Resilient Leadership for a Resilient World

05/27/2015 01:16 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

During the course of this month, millions of American students will graduate from institutions of higher learning, only to enter a world beset by challenges that threaten the stability of societies around the globe: new geopolitical tensions and the rise of radical non-state actors; new forms of cyber-aggression; a changing climate; health-related challenges that include infectious diseases such as Ebola; the global competition for natural resources; and growing income inequality in developed economies, as well as inequalities between nations.

Addressing such challenges is not simple, as each affects the others. A changing climate, for example, clearly exacerbates issues surrounding our food, water, and energy supplies. It also is likely to increase the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria. It influences our national and global security, as vast reserves of petroleum, natural gas, and mineral wealth in the Arctic, being made accessible by melting sea ice, are contested between nations. Climate change also is likely to worsen the divides between rich nations and poor ones, as it undermines food and water security at the lower latitudes. Even within a single geography, the risks of severe climate events are greater for those with fewer economic and educational advantages.

Our vulnerabilities intersect, and recent history shows us that when there is a triggering event--such as the Great Sendai Earthquake of 2011 in Japan, and the subsequent tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant--intersecting vulnerabilities result in cascading consequences. The very interconnectedness of our systems and societies exposes us to potential domino effects, if any part of our civilization proves brittle. We must build resilience into our infrastructure and social structures. We must enable the collaborations between disciplines, sectors, and nations that allow for strength and adaptability, since any one of the challenges I have named is far too complex to be understood and resolved by a single point of view.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the United States, we believe that one of the most important roles of a university is to serve as a crossroads for exceptional people across disciplines, sectors, and geographical regions. The word "polytechnic" in our name means "many arts." We have a vision for ourselves as "The New Polytechnic": a university that encourages serendipity by uniting a multiplicity of perspectives--as well as the most advanced tools and technologies--in order to address great global challenges.

When Commencement offers us the opportunity, each year, to draw some of the most accomplished men and women in the world to our campus, as our honorary degree recipients, we try to engineer the greatest possible return from our honorands' presence: We ask them to help our students and faculty think through the hard problems, by participating in an annual tradition we call the President's Commencement Colloquy, a lively panel discussion held on the eve of Commencement.

This year, our theme is "Resilient Leadership for a Resilient World." We have invited four remarkable people, who have demonstrated resilience in their own careers and lives, to offer us their insights: Admiral Michelle J. Howard, the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations and the first woman to hold the rank of four-star admiral in the 240-year history of the Navy; Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University, the award-winning filmmaker and scholar; Mr. Craig Mundie, a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and an expert in cybersecurity, technology policy, and technology strategy; and finance industry pioneer Mr. David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO The Carlyle Group, and one of our nation's greatest and most original philanthropists.

While I cannot tell you in advance what ideas will emerge from the interactions between these remarkable people, I can assure you that they will give our students a master class in the kind of leadership demanded by the networked problems the world faces: They have turned challenges into opportunities, which is the very essence of resilience. They have demonstrated adaptability, a gift for synthesizing many different points of view and finding a clear line of action within them, and a powerful commitment to bettering the world.

These qualities must be fostered in our graduates, if, together, they are to transform the growing interconnectivity of the world from a risk, into an opportunity to uplift humanity on a grand scale--and if each of them is to connect with those collaborators who can help him or her to contribute to this goal.

At Rensselaer, we expect our graduates to gather one more piece of vital information from our Colloquy: that the first step towards building a more resilient world is, unquestionably, a conversation.