During each spring, politicians, c-suite executives, movie stars, rock singers and authors are carted out in front of newly minted graduates to deliver “the commencement speech." Some are excellent. Most are predictable. A few are downright cringe worthy. Each year these higher education institutions seem to compete with one another to land the biggest name. Suffice to say in 2017 I was not surprised to read that two of America’s most famous campuses had landed two of America’s most famous CEOs. At Harvard University, famous dropout and Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg was the main attraction while over at MIT, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, followed suit a few days later.
There are thousands of commencement speeches delivered each year. But when the CEOs of Apple and Facebook were announced at MIT and Harvard respectively, I paid a little more attention to what they might have to say. The companies possess a market capitalization of almost $1.3 trillion between them, employ thousands of people, while each of them in their own way are implementing life-changing technologies that have improved — and at times negatively affected — the lives of millions of people across the globe. What did they encourage graduates to think about after graduation?
Perhaps they both did some homework first. Maybe they watched comedian Stephen Colbert who in his 2011 speech at Northwestern University said, “No more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.” Or maybe Cook and Zuckerberg reviewed the speech of former Carnegie Mellon computer science professor, Randy Pausch. He rose to fame after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, having delivered a rather inspirational “Last Lecture” video that went viral. In his commencement speech, Pausch said, “We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living more fully.”
Or, given the impact Steve Jobs had directly on Cook and indirectly on Zuckerberg, maybe both CEOs wanted to pay homage to Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University speech, where he opined, “All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” To my surprise yet equal delight, both Zuckerberg and Cook spoke to graduates about the importance of purpose. Although the word was not used, it’s precisely what Colbert, Pausch and Jobs were getting at in their own commencement speeches. “The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose. Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness,” said Zuckerberg.
Sharing insights into his personal journey of purpose, Tim Cook remarked, “I was never going to find my purpose working some place without a clear sense of purpose of its own.” Put differently, we need to be in charge of defining and enacting our own personal purpose but we also need to work for an organization (and with leaders/peers in purpose-driven roles) that shares a sense of purpose in something greater than simply making money. Zuckerberg added, “To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge — to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.” He cemented the point by saying, “You have to create a sense of purpose for others.” It is not enough to be selfish. Although important — and as I argue, it is the first critical step to achieving the sweet spot — each of us is responsible to work toward something bigger than ourselves.
Cook asks, "How can I serve humanity? This is life’s biggest and most important question. When you work towards something greater than yourself, you find meaning, you find purpose. So the question I hope you will carry forward from here is how will you serve humanity?” Zuckerberg believes there are three ways in which we can create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose. They are:
  • taking on big meaningful projects together,
  • redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and
  • building community across the world.
Cook believes our overarching purpose is to “serve humanity.” After meeting Steve Jobs — after searching for fifteen years for his purpose — something clicked for him. “I finally felt aligned,” he said, “aligned with a company that brought together challenging, cutting edge work with a higher purpose.”
The commencement speeches of Zuckerberg and Cook are both inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring because two of the world’s most famous CEOs from two of the world’s most famous companies are pleading with humanity to serve humanity, to serve a higher purpose. Personally, I never thought the day would come where a Silicon Valley CEO would implore us to spend more focus and attention on purpose. (Let alone two.) Equally so, however, the speeches were terrifying. When the heads of Facebook and Apple show up at Harvard and MIT pleading with the next generation of leaders to be purpose driven, it means there is a gaping hole of purpose in today’s society. Those speeches by Cook and Zuckerberg, although spoken at two different graduation venues, ought to be aimed at society in general. Purpose is waning. Meaning has gone missing. Humanity is suffering. It’s time to work collaboratively and equally, within a joint community to “serve humanity.” This is not a mission for a few graduates from MIT and Harvard. This is a mission for each of us.


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  • Dan is a conference organizer’s ideal speaker. Not only did he inspire and energize our group, but he also masterfully adapted his content so it resonated with the audience and our conference theme. As a bonus, Dan is able to nimbly navigate to adjust to a reduced time slot when other speakers went over time without sacrificing the impact of his session.

    Director and General Counsel
  • Dan accomplished what we set out to do, which was not only to be inspirational, but also to leave everyone with tools and food for thought / self-reflection to improve their personal and professional lives.

    Hermann Handa, FCT
  • Dan challenged us to have clarity of purpose, both as individuals and as an organization. He related inspiring stories drawing on his experience in business, technology and academia. As he said, ‘There is no ownership without belonging.’

    Christian Pantel, D2L
  • Dan Pontefract suggests leaders must be transformational and transactional, collaborative and considerate, daring and decisive, inclusive and insistent, playful and formal, harmonious, and humble, encouraging and results-driven. In a word, Flat.

    Robert Morris
    “How to strengthen engagement, empowerment, and execution, then leverage them for a decisive competitive advantage”

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