Editor's note: This is a condensed and edited version of the commencement address that Sen. Paula Dockery delivered Monday night to the last class that will graduate from USF Polytechnic in Lakeland before it becomes independent this summer.
To the Class of 2012, to all 214 of you: We're here to celebrate your academic accomplishments and to wish you well. You leave armed with a degree from an accredited and well-respected university. The measure of your character and the quality of your education are two of the most important factors that will determine how well you can compete.
While intellect is desired, most major corporations are looking to hire or promote those who show the potential for leadership. What makes a strong leader? Let's start by debunking a few myths. A leader does not dictate, rule through fear and intimidation, abuse their power or authority, or take unethical or illegal actions.
Unfortunately, the current political climate is one in which winning at any cost is considered success even if the outcome is destructive, divisive or wasteful. A true leader doesn't force their will on others but rather works with others collaboratively to reach a shared outcome or goal.
Through my experiences in the Florida Legislature, I had the opportunity to watch many elected officials attempt to show leadership in different styles. The biggest mistake they make is to believe that you are a leader by virtue of a title or position bestowed upon you. Certainly you can use that position for good or for evil, but holding that position does not automatically endow you with leadership qualities.
Through life's lessons, I've come to several beliefs about true leadership that I have tried to emulate throughout my career:
A person of integrity is the same on the outside and on the inside. That individual can be trusted because they never veer from their inner values, even when it is politically expedient to do so.
A true leader must have the trust of followers and therefore must display integrity. Honest dealings, predictable reactions, well-controlled emotions and an absence of tantrums and harsh outbursts are all signs of integrity. A magnanimous leader ensures that credit for success is spread as widely as possible. A good leader also takes personal responsibility for failures. Being magnanimous encompasses a refusal to be petty and a willingness to face personal risk for principled purposes.
A true leader is open to new ideas and is a good listener. Openness builds mutual respect and trust and also supplies the team with new ideas, better information sharing and a shared sense of purpose.
A fair leader deals with others consistently and justly. When people believe they are being treated fairly, they reward that leader with their loyalty. In a nutshell, my ideal leader is a person of integrity who is both fair and magnanimous and listens with an open mind.
The marriage of Polk County and USF has been a very happy one. So it is on a sad note that we must acknowledge and accept that after nearly 25 years of USF's presence in Polk County, we are forced to divorce even though we still have a great love and respect for each other.
What I witnessed from both the students and the faculty here was a heartfelt desire to fight to protect their school from disappearing — a noble cause. And they did this at great personal risk to themselves both academically and professionally. I was proud to stand with them and to try to be their voice of reason. Over the course of the nine-month ordeal, they witnessed a political system that ignored the voices of those who would be directly affected, those with the most information on which to base a thoughtful and reasoned decision.
They were frustrated and disheartened by what can only be described as a textbook example of the antithesis of leadership. But through it all, they collaborated, they shared information, they sought consensus, they treated others with respect, fairness and openness, and only asked to be heard. But they were continuously let down by every political decision that was made, starting with the Board of Governors and finishing with the governor signing the bill which eliminated USF from Polk County without even the courtesy of meeting with them.
You have shown the tenacity to move ahead despite obstacles and distractions. You are making history. You are the last official graduating class of USF Poly. It is bittersweet, but I am so honored to have been with you through the battle and to be with you now for this celebration of your accomplishments.
You each are starting a new chapter in your life. My hope for you going forward: You will each try to live with the courage to stand up for what you believe in. Each of us has a responsibility to do the right thing. It often comes at a great personal cost, but that is the measure of one's character.
As the future leaders of our community, our state and our country, you renew my faith that you are men and women of character. Under your leadership, our future is bright indeed.
As you are closing out your college careers, I will soon be closing out my legislative career. I've tried to lead by example, and I can tell you firsthand it isn't always easy. Sometimes it means your ideas won't be heard. Or you might get assigned a conspicuously small office on a lower floor. Or you won't get a chairmanship or appointed to serve on a choice committee. You can be still be highly effective despite the efforts of others to hold you down.
You will have some things like this happen in your lives as well, but you'll get to carry your head high knowing that you did your best, and maybe one day, you too will be rewarded with the chance to come tell a class that looks just like you to pay it forward.