Are virtual ceremonies worth the effort?
I attended two very different college graduation ceremonies in the last two years, one in person and one “virtual.” Was one better or more meaningful than the other? And what can we learn from the different experiences as leaders? Here’s what I think is worth sharing about all that.
And a Hard Rain Fell
When my son graduated college in 2018, we flew out to Oregon to attend the graduation ceremony. He had earned academic honors, and we were immensely pleased with his accomplishments. We looked forward to celebrating with him.
The school held an outdoor ceremony in the football stadium. As anyone knows who has ever planned anything, there will always be things that go wrong, despite our best efforts, and this event was no exception.
For the first time in over 120 years of school outdoor graduations, it rained. Hard. The pregnant clouds held back as the stadium filled and the graduates filed in. But then, as if waiting for a cue, when the last senior took his seat, the skies let loose. A heavy downpour continued through the musical presentation and the speeches in their entirety.
Raincoats and umbrellas were not sufficient to keep out the chill and the wet, and many in the audience sought shelter in the theater where the ceremony was simulcast. Graduating students sat in the rain and watched as family and friends abandoned them for drier places.
Thankfully, the rain slackened once they began announcing the names of the graduates. But though the sun finally came out, the day remained sodden. Even my son’s graduation pictures reflect the weather of that day in the way his mortar board drooped and dripped at the corners. Nonetheless, he was smiling brightly.
It was a ceremony to remember; even more so when juxtaposed with another graduation ceremony I attended last weekend.
Shelter From the Storm
My daughter completed her four-year degree this spring and had also done exceptionally well. We attended her graduation, too.
Like many in this time and season, there were few logistical concerns to preoccupy us for this virtual ceremony: no air travel, rental cars, lodging or dining arrangements to be made, no need to find a kennel for the dog while we were gone. It took no time at all to pack because we didn’t have to, and we definitely saved on gas, long-term parking fees, and wear and tear on the car.
At the ceremony, parking was never an issue, we had spacious, reserved front-row seats right there in our living room, and we could see the speakers and our daughter very clearly the whole time since they were on the TV or seated beside us. The temperature was a very comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit, so there was no broiling in the merciless sun as was my own graduation experience, and certainly no deluge as was the case for my son’s.
During the ceremony itself, we could get up and get coffee whenever we wanted, and my daughter could trade texts with her other graduating friends during the slow sections. In fact, the most difficult thing we had to do was figure out how to screen-share the school’s website on Zoom so a few close family members could tune in with us.
Afterwards, the celebration was possibly even better: the moment it was over, my daughter was able to uncork a nice bottle of champagne with a very satisfying pop, and we toasted her success and took pictures right there on the back deck in the sunshine. A tasty home-cooked brunch soon followed without need for reservations or waiting in line.
These were two very different graduation experiences, but do they carry the same meaning?
Ceremonies for Leaders
Well, to start, both my kids earned their degrees. Whether the ceremony marking their accomplishment was celebrated with thousands outside in the rain, or with just a few inside in the comfort of our living room, their achievement is no less significant.
The fact is that a ceremony is not really required at all. The school will still mail you the diploma. And while prospective employers may look at your grade point average, or wonder about your judgement in choosing basket weaving as a major, they aren’t going to ask you how well you did at graduation; it’s not part of the qualification.
So why go through all the hassle and discomfort to do it “right?” Three things come to mind that we should consider as leaders.
Celebration. Ceremonies recognize the achiever for a given accomplishment that often also involves a change in status. As a social construct, then, the greater the achievement or change, the bigger deal the ceremony should be. Necessarily, the more people should be involved to witness the occasion, recognize its importance, and share in celebration.
Leaders can enhance the sense of achievement by broadening the number of people participating. And without a doubt, having those people physically present to witness and celebrate makes a big difference in the feel of the occasion. “Views” and “likes” can never replace actual smiles and applause.
Validation. Of course there’s a signed piece of paper involved, but the ceremony is an opportunity to officially and publicly recognize a successful effort to reach some standard of achievement. And something we might miss is the fact that the act of conferring that honor on someone simultaneously validates the institution’s ability and authority to do so.
The pageantry is as much about recognizing individual accomplishment as it is about displaying the power of the institution and what it stands for. As such, leaders should see ceremonies as the best of opportunities to talk about institutional values and how they directly connect with the achievement being recognized. The more who hear and see this done, the more powerful the message.
Invitation. Ceremonies are about exclusivity. Not everyone gets to walk across the stage, take the oath, or receive the promotion. If everyone gets a trophy, then the trophy is meaningless, and there’s no reason to sit shivering in the rain waiting to be given one. For those who truly merit the honor, there is an invitation to join the ranks of others who have passed the test, and to share in the advantages that come from reaching that level.
Leaders are the gatekeepers of standards. The effort and challenge of meeting the prescribed standard is part of what gives the ceremony its value. If an accolade is earned, then we need to make certain it is awarded. If it isn’t, we need to be equally sure that is is not, or we risk devaluing the other honorees, and ourselves. Our integrity is on display; only the deserving can be invited to join the club.
Through the Lens
In the end, ceremonies mean nothing and everything. Like a camera, they don’t set the scene or produce the light; those things are already there. Their function is to frame the scene, focus the light, and create a single image that we can all see clearly, share easily, and use as a point of reference.
My son’s rainy ceremony was inconvenient, wet, cold, and lengthy. My daughter’s ceremony was the epitome of comfort and convenience. The achievements being recognized were similar, only the picture was different.
Do virtual ceremonies count? Yes, I think they do. It’s true they lack the critical mass of crowds. And in that sense it feels like a missed opportunity to publicly celebrate, validate, and accept the invitation to step up to the next level. But they still are the institution’s best attempt to mark the moment, create a mental snapshot, and add an important image to life’s photo album.
And who knows, they may end up with clearer memories of this ceremony that I have of my own. In fact, I’d say the best thing we might do is to stop calling them virtual ceremonies at all.
They weren’t virtual. They may have been different, but they were real.
Virtual Ceremonies – The Takeaway
One last thought about ceremonies: another of their functions has to do with tradition. They tie our present to the past and in doing so, add weight and meaning to the event and those being honored. In performing the rituals of ceremony, we say certain words, listen to certain songs, and do things in a certain way to mark the occasion. And they are done that way because that’s the way it’s always been done.
But maybe that’s the biggest positive to come out of this. Because when a leader hears the words, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” given as a reason for something, his next question ought to be, “Why?”
Perhaps prevailing conditions are helping this next generation get a jump start as leaders by helping them to look at things differently, and teaching them to ask that first and best of all leadership questions: Why?
And as they begin to ask that question, they will discover that there are some things we don’t really need to be doing at all, or any more. Too, they are sure to find other things we should start doing, or do more of.
As newly minted college graduates, they can help us sort out the difference.
To the class of 2020, whatever form your graduation ceremony took, congratulations, good luck, and…