A boss’s advice to young grads

June 7, 2012, 10:37 PM UTC

Vernon Jordan Credit: Lazard
Business bigwigs across the land have been taking to podiums and advising young people how to succeed. Few graduation speakers have life stories and lessons as rich as Vernon Jordan does.

The high-powered lawyer and corporate director yesterday addressed the grads of New York City’s Ethical Culture Fieldston School. My boss, Fortune Managing Editor Andy Serwer, was among the proud parents there. So was Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who got a one-day reprieve from testifying in the trial of former Goldman director Rajat Gupta so he could see his daughter graduate.

Jordan’s talk, I heard, was inspiring to the grownups as well as the kids. So I called the man and asked if I could share what he said. Jordan, who grew up in segregated Atlanta during the 1950s, took advantage of every opportunity and built a career advising CEOs of such companies as American Express , Xerox , and Lazard , where he is now, at 76, a director and also a senior managing director of Lazard Freres. Jordan told me this morning that he doesn’t pass up opportunities to share what he’s learned. So here’s an excerpt of what the big man told the Fieldston grads:

You, the class of 2012, have been given a gift of immeasurable value, but that gift comes with enormous responsibilities, and that’s what I want to talk to you about this morning.

You see, there is very little resemblance between your high school experience and mine. You have been privileged to attend one of the nation’s oldest and finest schools, in one of the world’s greatest cities. Now I’m not going to tell you that I had to walk barefoot five miles to school … uphill … both coming and going. But I do want to tell you a bit about my high school experience.

I graduated in 1953 from the David T. Howard high school in Atlanta, Georgia. At that time, there were only three high schools in Atlanta for black people, and one was a vocational school. Atlanta did not have any public black high school until 1926.

When I say the words “black high school,” I’m speaking, of course, of segregation. At that time, black people could not attend school alongside white people in Atlanta–or anywhere in the old South.

Atlanta was a thoroughly segregated city. Not just schools, but drinking fountains, libraries, restrooms, public transportation–even parks. Black people were second-class citizens, denied rights, opportunities, and respect.

The year I graduated, the city’s school system spent twice as much on white students as on black students: $158 per white student compared to $74 per black student.

My high school did not have an auditorium or a gymnasium until I was in the tenth grade. The chemistry lab had one Bunsen burner. My eleventh grade geometry textbook in 1951 was a tattered cast-off used by white students in 1935.

Despite those conditions, we had a remarkable principal who instructed and inspired us. We had dedicated teachers who educated and encouraged us. We had a vigilant PTA, of which my mother was president.

And despite the disparities, we had some significant success stories. Among our proud alumni are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.;Herman J. Russell, who became a multimillion-dollar businessman; Walt Frazier, who played for the New York Knicks, and Maynard Jackson, twice the mayor of Atlanta.

But they were the exceptions.  As a group, we were expected to fail in life. Society’s low expectations were reinforced by the Jim Crow system designed to keep us down and out. But my classmates and I overcame these burdens.

You bear a different burden: the burden of high expectations. Graduating from Fieldston in 2012, you are expected to succeed. You are expected to become leaders in our society.

The burden of responsibility…of opportunity…of leadership…of service. You might rightly wonder to yourself: How can I possibly live up to these expectations?

I would suggest you take three fundamentals to pack in your suitcase for life. They will help light your path as you proceed through life’s twisted corners and broken fields, its inevitable triumphs and defeats.

The first fundamental is to keep your integrity. I am talking about the inner conviction to think right, act right and do right. Integrity is the only thing in life you own unequivocally–unfettered and unmortgaged. You can lose your money. You can be pink-slipped from your job. Your inheritance can be spent down to zero. Your business can go bankrupt. Your homes and automobiles can be repossessed. But no one can take away your integrity.

Samuel Johnson wrote: “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

The second fundamental, I first learned in elementary school. It was emblazoned on the rulers given to us by the Coca-Cola Company . “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A plain, simple, straightforward injunction for treating people right. Take that simple saying with you, and i promise it will see you through life’s most difficult ethical choices.

Finally, the third fundamental is whatever you do, wherever you go, reach out and help those who need help. Reach down and pull somebody up. Simply put — make the world a better place.

Integrity, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, help make the world a better place. Three fundamentals of life–easy to remember, difficult to do.

Yet this is your charge to keep, your calling to fulfill.

Walk with courage.

And as you excel, prosper and serve, take with you these words of Herman Melville:

We cannot live for ourselves alone
Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads
And along these sympathetic fibers
Our actions run as causes and return to us as results.

Graduates, this day is both the sunset of your Fieldston career…and the sunrise of the rest of your lives.