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Office of the First Lady

"Leadership, Sports, and Life Experience"

Welcoming remarks and introduction of the keynote speaker at
the Hazelett Women in Leadership Forum
Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence
IUPUI
Indianapolis, Indiana
November 30, 2011

Thank you, Phil. I bring greetings from Michael to Ambassador Tobias and his wife Deborah, and especially to Bruce Hazelett.  I'm delighted to be here tonight, and it is truly an honor to be asked to welcome you to an event recognizing excellence in leadership, and especially excellence in women’s leadership. It is also an honor to open this annual event that celebrates Susie Hazelett, who exemplified courage and vision, and who inspired men and women alike to become leaders who can make a difference.

Now more than ever, we need good leadership. We are in an age where leaders in every sector are challenged by problems of daunting complexity and global impact, where trust in public and private institutions alike is on the decline, and where the wisdom of the past may not always address the technology rich, flattened world of the 21st century. In such a world, the work that the Tobias Center does is vital—to the state of Indiana, our nation, and globally. The Hazelett Center is doing particularly crucial work to ensure that we see diversity in our role models.  Great leaders do have characteristics in common—to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, surely a role model on everyone’s list, good leaders must have the strength to face criticism and opposition with confidence, to be optimistic about the future, and to have a passionate commitment to their beliefs and to the potential for change.  But within these attributes lies a vast range of possibilities for how they are expressed, by whom and under what circumstances.  The more we hear from leaders of all kinds—certainly both genders but also in all walks of life—the more we can be certain that the ways in which we make progress will reflect the range of interests present in today's world. I congratulate everyone gathered here tonight for taking time to focus on how each of us can contribute to positive progress.

It's also a genuine pleasure to be in the same room with our keynote speaker tonight, Ms. Tamika Catchings. It's a bit ironic to be celebrating a leader from the world of sports with my arm in a sling! I'm a month out from surgery on my rotator cuff, having acquired the damage to my shoulder playing volleyball. There are several lessons to be learned from the experience, only one of which is that I'm obviously passed the point in my life when I should be spiking a volleyball. I agreed to play on a team for a couple of months, at a point when I already was suffering some pain in my right shoulder. My husband, who by the way sends his greetings to all of you and especially to Tamika, in the very tactful way that spouses will, suggested that I really should not be playing, and that I would only get hurt. I reacted in an equally predictable way, which was to ignore him. So now, in addition to the pain in my shoulder I now have to suffer the indignity of telling him that he was right.

But I was having so much fun, trying to hang onto an experience that I hadn’t had when I was younger. I graduated from high school in 1972, within a week of when Title IX was passed. Partly because it was not expected of me, as evidenced by there being very few team sports offered for girls, I never played on a team of any kind. It was a revelation when, 2 years ago, I had a chance to play basketball with a group of friends to raise money for the local children's science museum in Bloomington. I had the time of my life, and finally understood what I had missed. So no wonder I jumped at the chance to keep playing, volleyball this time, with that same group.

These days, we see many examples of individuals who step up in inspiring displays of leadership in action to help his or her team win a game, a match, a championship. We know why leadership is so important on the court, on the field, in the pool, on the track, and so forth because we can see the person who takes charge.  What I didn't know was how profound the experience would be for each member of a team, in the midst of competition.  I didn't know how deeply I would feel being part of something larger than myself, in which we all took turns in a beautifully fluid way leading and following, always focused on a successful outcome. I understood much more fully sports have such meaning for so many of us in our culture today, and why we admire those who play them at the level that our keynote speaker tonight does. Team sports engage us completely—mind, body, and soul, and working hard in concert with others is as much an intellectual exercise as it is a physical one. Leaders must have followers, and the outcome is determined by how well the group performs. This is a crucial lesson and I am grateful to have learned it, even if at the ripe old age of 57. We can all be grateful to Indiana's own Birch Bayh who authored the title IX legislation and made these lessons available to girls as well as boys.

Leadership is also about role models, and those who excel at their chosen sport as our keynote speaker tonight most certainly does, provide wonderful examples of leadership on and off the court. Tamika Catchings is emphatically such an example, and I am eagerly looking forward to hearing her comments tonight.

On behalf of the community of scholars and athletes at Indiana University, I extend special greetings to Tamika, and I congratulate the Hazelett Forum and the Tobias Center for their steadfast and critically important advocacy for equity and excellence in leadership at all levels.  Welcome to tonight’s forum.