Since graduating from Lehigh University in 1979, Bill Amelio has authored one of those only-in-America success stories, rising to become president and CEO of computer giant Lenovo Group Ltd.
In his commencement address Monday, Amelio offered the Class of 2008 “a secret, knockout weapon … a killer emotional ju-jitsu move” that runs counter to the standard advice from most successful business leaders.
And it consists of three simple words:
“I was wrong.”
On a blustery, mid-May morning at Goodman Stadium, Amelio told the graduates that learning how to say those words—and mean them—is a key to success in life.
“You have no idea how much trouble and expense people in the business world expend trying to avoid saying, ‘I was wrong,’” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes, but somehow a myth has arisen that a person who admits mistakes is weak or foolish, not a winner.”
The truth, Amelio said, is that “people will rarely refuse to listen or deal with you when you tell them you were wrong. But they have a right to expect you to move past your mistakes by working hard to right the wrong and make things not just right for them, but excellent.”
Amelio recounted his own experiences at Lehigh when, just two months before his class graduated, he got involved in an altercation after drinking at a party. Amelio joked that the incident happened “before science understood that beer can make a person belligerent,” but he soberly recalled the anger and embarrassment he felt when he was not allowed to graduate with his class. He also recalled the disappointment of his parents, “who had always emphasized the importance of education and respectful behavior.”
And it was from his parents that he learned “one of the most important lessons of my life,” Amelio said. “The lesson sounds simple, but putting it into practice is one of the biggest challenges any of us will face: Learn how to forgive. Forgive others who have wronged you. Forgive yourself for making a mistake. Learn from what happened. Move on. Move up.”
Amelio certainly has done that. Blessed with the means to truly make a difference in the world as the president and CEO of Lenovo, Amelio, along with his wife, Jamie, are giving thousands of children in Cambodia a real shot at a better life by building state-of-the-art schools through their charity, Caring for Cambodia (CFC). Today, CFC supports more than 5,600 students, 90 teachers, five schools, a teacher training center, and the first three kindergartens in Cambodia.
After outlining his own Lehigh success story, Amelio, who lives in Singapore and travels the globe for work, told the university’s newest graduates that they also are well-armed for success despite a more challenging workplace than he entered more 30 years ago.
“Today’s problems seem larger and more intractable. Competition is keener. In the global economy, stop for lunch, and you are lunch,” Amelio said. “The good news is you now have a Lehigh education, one of the best tools in the world to succeed in this fast moving and often unforgiving environment. Thanks to Lehigh, you have the ability to adapt to whatever the world throws at you.”
The transformative power of a Lehigh degree
These three members of the Class of 2008 are all smiles on commencement day.
During her remarks to the graduating class, Lehigh President Alice P. Gast echoed Amelio’s sentiments by talking about how a Lehigh education can help transform people, institutions and the world as a whole. Gast cited the example of Dr. William S. Pierce ’58, who returned for his 50th class reunion and to celebrate with his adopted Class of 2008.
“People like Dr. Pierce are transforming the world through technology and dedication to improving the lives of others,” Gast said. “Dr. Pierce was the first to implant an artificial heart pump into a patient at the Hershey Medical Center. He was also instrumental in starting an artificial heart and circulatory assist program that resulted in the development of the Penn State Heart-Assist Pump, which has been surgically implanted in more than 3,000 patients and is available worldwide. Alumni like Mr. Amelio and Dr. Pierce show how Lehigh University transforms the world through its graduates.
“ … Many of you in the Class of 2008 already have a head start in making a difference, and you have been recognized in a variety of forums. Among the amazing things you did this year were: Rock 4 Darfur, a concert that promoted awareness of ethnic cleansing in Western Sudan; and an Earth Day celebration fostering environmental awareness, about recycling, wind power, green buildings, and environmental jobs.”
Gast then lauded three unsung heroes in the Class of 2008—Meredith Aach, Sean Kessler and Tiffany Searles—for their inspiring work on and off campus.
“There are many others deserving of mention who came to Lehigh uncertain of their futures, but leave here having changed themselves and Lehigh for the better,” Gast said. “Serving one another and improving the human condition have been part of Lehigh’s legacy since its founding. Today that legacy, handed down from generation to generation, is entrusted to you, the Class of 2008.”
The three-hour ceremony was held under a mixed bag of weather, including 40-mile per hour wind gusts, ominous storm clouds, some sun and then a soaking shower. … 1,091 bachelor’s degrees were conferred, along with 519 master’s degrees, 98 doctoral degrees and three education specialist (Ed.S.) degrees … the Class of 2008 included students from 40 countries plus the United States … Thomas J. Healy Jr. '85, senior vice president of the Lehigh University Alumni Association, told the graduates: “Your Lehigh experience is not over today. It is a lifelong association.” ... Emily G. O’Koren ’08, who received a bachelor's degree in music, led the attendees in singing the national anthem and the alma mater during the ceremony ... Amelio received an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree from Gast … the other honorary degree recipients were mathematician Michael P. Mortell, president emeritus of University College in Cork, Ireland; the influential Kenyan women’s rights advocate Phoebe Asiyo; and renowned Buddhist scholar Robert A.F. Thurman of Columbia University ... the Rev. Lloyd H. Steffen, university chaplain, gave the invocation and Kenneth L. Kraft, professor of religion studies, delivered the benediction ... Daniel E. Smith. Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, officially opened the commencement ceremony ... The Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, performed for the 26th consecutive spring commencement. They are America's oldest civilian concert band, with their first documented performance on July 4, 1828. … Meron Mengistu gave the graduate student address, while Matthew S. Montgomery, delivered the Senior Class remarks. … On Jan. 21, Jaclyn Bedford, a finance major and member of the Ski Club, had a horrible accident while skiing. She was taken by helicopter to the Trauma Center at Lehigh Valley Hospital, and the initial prognosis wasn’t good. Bedford made a full and miraculous recovery and was able to graduate with her class Monday.
For more photos of commencement, plus photo galleries and coverage of the 2008 baccalaureate service and Hooding Ceremony for Doctoral Candidates, visit Commencement 2008 Highlights
Photographs by Theo Anderson