Editor’s note: In his commencement address to the graduates of Campbell University Law School last week, Red Hat Chief Executive Officer sought to inspire these future leaders through his own experiences as a rising executive at difficult times at Delta Airlines and as the leader of the world’s top Linux developer and services provider. Inspire. Engage. Be yourself, he says.

The address follows:

Graduates, distinguished faculty, staff, family and friends, it is a tremendous honor to address you on such a wonderful occasion. Graduating law school is a monumental moment and I’m honored to be among the first to congratulate you on this amazing accomplishment.

As I prepared to speak with you today, I asked myself, what could I share with you that could help you begin this next phase of your life and career? As I considered topics, the notion of leadership kept bubbling to the surface. Regardless of where your degree takes you or industry you enter, those with law degrees are universally seen as leaders in business and society.

I’ve been very fortunate to find myself in several leadership roles throughout my career. And I continue ask myself “What makes an exceptional leader?”

I know this is a heavily explored topic, but I believe it merits a new look. You see, I believe the nature of leadership is fundamentally changing. In fact, I believe we are in the midst of a broader transformative change, one that will have far reaching impacts on the major institutions of our society. One that will also have a profound impact on what it means to be a leader.

Industrial Revolution

Let me explain. So much of the world in which we live took shape just 150 years ago. That’s when a series of technology breakthroughs came together to accelerate the industrial revolution. And with that, the birth and growth of the large multi-national corporations that remain the icons of the business world. It also led to the massive expansion of governments and other institutions. So really, beyond national militaries, there were very few large institutions before that time. In fact, in 1870, the median manufacturing facility had less than 4 employees. But after 1870, the icons of American manufacturing like US Steel, GM, Ford and GE emerged.

With these new giants came the need to coordinate their activities across masses of people spread across the world. This was further complicated by slow communications – the telegraph was just coming of age. And finally, they were working with an available workforce that was relatively unskilled, as public education was a far cry from where it is now. In that context, the modern management model was built. And the principles of leadership were born.

Characteristics of new age

With the dawning of the information age, almost every aspect of business and our society is changing again. And new organizations – the types of organizations in which you will work or serve – will be vastly different.

● First off, the nature of work itself is changing. We are moving from organizations where the majority of work entailed primarily rote tasks to organizations where the majority of work will involve cognitive skills. Robotics and information technology will continue to take share of routine tasks, leaving only higher and higher skilled work for humans.
● Second, the typical person in our society today is dramatically better educated and informed than in the past. A hundred years ago, few had high school educations. Now, half or more of the emerging workforce has some degree of college, or postsecondary education.
● Third, the expectations of the new generation of workers is changing – from “happy to have a job” to “why should I work for you”. People expect more than a paycheck. People expect their employers and their bosses to offer greater meaning and purpose.
● An finally, the vehicles available to you to interact with those with whom you work are greatly expanded. The telegraph was a huge leap forward during the industrial age. The availability of the Internet, Twitter, company social media technology, video conferencing, and the like greatly expand the resources you have today to interact with your colleagues.

I sit at an interesting vantage point to watch this unfold. I have the privilege of serving as a leader of one of the most unique tech companies in the world, Red Hat. I would argue that Red Hat is on the bleeding edge of many of these trends that are impacting traditional institutions around us, and our idea of what it takes to lead.

Characteristics of great leaders

So in this new context in which we live and work, I believe there are three key characteristics that will define effective professionals and great leaders in the future. Now, much of what I will describe are things that one could say is true of 20th century leadership as well. But I believe these characteristics are and will become even more important aspects of great leaders in the future. They’re no longer “nice to haves”, but are now “have to haves”.

First, leaders today have to inspire.

It’s pretty simple, in a world where the best people have choice in where and with whom to work, leaders are those who have followers. And people follow those who inspire them. But to inspire others, you first have to show passion. Whether it’s in the mission of your firm or company, or the specific project on which you are working, leaders are passionate. They show their commitment and interest. At Red Hat, our mission is to be the catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners creating better technology the open source way. The most respected and influential people at Red Hat are those who show passion for our mission and live it every day. They aren’t necessarily those with the biggest titles. A leader cannot begin to inspire others if they themselves aren’t inspired.

Of course, this concept may not sound new. Leaders for generations have talked about morale. And a key role of a leader is to motivate But I would argue that how we do it is changing. The classic rah-rah, let’s go-get-them speech is no longer sufficient. People’s expectations have changed. And as they have become more educated and worldly, expect more than a paycheck from their jobs and the institutions with which they affiliate. They are more educated and have a broader world view. So frankly, stock phrases that stir momentary passions just aren’t enough.

Today people want meaning in what they do. A key role of a leader is to create and foster that meaning. I’ve read with great interest much of the new literature on the subject from Start With Why, to Conscious Capitalism, to Delivering Happiness. They all describe the value of meaning. And as I read these, one point is clear to me. It starts with the leader. It’s job one.

I’m lucky. I live this first hand every day. I see it in our associates. When threatened, an outpouring of energy and passion emerges. But it’s bubbling there every day. It’s why so many Red Hatters come in early and stay late.

As you enter your chosen field, recognize your ability to influence, to lead, will in a very significant way be determined by the passion you show for your work, your team, and the institution for which you work.

Second, leaders must engage those they work with and those who work for them.

In the old generation, equipping people to be successful meant job training. But in a world where tasks are not so specific and individual initiative becomes a key driver of competitive advantage, equipping people to be successful is more about ensuring that they deeply understand the strategy and tactics of the organization that they are a part of. That’s the only way that an organization can react quickly enough to the pace of our world today.

Engagement is about ensuring that everyone understands the strategy and objectives of their organization and their team. That everyone not only understands the what’s but also the why’s. It may sound easy, but it takes a lot of effort to really make sure everyone with whom you work understands the broader direction and strategy and their role in making it successful.

I also find that having the mindset of engagement can fundamentally change the relationship between a leader and followers. I see too many leaders who take the short cut – they simply say “go do this because I said so.” That is the simplest way to disenfranchise those with whom you work. You, by virtue of your degree and title, will have positional authority. But I implore you to use that position sparingly. Work to engage those around you. You will be personally more effective, but also gratified by the results you inspire in others.

A former colleague of mine at The Boston Consulting Group once told me that there are three levels of leadership:

● The basic is getting people to do what you want them to do
● The next, is getting people to think they way you want them to think
● The best though, is getting people to believe what you want them to believe. When you get here, this is when you can get people to walk through walls.

As you find yourself in various leadership roles in the future, I would suggest that you take pause every now and then and reflect on why people are following you. Engagement is not something that can be outsourced to others or done through one way channels. True engagement is a personal thing.

Finally, to be leader, you have to be willing and able to just be yourself.

This is especially important in the tough times.

I’d like to share a story, one that happened to me before Red Hat, when I was at Delta Air Lines. The experience happened the day Delta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. I was Chief Operating Officer at the time and was responsible for developing and driving the turnaround plan. I had spent an exhausting prior several months either locked up with a small group of advisors working on the plan or in a New York conference room pitching our plan to raise financing from lenders.

The day the company did file for bankruptcy was horrible for every member of the Delta family. For me, it was also a crazy day of press interviews, calls and meetings. At some point I was asked if I would be willing to stop by the break room at the airport that night to meet with the nightshift line mechanics. Our turnaround plan included significant changes to maintenance in addition to pay and benefit cuts, so all of those employees were going to be negatively impacted – though at the time, they didn’t know it yet. I was running from one thing to another and, without much of a thought, I said “sure.”

By the time I arrived at the break room at the airport I was exhausted, and because I had been going a mile-a-minute all day, I really hadn’t thought about what I would say. This wasn’t a pre-planned, pre-scripted event. As I walked in, I realized I had no idea what I was going to say, but there were a couple hundred people gathered and staring at me and waiting for me to speak. I realized that the best thing to do was to tell them the truth. I told them that I was sorry and that the turnaround would require real sacrifices. But I also let them know that they were part of our holistic plan to revive the airline.

I then launched into the same 45-minute speech about our plan that I had been giving to the bankers in New York for the prior few weeks. At the end, I apologized again, letting them know that management had failed them, but we had a plan to fix the problems. It was a lot of detail about arcane network and fleet concepts, but I thought it was important for everyone to understand how their sacrifices fit into the whole plan.

When I finished, I think everyone was a little stunned and at first, they just looked at me. Then they started asking questions – lots of them! Most impressively, they weren’t about the pay cuts and benefits changes. Instead, they asked insightful and detailed questions about the plan itself. They were truly interested in how it would work and what they could do to make the plan successful.

I finally made it home and got some sleep, but word quickly spread about my trip to the break room. Suddenly, I had requests from areas across the company who wanted to hear the same speech. Those requests led to a more formal program that we called the “Velvet Rope Tour,” where I joined other Delta leaders and spent time with groups of several hundred employees at a time, candidly sharing our plan and answering questions. Employees were pleased that the company respected them enough to share a high level of detail about our vision for Delta’s future and how we came to the decisions we’d made. In turn, we saw a substantial jump in engagement, despite the fact that our employees’ jobs were at risk.

Skipping ahead a few years, I was walking through the international terminal in Atlanta when I was approached by some Delta mechanics who mentioned the speech I had given to the them. They thanked me again for laying out the plan, notably the details I shared about our intent to expand Delta’s international presence. They had both taken that plan to heart and transferred to the international concourse, knowing that that was a big part of the company’s turnaround strategy. That was incredibly gratifying for me, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have tears in my eyes as I thanked those two gentlemen and went on my way.

It’s clear to me now that taking the time to inspire, engage and be myself with those Delta associates created a momentum that I believe helped serve the airline as we turned around.

In a 24-7 always connected world, it’s harder and harder to separate who you are from what you do. In prior generations, the lack of communication tools made it easier to construct a persona – a way one would want to be perceived. That’s getting harder and harder in a world where people expect to be able to interact with their leaders and the technology exists to do so.

As people expect their leaders to be more personally engaged, the ability to present a false front becomes so hard.

My experience has shown that it’s so much easier, and better in the long run, to be yourself than try to be someone you’re not. Perhaps some people are good at acting and pretending to be something they’re not, but I don’t see how they do it – or how they can sustain it. When I am interacting with people, I’m using all of my brainpower to engage with them, learn from them, ensure that it’s a mutually beneficial use of time. I don’t have the extra cycles left over to try to act like someone I’m not.

In addition, people can tell when someone is not being themselves. Innate human instinct has a remarkable ability to recognize insincerity. When people try to act like someone they are not, it shows through. I’ve seen so many good executives get on stage or walk into a meeting and try to put on a façade of who they think they should be. And it just doesn’t work. If you are that good an actor, I would suggest heading to Hollywood. For the rest of us, let me tell you from my experiences: There is no “prototypical leader”. There’s no “prototypical lawyer” or expected behavior. Don’t aspire to be someone else, instead aspire to leverage your own strengths to be effective. It sounds subtle but it can make all the difference.

To me, this begs the question, why don’t people just be themselves? I’m sure there are many deeper psychological answers to that question, but I see the root of the issue is that people don’t want to appear vulnerable. They don’t want to admit that they don’t have all the answers. They don’t want to admit that they have and will continue to make mistakes. The irony of this is that it’s our very vulnerabilities and weaknesses, that make us human. And it’s exactly those human characteristics that allow us to make personal connections. And that’s the true essence of leadership. That what will make people want to follow you.

The best leaders realize they don’t have all the answers, but they are skilled at asking the best questions instead. It’s not that you can’t be a great strategist or brilliant attorney, it’s that you have to work to get those ideas to bubble up through your organization or team and give them the freedom to develop and evolve in ways you might never have predicted. In the end, maybe it’s your strategy, but you can’t take credit for it – which can be quite a shift for a leader’s ego.

I can tell you at Red Hat, we take pride in the accomplishments of those we inspire. That when people we’ve collaborated with perform phenomenally at the tasks maybe we once directed or led—maybe even surpass our own performance at those tasks—their success becomes a visible testament to our leadership abilities.

I challenge each of you here today, as you graduate, embrace your new role as leaders.

But as you venture on your journey, also ask yourself what kind of leader do you want to be? Will you seek to be the leader who inspires, engages and has the personal strength to be yourself? How close are you to that mark? Graduating today has given you the foundation you need, but what happens next will all depend on you.

I believe if we all strive to inspire, engage and be ourselves, we’ll not only win in our professional lives, but we’ll win in all aspects of our lives.

Congratulations again and here’s to you all, the leaders of tomorrow.

Note: The transcript of the speech was provided courtesy of MMI Public Relations.