On Sunday, January 24, 2010, Jim Pitts, Corporate Vice President and President, Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems sector, addressed students at the University of Maryland College Park Winter Commencement Ceremony. Below are his remarks.

Commencement Address

Good afternoon President Mote, distinguished deans and members of the faculty, alumni, family, friends and most important — graduates.

I’m truly honored that you’ve invited me to be a part of this special occasion. It’s so inspiring to reflect on the academic triumphs of the many students gathered in this arena this afternoon. And so, let me say to all those receiving degrees, my heartiest congratulations for a job well done. This is an exciting moment — I can feel it.

Let me also offer congratulations to all the parents, grandparents, significant others, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends who have come to share this moment. Without your love, encouragement and support this day would not have been possible.

I’m honored as well to be at the University of Maryland, the state’s flagship university and one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher learning, with 153 years of tradition and rigorous scholarship. I am a native son of Maryland — I was raised here, attended the Johns Hopkins University and have spent my entire professional career in Maryland. I recognize what an impact this university has throughout this great state.  I have also seen the important role the fine men and women who graduate from this university play in building Maryland’s formidable workforce.

My company, Northrop Grumman, certainly recognizes the extraordinary talent that resides here and feels fortunate that such rich resources are available to us and the other employers in the State of Maryland.  Northrop Grumman has built a close relationship over many years with the Clark School of Engineering here at College Park, in fact, a new graduate fellowship funded by the company will be available starting this month. Last year, Northrop Grumman was the number one employer nationwide of University of Maryland engineering students.  We are proud of that fact, and look forward to continuing this relationship well into the future.

However, I am not here today to talk to you about the state of the economy or Northrop Grumman. This afternoon, I want to share some thoughts about Leadership. 

As I look out over the audience, I see tomorrow’s leaders. I see individuals who will sooner rather than later find themselves in significant leadership positions. It could happen with a small group of co-workers, or it could be in a classroom or on an athletic field. Maybe it will be on the grand stage of national politics. Whatever the setting, many of you will be called on, or will choose, to lead.

What does it take to be a great leader? In reflecting back on my career, I found five basic principles that guided whatever success I have achieved. These principles are — integrity and ethics; accountability and caring; overcoming adversity; embracing diversity; and giving back. They have guided me in my personal life and throughout my professional career. These are things that define me as a person and are borne from life experiences. They are drawn not only from successes, but from hardships and difficulties. These were not in my hip pocket when I entered the workforce.

As you depart the Comcast Center this afternoon and set out on the next stage of your lives, I hope you’ll reflect on them and that they may serve as the same pivotal guideposts for you as they have for me.

Let’s start with Integrity and Ethics:

My dad grew up in the Depression, fought with the Marines in three major Pacific campaigns in World War II and then returned to Baltimore County, where he joined a family furniture business. He never got past ninth grade in school. But despite the tough times — or maybe because of them — he had his priorities straight. He rose from stock boy to running the entire business.

There were certain things that were especially important to him, chief among them were integrity and ethics. Dad demanded that we act ethically and with integrity in all we did. It’s how I was raised. There was no room for compromise and no excuse for cutting corners.

There simply is no substitute for telling the truth and being honest with those you encounter personally and professionally. If you can’t establish an air of integrity on your own, no one will do it for you. It’s inwardly driven.

And so it is with effective leaders. They do not view ethical behavior as something to fall back on as situations dictate. It’s not an afterthought. It defines us as a people and at Northrop Grumman, it defines us as a business. It requires that we set the highest personal and professional standards and stick to them.

We live in a world that is growing ever more complex. Things don’t always appear as black or white, but rather fall within shadowy, gray areas. In such a world it’s easy to make compromises, to take half measures. But an effective leader recognizes that the right thing to do is not always the easy thing. The shortcut may be the easier route, but it is also the self-defeating route.

Always ask yourself: Am I doing the right thing?

Number 2 is Accountability and Caring:

No matter what path you pursue when you leave this university, you will find that great leaders are great motivators. That’s because they believe in balancing accountability and caring. This balance will cause individuals to want to work with you and they will spread the word.

As a leader, you may be asked to produce results no matter what the impact on the people you lead. But doing so comes at a price. A very steep price. Lost credibility. Low morale. And the possibility of a compromised and inferior product.

Effective leaders are accountable to themselves and to others. In business, that means being answerable to customers, shareholders and the people you work with and those who work for you.

Focusing only on results is a short-term and potentially destructive strategy. As a leader, you must be accountable for performance — your own and that of others. And that accountability starts with a sense of caring and concern. It involves a willingness to recognize and deal with mistakes. It means helping others to set challenging and achievable goals, to acquire new skills and knowledge and to have their performance fairly assessed.  Caring about people is not a weakness; it is the foundation that builds a strong team.

Number 3 is Overcoming Adversity

When I think back to the fall of 1969 I remember being on top of the world. I was 18 and the starting quarterback on the freshman football team at Johns Hopkins. The following spring, I also played lacrosse. I had achieved success on the field and was doing well in the classroom.

The next year seemed to hold even more promise. I was a quarterback and halfback for the varsity football team. But all that was shattered one afternoon in October, when I suffered a near-fatal game injury.

My football and lacrosse careers were over. And with them went my image of myself as a scholar-athlete, an image that was so closely tied to two sports that meant everything to me.

But it was also a defining moment for me, a humbling lesson in adversity and the fact that the best laid plans can be altered in an instant. With support from my family and mentors at Hopkins I worked through my disappointment and eventually was able to resume my athletic career on the baseball field. But I had to make some major adjustments in the way I viewed myself and my future.

At the age of 20, my wife, Kay and I got married. We were young, but it turned out to be the best decision I ever made and the start of an exciting time in my life. Within a few years, Kay and I had our first of two daughters. Two years later, our son, Michael was born — the son who, I thought, would do the things that I never would be able to do. He would fulfill my dream.

Shortly after our son was born, we were informed that he was severely and profoundly retarded and it became clear he would never be the person we hoped he would be. Eventually, because of the amount of care he required, we had to move him to a group home. To this day, that remains the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. It makes every decision I’m faced with at work pale in comparison.

I’m sure you all have stories you could tell about difficult times that have tested your resolve and resilience. We all live with problems like that everyday, but in many ways, they shape who we are.

Invariably, strong leaders are people who have overcome adversity. In fact, their lives tend to be shaped more by the difficulties they’ve managed than the successes they’ve achieved. Adversity makes us stronger; it teaches us humility and makes us more empathetic toward others — both personally and professionally. It’s how you work through those low points and return to a state of equilibrium that will define you as a person — and a leader.

That’s why I believe so strongly that we must all be passionate about something in our lives. It can be a person — your spouse, your partner, a close friend — or it can be your work or a hobby. The important thing is that we find someone or something that will sustain you through the tough times and help you to achieve a healthy balance once again.

Adversity can be a great form of education, embrace it. Learn from it. And use it to grow and lead.

Number 4 is learning to embrace diversity

I learned about a lot more than sports and engineering during my time at Johns Hopkins. I was also schooled in diversity by a man named Bob Scott.

My classmates and teammates covered the full spectrum: Young African-American and white men, some from prestigious prep schools on Long Island and from blue-collar, working-class communities like the one where I grew up in eastern Baltimore County.

Bob, a wonderful guy who coached both football and lacrosse, treated us all the same, whether we were playing well and winning, or making mistakes and losing. Our cultural backgrounds were never a factor in decisions. That lesson has stayed with me to this day.

Our nation is growing ever more diverse. We are a blend of cultures and ethnicities from far-flung corners of the world, all come together in this work-in-progress called America. We should all acknowledge and celebrate that.

Effective people and leaders embrace diversity and do all they can to promote it. And I’m referring here not only to people’s physical differences, but to differing points of view and the diversity of thought.

Diversity of thought produces better solutions. The more opinions we bring to the table, the greater the opportunity for creativity and innovation. From a business perspective, that means better results for customers and shareholders.

A leader who promotes diversity among individuals is sending the message that everyone matters, regardless of race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, cultural background or physical or mental disabilities. That enables the creation of an environment where people can openly celebrate their differences and shed stereotypes and work together to find the best solutions for the team.

When an organization and its employees fully embrace diversity, good things are bound to happen. As the leader of that organization, you are creating an environment where employees know they can bring their whole selves to work each and every day, and where their views are valued. There is no downside to creating an inclusive environment.

And finally, let’s talk about giving back

Just yesterday in a modest, but deeply moving ceremony in Baltimore, I had the privilege and honor to provide a family the keys to the first home they’ve ever owned. The home was renovated through a partnership involving Habitat for Humanity and Northrop Grumman employees from the Baltimore area.

That’s part of giving back. It’s an activity that is valued and promoted by effective leaders, in large part because it’s so critical to the future of our nation.

We all have an obligation to look outward at those around us who may be in need. After all, it is only right that we give back in the same spirit we receive from the communities where we live and work.

Giving back can take many forms and address many needs. Perhaps one of the most pressing needs is in the nation’s classrooms. By working with teachers and students, we can help light a spark in the young that will fire their curiosity and open a world of learning for a new generation that is too often distracted by gimmicks and gadgets.

Giving back also helps strengthen the communities that we call home. That’s especially important now, with municipal budgets stretched thin as requests for assistance grow amid the unrelenting pressures of the economic downturn.

It could mean mentoring a teenager for a few hours a week, or organizing a food drive. You might offer support to troops returning home from overseas after having proudly served their country, or pound nails to provide shelter for the needy.

The need — in whatever form — is always there. It’s up to us as leaders to make sure that it is addressed.


I know it’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Commencement marks a beginning. And today, you are beginning a new chapter in your lives.

We have in this arena this afternoon a new generation of leaders. You are the ones we will look toward to keep this nation on the path of greatness as a beacon for democracy and a source of innovation.

No one’s saying it will be easy. As you leave this afternoon, you’ll be walking out into a country and a world that is in a very unsettled state. Millions are out of work as our economy continues its long climb out of a deep recession. American troops are engaged in two wars, the outcomes of which are anything but certain. The global climate is changing and the future of the American health care system is a question mark.

But here’s the good news: This University has helped you build a firm intellectual foundation to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. You may not have all the answers, but you’re well equipped to ask the right questions.

So, whatever path you choose, however you decide to make a difference, whether it be in medicine, art, education, business or public service, do it with passion. And remember these things:

Work through adversity. It will only make you stronger.

Surround yourself with people who don’t look or think the same way you do. It will open your mind to new ideas.

Reach out and give back to those who need a helping hand. It will pay dividends to the world around you.

Be accountable for your actions, and for the well-being of others. It will create a more productive environment.

And in all you do, put ethics and integrity first. There simply is no other way.

Thank you and best wishes as you embark on this new and exciting chapter of your lives.