Ben English’s remarks to WIP Congressional Forum 2012

Leadership Today, Not Tomorrow: The Next Generation

Distinguished guests, Members of the United States Congress, WIP Class of 2012. Tá bród an domhain orm an óráid seo a tabhairt daoibh inniú ag an ocaid specisalta seo.

My name is Ben English and as Eoin said, I am a student of Government and Public Policy in University College Cork but more importantly, I am a proud member of the Washington Ireland Program Class of 2012, a group of 30 unique people, defined by our differences, but united by our similarities.

When selected for this program, I was extremely proud but my happiness was combined with a degree of uncertainty. I had applied unsuccessfully for the program one year previous and I knew that this experience would shape where I am going and who I wanted to become. With less than two weeks to go, I can say with confidence that this experience has opened my eyes. A significant part of that has been my internship in the office of Representative Mike Kelly. The lessons I have learned and the skills I have developed here cannot be underestimated. Working for Representative Kelly has enabled me to challenge my own opinions, develop new perspectives and help American’s understand my Irish accent!! Mr Kelly is a principled public representative who focuses not just on doing things right, but on doing the right things.

In Mr Kelly, and other Irish-Americans, great inspiration can be taken from what can be achieved in the US with hard work. Before I came here, my grandmother told me that in her time, America was just a destination. Her ancestors emigrated for Ellis Island with no possessions, only a determination to succeed. As a result, it was Irish hands that built the buildings that surround us today and to some degree, helped build America. For the modern day Irish who come to America now, it is more than a destination, it is destiny. Speaking to a Joint Session of the US Congress in April 2008, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that the Irish experience of “hardship and of forced emigration” was at an end. Unfortunately, this was not so and the cycle of emigration appears to have come full circle. On thinking about this, I began to think about what my generation could do to prevent a third cycle occurring.

And so, I realised that I wanted to speak about leadership today. I then began to think what I would say if I was making this speech 10 years ago. Undoubtedly, the substance of this speech would be significantly different. They were times of prosperity, affluence, times of success ─ times where the message may have simply been to keep the flame burning, and carry on. Today however, is distinctively different. We gather in times of unprecedented challenge, times of great uncertainty. But where there is challenge and uncertainty, there is also hope. And as leaders, in the face of adversity, I want to share with you two simple options which we have.

First, there is the temptation to resort to usual formulas for success which have traditionally fostered the ideals for the “typical” leader. But as times change, so too must our aspirations. That desire to be on “who’s who” list or that top 100, to have the fancy title or the flashy car may at times seem all too tempting. But as leaders, we should strive to be above this─ to be doers not talkers, proactive not reactive. The prioritising of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, and short-term gain over lasting achievement is the cycle that we need to end.

Throughout our time here, many of our guest speakers have referred to us as future leaders, the leaders of tomorrow. Looking around this room, I see no leaders of tomorrow, only leaders of today. And that is the second option. Our second option is to step up to the plate and lead by example, not when this program ends, not when we finish university, but now. I’m not naive enough to suggest that we’ll change the world today, but taking responsibility I and taking ownership of challenges today helps us develop the principles and skills that can form the new leadership of tomorrow.

For me, all it takes is trust. The place where we’ll slack is that lull of uncertainty where we’re not quite sure where we’re going, where the lines are blurred. And those lines can’t be straightened looking forward, only looking back. At the same time, we just have to trust that we’re going in the right direction. In this regard, I have learned more about leadership this summer than any guest speaker could ever teach me.

On our fifth week in New York, the approach changed, as we began exploring who we were as people. We realised that we all have a story to share, all with a journey travelled. I began to hear stories of the incredible journeys people in this class had travelled and how clear they were on what their next path would be. For me, this was unsettling to say the least. I was always convinced that this program would make me so sure of what I wanted to do that it would seem clear as day what path my own career would take. Sitting in Times Square, I could not have been more uncertain. I tried to give myself a reality check, to get back on the horse and go it alone and eventually, I would realise the triviality of my worries. But that moment didn’t come.

Then I began talking to my fellow classmates and realised that good leaders don’t always need to go it alone. My eureka moment came when I reflected on the stories of the 29 other people whom I have shared this experience with and realised that we are leaders every single day. I always looked to the papers, or great speakers for leadership when really, it was far closer to home.. It was in the person I saw embrace the complexities and pain of the North South conflict in Ireland, or the person who made an enormous personal sacrifice so that someone in their family could have the chance of a better future. These are the real and everyday triumphs of leadership.

Standing here today, I am not totally sure of where I am going, but I am confident that I am getting there, wherever that place can be. I am confident that I am not the complete leader, but that the Washington Ireland Program has given me tools to lead, the humility to know when to be led, and the courage to challenge others, and challenge myself. And so everyone has a different road to travel and my journey may be different but it is my own.

The Washington Ireland Program has shown me that when a group of people put their minds to something with a goal in mind, anything is possible. Going back to Ireland, my experience with this program has made me happy to live in challenging times. For every person that says “look at the mess they’ve left us with”, I’m enthused by the challenge before us. For every person who curses the corruption that pervades politics today, I contemplate being part of the generation that breaks that cycle. And for every person who says that the road ahead is too long, that the obstacles we face too big, I think of the words of one of Ireland’s greatest writers George Bernard Shaw- “Dream of things that never were and ask why not”. And we can be dreamers, but let us be doers too.

Thank you