted to sell you a computer.

Simon Sinek, the author and marketing expert, has written a book called “The Golden Circle,” which speaks to this. “People don’t buy what you do,” he says. “They buy why you do it.” And yet, how much time do we spend thinking simply about what we need to get done, and how little time do we spend thinking about why we’re doing it all?

As a leader, you have to move toward why. Why did you choose your profession, and to lead in it? Why do you choose to do it in Virginia? And how does that why — which is really your mission — guide everything you do?

We can learn something from Steve Jobs, and that is to focus not on the what, but to focus on the why.

As leaders, we’re often asked to do the impossible, right? How many of you have been asked to launch a new program without resources or staff or negotiate a contract with an unwilling partner. It’s building bricks without straw.

Some things just can’t be done, no matter how important they are, and no matter how badly we want to do them. They’re just impossible.

But the impossible never stopped Amadeo Marcos.

He isn’t famous like LBJ or Steve Jobs. There are no movies about his life. But he was relentlessly determined and unafraid to achieve what others told him couldn’t be done. And in doing so, he’s helped save thousands of lives, and will save countless many more.

In the late 1990s, America’s medical community faced a dire problem: The number of critically ill patients who needed an organ transplant began to far outpace the number of available organ donors. Tens of thousands of people were dying because the healthy organs they needed simply weren’t available.

So when a Maryland man named Tom Wojcik’s liver was failing, he needed a leader who would be relentless in saving his life, even when others thought it was impossible. And he found exactly that, here in Virginia, just across the street at VCU Medical Center.

Amadeo Marcos was a transplant surgeon here, and he had a big, new idea: What if he could take part of a liver from a living adultand transplant it into a patient like Tom, rather than waiting for a cadaver that was a match? This was completely unheard of: It had never even been attempted until Dr. Marcos and three of his colleagues at VCU performed the groundbreaking and extremely complex 15-hour surgery on Oct. 21, 1998, saving Tom Wojcik’s life. They took half of Tom’s wife’s liver and transplanted it into Tom, and both of them are now happy and healthy in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

Though this is a rather common procedure today, it was thought to be impossible 16 years ago, until VCU’s own Dr. Amadeo Marcos did it.

I’m proud to say that this is part of a great legacy at VCU, including at our Medical Center. A year after they saved Tom Wojcik, these surgeons also performed the first-ever living-donor transplant between two complete strangers. And colleagues before them performed the first kidney, liver and heart transplants in Virginia, and the first artificial heart transplant anywhere on the East Coast.

An impossible assignment may be scary.

But it can also change the world for people like Tom Wojcik and thousands of others in the last 16 years and tens of thousands in the years to come. That’s why we need leaders who are passionate and brave and relentless enough to make impossible commonplace.

And that’s why we can learn something from Amadeo Marcos, and it is that nothing is impossible to leaders who see what others can’t and who are relentless and fearless in their determination to make it real.

Lyndon Johnson, Steve Jobs and Amadeo Marcos remind us that leadership means focusing on what’s important, focusing on why and focusing on success in the face of any obstacle.

Today, you join more than 1,200 graduates of the VEI living and leading around Virginia — including several of my colleagues at VCU, by the way — who have embraced these ideals, and who inspire us every day with their ability to get things done.

This is now your legacy, too. I know you’ll do well, because you know what leadership is for.

It’s been wonderful to be with you today. Thank you.