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Commencement Addresses

Strategic Intent

  • Date: 08/21/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement, E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 1999, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we have gathered for this commencement together with graduates from the breadth and diversity of disciplines represented across our university.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and new technologies, and, along the way, you have discovered that learning is a continuous process.

    Your education continues at this very moment, as it will each and every day of your lives.

    Near the turn of the last century, college presidents traditionally taught the last course for students before graduation . . . a capstone course that helped students put their varied college learning experiences into an overall and somewhat-unified context.

    As we face the turn of a new century, and a new millennium, it seems appropriate to honor that practice by my giving you one last lesson.

    . . . not a full semester's worth, of course, but just a few ideas about the importance of understanding things in context, of seeing the big picture . . . of having vision.

    I suggest that key among the issues that will drive your future success is the concept of "strategic intent."

    In their provocative book, "Competing for the Future," Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad define "strategic intent" as "an ambitious and compelling ... dream that energizes ... that provides the emotional and intellectual energy for the journey ... to the future."

    Thus, "strategic intent" conveys "a sense of direction ... a sense of discovery ... (and) a sense of destiny. "

    In short, strategic intent asks you to state what it is that you want to be, and it insists that you do so in powerful and ambitious terms! It is a form of the old question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

    But, why is "strategic intent" so important to you?

    I suggest that strategic intent is the key to your future success and happiness.

    And why I think strategic intent is so important can best be illustrated by a story:

    After London's Great Fire of 1666, Sir Christopher Wren -- England's great architect of the 17th century -- was commissioned to rebuild 53 of the city's churches and many of its public buildings.

    When beginning the mammoth task, which would take more than 30 years to complete, Wren surrounded himself with a team of accomplished craftsmen -- many of whom would work for him for the rest of their lives.

    Still, the work required so many workers that quite a few did not even know the great architect.

    One day, while Wren was overseeing work on St. Paul's Cathedral -- he took a walk among the workers and talked to them.

    Wren approached one stonecutter and asked, "What are you doing?" The man replied, "As anyone can see I'm hewing stone!"

    Wren put the same question to a second stonecutter who said, "I'm earning five shilling two-pence a day."

    Finally, Wren asked a third stonecutter, "What are you doing?"

    And the man answered, "I'm building a great cathedral."

    That statement, my friends, is one of strategic intent!

    It is a statement of a dream, which guides individual actions.

    Within each of you, there are great dreams, "cathedrals" that you want to build.

    Yet, it is all too easy to focus on the chore of "hewing stone", or earning our "five shilling two-pence" a day -- instead of seeing the great cathedral.

    Why would anyone consciously opt to adhere to such limiting views, when, instead, they can go about their daily lives with a powerful sense of purpose.

    In the early 1920s, Thomas Watson Senior became general manager of a small company that manufactured meat slicers, time clocks and tabulators. But, he had a vision for a machine that could process and store information -- so he renamed his company to match his grand vision.

    The new name . . . International Business Machines Corporation.

    Years later, near the end of his lifetime, Watson was asked, "When did you envision IBM becoming so successful?"

    His reply was simply, "At the very beginning."

    IBM, which is today a large part of our information age, was born out of Mr. Watson's strategic intent... his dream, his purpose...

    But Sir Christopher Wren and Thomas Watson were more than dreamers, more than just an architect and a business person; they were more because they dreamed, and dared to do.

    Their strategic intent, their bold vision, guided deliberate actions to create great opportunities.

    Dreaming and daring to do are fundamental to success -- whether in architecture, business, or in life.

    Think back to Christopher Wren's stonecutters.

    Their actions without a vision were merely chores. But, the same actions -- accompanied by a vision -- were works of joy.

    Strategic intent can be a powerful driver for opportunity, success, hope, and determination . . . and daring to do.

    It is what separates the actors from the audience, the players from the spectators, and not only in the movies or in sports, but also in the great game of life. Most people dream of being stars, but spend their time fighting for the best seats; few take the requisite actions that would prepare them to get into the game.

    A dream that is never acted upon is like the question that is never asked. If you never dare to ask, the answer is always no.

    Indeed, as Thomas Edison reminds us, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

    Now I know that you are not afraid of work, because I know what you have had to do to complete your degrees.

    And I know that your education has provided you with a window into the world of ideas, and that it has let you see the power of ideas.

    And, believe me, there is nothing so powerful as the power of an idea whose time has come.

    Your education has given you the basis to succeed, and you now have what it takes to dream, to dare, to do.

    So it is now time to take the first step, to now begin to live your lives with strategic intent, and to be guided by your dreams, to build your own "cathedrals."

    You should know that St. Paul's Cathedral became Christopher Wren's masterpiece, a masterpiece that we can witness to this day, and that as a tribute to his accomplishments, he was laid to rest in that same place where a plaque commemorates his efforts for posterity.

    And near his plaque, there is another which reads, "Remember the men who made shapely the stones of St. Paul's Cathedral, 1672-1708, (master masons) Edward Strong and Thomas Strong and all who laboured with thee..."

    Some 300 years later, those simple artisans are remembered alongside their architect . . . because they, too, shared the vision of a cathedral.

    And of course you know that Thomas Watson's dream of IBM continues to unfold and to define our information age.

    So the message is clear from these and countless other examples . . .

    . . . and Henry David Thoreau put it best when he said, and I will paraphrase:

    "If you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams, and endeavor to live the life which you can imagine, you will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students and The University of Akron family everywhere -- I salute you, the Summer 1999 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.


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