Great Leaders Talk to Dead People

David Brooks gave the Wake Forest graduation speech last spring — and it’s great.

It’s titled "The River of Knowledge" — you can never go wrong with water or river metaphors. He talks about how really great people "talk to dead people":

Merely famous people have pictures of themselves on the wall. Really great people have pictures of dead people on the wall, and on their desks. It’s one of the first things I look for when I go into somebody’s office.

And they talk about these dead people. John McCain, who was here a few years ago, talks a lot about Mo Udall, a Democratic politician he loved being around. He wrote a book called "Faith of My Fathers" about his father and his father’s father and so on. Barack Obama wrote a book called "Dreams From My Father" about his own father.

All his life, Abraham Lincoln talked with the founders of this country. Winston Churchill talked with the Duke of Marlborough. Theodore Roosevelt talked with the men and women who settled the West.

The dead were alive to them, and looking over their shoulder.

In other words, really great people try to learn and understand those who came before them. He raps on this point for a bit, and then continues:

…It’s not right to say that success is something we achieve individually. Success is not something that we do or that happens to us. Success is something that happens through us.

We inherit, starting even before we are born, a great river of knowledge, a great flow from many ages and many sources. The information that comes from millions of years ago, we call brain chemistry. The information that comes from hundreds of thousands of years ago from our hunter and gatherer ancestors we call genes. The information that was handed down thousands of years ago we call religion. The information passed along hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family. The information you absorbed over the past few years at Wake Forest we call education.

But it is all information, and it flows from the deep past through us into the future. It flows from the dead through us to the living and the unborn. We exist as creatures within this hidden river of knowledge the way a trout exists in a stream or a river. We are formed by the river. It is the medium in which we live and the guide about how to live.

The great people I’ve seen talking to the dead do so because they want to connect with the highest and most inspiring parts of the river. When people make mistakes, often it is not because they are evil. It’s because they don’t have an ideal to live up to.

I like this image: Connect with the highest and most inspiring parts of the river. Brooks concludes by telling the graduates to create a posse of dead people, an entourage of heroes.

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