Serving rather than Steering: Graduation Address by Michelle Bachelet at Sciences Po Institute


Graduation Address by Michelle Bachelet Executive Director of UN Women at Sciences Po Institute Paris, France 24 May 2012.

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Serving rather than Steering : Leadership for Equity

Good morning. Today is a special day for you, and for your families, your teachers and friends. Thank you for having me with you. I thank Sciences Po for inviting me to share in this celebration.

Education is worth celebrating and this ceremony marks both a beginning and an end.

Today we celebrate an end to your formal studies, for which you have earned a degree and a diploma. We celebrate your achievements and the knowledge that you have acquired here in this prestigious institution. Congratulations!

We also celebrate the beginning of the next phase of your lives, and the knowledge and the experience that you will continue to acquire on your journeys. This is also very exciting!

When I was preparing for this special day, for this time of togetherness, I asked myself what I could possibly give you to remember. I pondered this special juncture in your lives and in our world at large.

As one of 7 billion people on Earth, you and I are living in a time of profound transition. It seems that everything is going faster and faster, getting more complex, and institutions are having a hard time keeping up and responding.

It is at this time in history that you will take on leadership roles. A time when uncertainty is certain, a time of both promise and peril on our interconnected and shared planet.

Even though global economic growth is up 75 percent since 1992, more than one in four persons worldwide live in extreme poverty, two-thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are in decline, and climate change poses an unprecedented threat to civilization.

Not a day goes by that we are not reminded of the complexities of our times. Yes, we could get lost in the long list of the problems that the media share with us daily—challenges such as high unemployment, national debt, and austerity measures.

I could use my precious time with you to add to the many analyses of what is wrong or to the ever-growing list of “all the problems.

But dwelling on the negative side of the equation is too easy and it does not move us forward. Furthermore, I believe that challenges are there to be taken up; problems are there to be solved. I am a realist and an optimist who believes in the creativity, strength and future of our humanity.

While analysis and contemplation are necessary, they are not enough. It is action that makes the difference—action grounded in conviction.

And here let me quote former President Francois Mitterrand who once said, “The sidewalks are littered with genius.

We know what he means—there are plenty of great ideas that are never activated. So let us not litter the sidewalks with only analysis. It is time to move to action.

I see a central challenge ahead: The challenge to put the human being at the centre of our efforts and to pave inclusive, sustainable and balanced paths for societies. Societies in which all, women and girls, boys and men, are equal and enjoy the same rights, opportunities, and dignity.

Today we live in a world that is bound together as never before. Science has made incredible progress and continues to do so—from mapping the human genome to connecting global communications through satellites and seabed cables, to new and ever-shrinking computing technology. We now have the ability to send, receive and synthesize information across time zones, continents and across sectors.

Yet we are living in a world of paradox—of these impressive scientific and technological advances and yet rising inequality. Which begs the question: What does social justice mean for the 21st century?

If we do not embrace change and challenge beliefs of the past, we risk not just losing growth, but experiencing ever-greater inequality and threats to peace and stability. We risk losing a generation of young people. What a terrible waste that would be!

We only need to look at the jobs situation. Right now, 200 million people worldwide cannot find work, including 75 million young people trying to find their place in society. Looking ahead, the world will need 600 million new jobs over the next decade.

The global economic crisis is a global jobs crisis. And youth are hit the hardest. Unemployment rates for young people are at record levels - two, three, sometimes even six times the rate for adults.

Without urgent measures to stem the rising tide of youth unemployment, we risk creating a “lost generation of wasted opportunities, squandered potential, and increased instability.

For me, part of the solution that we seek is the kind of leadership that we will stand for. People everywhere long for, and clamor for, legitimate leaders and legitimate policies. Leaders that find and, above all, carry out policies that give everyone a fair chance. Leaders that look past short-term gains and pave the way for a more equitable, more just and sustainable future. That is the challenge to action.

Those of you graduating today chose to undertake a degree in public administration. I congratulate you on that choice and I thank your teachers, families and your friends for the support they gave you. You made that choice of specializing in public administration at a time when so many advise to go for a Master's in business administration (MBA), to think of yourself, and to make some money.

Serving the public interest is one of the noblest undertakings and it is best advanced by public servants and citizens committed to making meaningful contributions to society. It's actually not that complicated but so often we overlook, denigrate common sense, refute simplicity. And here I would like to quote the French poet, essayist and philosopher, Paul Valéry. He said, “Tout ce qui est simple est faux; tout ce qui ne l'est pas est inutilisable.(Everything that is simple is false; everything that isn't simple is not useful.)

So as you embark on this path, I want to leave you with seven thoughts. Seven thoughts that I hope will accompany you—and be useful—in the years ahead.

Seven is considered a lucky number across many cultures. There are seven days of the week, seven continents and seven seas. We talk about the seven senses of animation, feeling, speech, taste, sight, hearing, and smell.

The Pythagoreans called it the perfect number, three and four, the triangle and the square, the perfect figures. The Arabians had seven Holy Temples. In Persian mysteries, there were seven spacious caverns through which the aspirants had to pass. And of course, the excellence of the education given at Sciences Po is mirrored by the geography of its seven urban campuses.

You are among an elite in this world in the most positive sense of the word- you are the privileged ones who enjoy a wonderful education. An education you received in an institution for which Mr. Descoings made it his mission to be inclusive and open to the world.

But as you know, privilege brings above all responsibility. For the more that is given to us, the more we have a duty to give back to others.

And so we come to my personal number seven that I want to share with you. These are thoughts on the kind of leadership goals and values that I see at the centre of transformation—the transformation that people are calling for wherever I go.

Here is the first of seven. In the 21st century, leadership can no longer be by control and command. It is about listening and leveraging a response. Listening is key and leaders today have so many more tools to do so. You are the first generation to grow up with digital cameras, cellphones and laptops. I am sure you all are adept at social media and the new communications technologies.

Over a year ago, I was so impressed when I visited Cairo after the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. I met with women and young people and I saw for myself what many others before me had reported—how cell phones and the Intranet had changed the terms of engagement. How people were connected and connecting for change. During our discussions in Cairo, young women were sending our words and aspirations out to their networks, and informing and inspiring others.

Here is the second of seven. Leadership has to strive for inclusion. The castles are burning down. The fortresses and moats are no longer tenable. Now is the time for openness and participation. Leadership is not a singular or insular endeavour. Leadership is about consultation and collaboration. Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. True leadership is about participation and engagement.

Here is the third of seven. Leadership pursues equality. We can no longer pursue public policies that, in effect, save the best for the best and the rest for the rest. We need to advance universal values with universal coverage. Education and healthcare, safe water and sanitation, housing and energy, and decent work are not charitable contributions or government handouts; they are rights to which every human being is entitled.

This is especially important for girls and women. Today no society has achieved gender equality. While many countries around the world have made significant progress towards gender equality in education, the glass is still half-full: women continue to earn less than men, are less likely to make it to the top of the career ladder, and are more likely to end their lives in poverty.


  • Women account for 58 percent of unpaid employment;
  • About two-fifths of girls are never born due to a preference for sons;
  • Only 10 to 20 of every 100 land owners is a woman;
  • Women are still responsible for 60 to 80 percent of all household and care work, for domestic responsibilities;
  • Violence against women and girls is one of the most common and least prosecuted crimes in the world, and;
  • Women represent less than one in five parliamentarians and less than one in 10 Heads of State and Government worldwide.

We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go to achieve equality. I say this not only because I am the head of UN Women but because we will stand a better chance of solving problems if we have greater equality and diversity in decision-making.

Research shows that as more women serve in office, more focus is placed on issues traditionally seen as women's issues, such as education and healthcare, and more emphasis is placed on issues that affect women in their daily lives, such as water, food and energy.

Here is the fourth of seven. Leadership embraces diversity and integrative societies. In just a few weeks' time, leaders will gather in Brazil for Rio + 20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

This is the staging ground for key decisions to make our economies more inclusive, our societies more equitable and to protect our common environment. We know that the current economic model is not sustainable.

As we look ahead to 2030, less than two decades from now, the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water to meet rising demands from a growing population with rising standards of living.

We need to reduce carbon emissions, move to renewable energy and ensure energy for all. We need to reduce inequality and build a social protection floor below which none of humanity's members can fall. We need to close the gap between those living in deprivation on the edge of survival, and those living with conspicuous and excessive consumption.

But to achieve all that, a true leader has to strive to value and understand people.

And for that, you need the fifth, sixth and seventh principles: humility, respect for yourself and others, and a strong belief in the possible.

During my life, I have had the privilege to live in service of shared goals for democracy, equality and justice, first for my country of Chile, and now for the women of our world through UN Women.

And what I have learned is that leadership is not an attribute. Leadership is a journey. It is important never to give up and always look to the future. This does not mean forgetting about the past. On the contrary, the need for a better society is derived from lessons learnt. In building a democratic nation, one builds on the past, moving forward with a sense of mission for a future that includes everyone and ensures equal rights and opportunities.

When I was Minister of Defense in Chile, before I became President, my mission was to further reform of the defense sector and to continue working to ensure the rule of law. During the military regime, human rights were violated and the military was a symbol of fear for the people.

By approaching this duty with hope instead of anger, it was possible to support the people and the armed forces to move forward in a spirit of national identity and determination. We were driven by a shared sense of mission to overcome authoritarianism by creating institutions to uphold democratic values.

Democracy is rooted in solidarity, peace and justice, and democratic reform requires leadership with conviction. It also requires equality and inclusion.

Last year's uprisings in the Arab world—from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen and Syria, showed people from all walks of life, young and old, men and women coming together to demand justice, participation and freedom.

All over the world, people are demanding an end to greed and corruption. They are calling for jobs, education and healthcare, for peace and security. They are calling for leadership that is legitimate, leadership that is based on the consent of the governed.

Wherever you go, I encourage you to strive for inclusion, to encourage participation, to pursue equality, to embrace diversity, and to do so listening and respecting, with humility and a strong belief in the possible.

Let me conclude by saying what we all ought to remember:

Follow your passion. Life is short; make the most out of it.

To that, I would like to add the words of Native American Chief Tecumseh who so rightly said: “Show respect to all people and grovel to none.

I wish you all the best and extend to you my heartfelt congratulations!

Thank you.