(610) 463-5492 JOHN@JOHNGRONSKI.COM

On Friday, May 3, 2024, I had the pleasure of delivering the commencement speech for the graduate student graduation at the Penn State Great Valley campus in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

 View the speech here  

Following is the text of the speech I delivered to the graduates.

Graduates, make sure you take the time to celebrate your accomplishments Celebrate with your family, friends, and colleagues. You deserve to feel proud of what you achieved.

But you and I know you did not get here on your own. You were lifted up and supported by your family and friends, and your colleagues at work. You have been educated by excellent faculty and staff here at Penn State Great Valley.  So how about a round of applause for all these people who believed in you.

It is really an honor for me to be here with you / at this campus / where I earned my MBA just over 20 years ago.

I have been blessed to have had a very successful life in the military and in the civilian sector and I owe much of that success to the faculty, administrators, and staff here at the Penn State Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies.

I have a question for you graduates and I would like to see a show of hands please –                            

How many of you are life-long learners?

How many of you want to be successful?

How many of you are willing to make mistakes?

Well, I am glad to see some of you raised your hand again when I asked that last question.

Personally, I have always learned the most whenever I made mistakes. The road to success is paved with mistakes well-handled. Mistakes can never be thought of as a failure when you learn from those mistakes and apply what you learn.

Over the 40-plus years that I have been leading men and women, I have had many successes, but I also made my share of mistakes, and so I have had opportunities to learn a great deal. And now today, after 40 years of leading others, I am still trying to learn how to become an even better leader.

I would like to share a couple of stories with you. Since I served the better part of my life in the Army one of the stories is a military story but the other story I am going to share is a personal story about an unusual adventure I experienced. My hope is that you will gain lessons from my stories that you can apply to the business world and the careers you will pursue.

One of the most memorable experiences I had in the Army was attending Ranger School. Ranger School is known as the toughest leadership training course in the United States Army.

72 days of tough, realistic training in the harsh mountains of North Georgia, the snake infested swamps of Florida, and the scorching Utah desert.

One meal per day – and an average of 3 hours of sleep every 24 hours. You can all relate – it’s kind of like when you are trying to finish that class project on time.

We were trained by some of the finest non-commissioned officers in the United States Army – they were our Ranger Instructors. They were very tough on us, and some were downright mean.

But, like the professors here at Penn State, our Ranger Instructors took care of us, and they were excellent teachers.

The day we were going to graduate from Ranger School, our Ranger instructor had us gather under the shade of a pine tree so he could talk to us informally.

He was a mountain of a man. About 6’ 3”, 245 pounds. Solid muscle. His arms were like the branches of an oak tree. Ruddy complexion. I hope you get the picture.

He told us that in a little while we were going to have the black and gold Ranger tab pinned to our left shoulder, signifying to everyone else in the Army that we were Rangers.

He acknowledged that we had just gone through some of the toughest training in the world to earn that Ranger tab.

And then he challenged us. He challenged us to earn that Ranger tab every day, through our actions, our character, and our work ethic. He challenged us to be servant leaders and to pay it forward by sharing the knowledge and lessons we learned with others.

That is an important lesson. Work hard every day and lead by your example. Earn your degree, and that diploma you will have hanging on your wall, every day, through your professionalism.  

I have learned that when we are in a position of authority, our followers are always watching us. The people you lead deserve a character-based leader. We should always have something to prove. The day you feel you have nothing else to prove is the day you should step down from the position you have.

Now I want to shift gears a little bit with my next story, and take you back to 1983. 1983. That is the year my wife Berti and I bicycled across the United States.

We cycled from Tacoma, WA to Moosic, PA. We spent 3 months on the road and cycled over 4500 miles.  

We had a two-person back-packing tent and two sleeping bags. We cooked our food on a little one-burner camping stove. We camped in places such as farmer’s fields, town parks, and behind churches and schools.

Now it is not common for anyone to bicycle across the United States, but it is even more unusual for a married couple to do it together. But what made our trip extra special was that we conducted this cross-country bicycle adventure with our 15-month-old son Stephen.

Well, let me be a little more clear, he was 15 months old when we started and 18 months old when we finished, so at that point in his life he spent 20% of his lifetime on a bicycle trip. I towed Stephen across the country in a bright orange bicycle trailer I pulled behind my bike.

In the 90 days we spent cycling across the country I learned at least 90 leadership lessons, but one of the most important lessons I learned occurred on June 10th, 1983.

We were cycling across the state of Oregon, and we were going to tackle the Cascade Mountain Range. We started that day at around 800 feet of elevation, and we climbed up the Ochoco Divide to an elevation of about 4800 feet.

It was a rainy and chilly day, so we donned our red rain jackets for the ride up the mountain. At the top of the summit there was about 6 inches of snow on both sides of the road.

We cycled from the summit down to a lush green valley below with a seven-mile descent. It was exhilarating. When the downhill ride was over, we stopped on the side of the valley road to catch our breath. My wife and I munched on peanuts and raisins, gazing down the flat country road ahead of us. The road was desolate. We had not encountered a car traveling in either direction for at least 45 minutes.

The rain had stopped. The sun was breaking through. A mist and fog began lifting off the road in front of us. Suddenly, through the mist we saw a form slowly moving toward us.

At first, we thought it might be a car, then we thought it was a cow. Finally, we realized what it was. It was a bull. A B U L L bull. We really got worried when we saw it paw the ground and blow steam out of its nose. I thought that only happened in cartoons.

We quickly took off our red rain jackets and stuffed them into our bicycle bags. We tried to devise an escape plan, but we did not have many options.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a big blue Dodge came down the mountain behind us. The guy driving the car stopped. He rolled down his window. He was wearing a set of coveralls and a soiled baseball cap. I figured he was a farmer. He looked at us and looked at the bull and said simply, “Looks like you folks are in a heap of trouble”. We readily agreed with him.

I remember reading in military history something General Patton said. He said an imperfect plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow. Since the bull was getting closer and we were running out of time I knew we had to come up with an imperfect plan. So, this is what we did.

The farmer was going to run interference for us with his car. We would bike on the left side of his car, and he would keep the bull to the right of his car until we got past it.

We had to stop talking and start acting so that is exactly what we did. The farmer drove his car at about ten miles an hour. As he got his car alongside the bull, I could hear the bull’s hoof beats and grunting.

We continued to ride along the farmer’s car for at least a half mile, and finally the farmer shouted out his window that the bull was out of site.

We all stopped along the roadside. I realized the farmer saved our life. I wanted to give him a big hug, but he never got out of his car to let me do that, probably because he did not want to get hugged by a skinny, sweaty guy on a bicycle.

We also believed that because we were on a desolate road and this farmer came by at the exact moment we needed him, we experienced divine intervention. My wife and I both said a prayer of thanks.

I will leave you with several lessons I learned from these experiences I have had.  

First, maintain a strong work ethic. Always work with the vigor of having something to prove. Earn the position you have attained every day.

Second, lead as a servant leader. You will find your greatest fulfillment when you serve others. Lead with humility. Be humble enough to accept help when it is offered.  Remember this quote by C. S. Lewis, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.”

Third, whenever you scale a mountain, whenever you accomplish an achievement, take the time to celebrate it. But then move forward. Find your next mountain and climb it.

Finally, Leadership, trust, and resiliency cannot be developed in a day but must be developed daily.

Our ride through life continues. Let’s make it a great one. 

Thank you very much and again, congratulations!

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