“You have to see this. I thought this was bold. I bet this school board takes action.”
A friend forwarded a viral video to me over the weekend. The video starts off like any other high school commencement speech.
As the valedictorian, Nataly Buhr reads straight from her notes, the camera pans across a clearly disinterested student body hoping this will end quickly.
“To my mother and father, you are the most hard-working and caring people that I know.”
Next, she rattles off a list of her favorite teachers and offers a monotone compliment that sounds like it was read by Amazon’s Alexa.
“You are the most intelligent, inspiring and supportive individuals I have had the pleasure of learning from.”
She offers up a token nod to her friends about their love and support. Okay, get on with it. Say something encouraging to your classmates about reaching their dreams and throw your cap in the air.
Then the “heel turn” reminiscent of pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s transformation to Hollywood Hogan. Everyone else not mentioned in the first minute of her speech is summarily doused in gasoline and lit aflame.
The speech starts so lifeless that it takes the students a good half-minute to understand what is happening. Shocked faces, giggles and then cheers as she takes down the least competent of her teachers, counselors and administrators.
It was cringe-inducing, difficult to turn away from like passing the scene of an accident. I couldn’t help but wonder who gained in all of this? Then I sent a text message back to my friend, who owns a successful small business with twenty employees.
“Would you hire her?”
The response was immediate.
Huh. My friend was impressed with Nataly’s bold move but had no interest in working with her. I asked him why.
“She comes across as jaded and approached the situation with a victim’s mentality.” What was mildly amusing to him as a consumer of content became frightening as a potential employer. In three minutes, Ms. Buhr told prospective hiring managers all they need to know and saved themselves the time it would take for a formal interview.
Can You Work With People Who Are Not As Talented As You?
Ms. Buhr seems to hold the most contempt for her counselor and has a very high opinion of what this person’s role should be. “You were always unavailable to my parents and I, despite appointments,” she said. “You expressed to me your joy in knowing that one of your students was valedictorian when you had absolutely no role in my achievements.”
There are roughly 2,500 students enrolled at San Ysidro High School, which is located in San Diego, California. I am not sure what expectation Ms. Buhr and her parents had of the counselor responsible for 600 graduating seniors, but it was certainly higher than my expectations in 1994. In fact, I couldn’t tell you who my counselor was as I only met with her a few times.
She was polite, helped me with some brochures and showed me how to find college applications. I expected little and was never disappointed. It was my life, and I had every resource I needed to get into a great college. If I needed help, I asked. I certainly didn’t expect an overworked public school counselor to do the heavy lifting.
I wonder how Ms. Buhr will handle a future situation where she works with a peer that can’t match her incredible intelligence and punctuality. What happens the first time a peer forgets about a meeting they had planned? What if an email is not returned promptly? Will she respond by copying 17 managers to expose this fraud of an employee?
Companies are filled with people of all varieties of talent, which is what makes business fun. Valedictorians work alongside the class clown, and both might work for the guy who wore Megadeath t-shirts and took all the shop classes. Intelligent people need to recognize that everyone brings different strengths to the table. Focus on how you can become a better teammate, rather than how your teammates come up short against your lofty expectations.
The most crucial aspect of any good company culture is trust. The first time Ms. Buhr outs one of her co-workers, word will get around, and she will find herself alone. Her network will only do as much as required to stay off her radar and nothing more. Soon, she will be doing everything herself and burning out sensationally.
Ms. Buhr felt wronged and used her small window of power to exact revenge on an overwhelmed worker who couldn’t fight back. Is that speaking truth to power, or is she just another high school bully?
How Tolerant Are You Of Mistakes?
Like Daenerys in Game of Thrones, she turns her dragon’s fire on the office staff next.
“Thank you for teaching me how to be resourceful,” she said. “Your negligence to inform me of several scholarships until the day before they were due potentially caused me to miss out on thousands of dollars.”
There are thousands of scholarships available to high school seniors. I am not aware of any secret awards that only politically connected office workers of public high schools have access to. Yet, this staff gets roasted for their “negligence” that “potentially” cost Ms. Buhr money. Did she think they were purposefully withholding secret funds?
I grew up in a blue collar household, and every scholarship helped. I filled out paperwork and tried to find the ones that I had the best opportunity to qualify for. Did I know about all of them? Of course not. Did I believe the office staff at my high school woke up every morning determined to make me as much money as possible? Negative.
They had limited time and helped those who were most assertive in asking for help. This is how life works. Those who take the initiative receive an unfair share of resources. Others just complain in commencement speeches.
I have news for Ms. Buhr. This will not be the last time that someone else’s mistake potentially costs you thousands of dollars. It will happen repeatedly. Ms. Buhr will also make mistakes that likely cost others thousands of dollars. I made more than my share over the past twenty years.
I have benefited from the heroic efforts of “office staff” in every company I have worked for. I made mistakes that were caught by someone looking out for my best interest, saving me thousands of dollars in the process. I never expected it but was always grateful when it happened. How long will a team tolerate someone who condemns every mistake, selfishly focused only on how those mistakes impact her pocketbook?
Get used to mistakes Ms. Buhr. You escaped high school with a perfect grade point average, but life is not going to work this way. You are not entitled to only work with exceptional teammates. The people working in that office have families, a fact you disregarded when you scorched the Earth that they walk on. This fact won’t be lost on your future peers.
Can You Help Drive Change With Diplomacy?
Next, from the bully pulpit, Ms. Buhr went after a teacher with an alleged drinking problem.
“Thank you for using yourself as an example to teach students about the dangers of alcoholism,” she quipped. “Being escorted by police out of school left a lasting impression. I hope that future students and staff learn from these examples.”
This is a serious allegation and one that I am not taking lightly. Someone who brazenly drinks on the job should not be teaching children. The question this raises for me is why she chose this forum to address the situation.
- Could Ms. Buhr have used her position of power to form a coalition of students and approach the principal?
- What opportunity was afforded to the administration to take action on a dangerous situation, for the students and the teacher with the addiction?
- Did they approach the staff with specifics and demand specific action be taken?
If the answer is yes to all of these questions, escalating the situation is appropriate. If not, you assumed that working cooperatively was not worth your time. When you are disappointed in your direct manager one day, will you take your claim to social media to vent? Will you skip level your way to the CEO and demand that something is done?
This approach assumes that humans are rational and make decisions objectively. When you sweep the leg like Johnny, you might earn a short-term win, but you lose credibility and trust with everyone involved. What hiring manager wants to add a rogue element who shoots first and asks questions later?
Can You Put The Good Of Others Over Yourself?
A commencement speech is intended for the students. It is an opportunity for someone of distinction to impart knowledge, inspire and motivate. What good came of this act of rebellion?
The majority of Ms. Buhr’s complaints were petty, personal slights that had nothing to do with the student body. Rather than demonstrating leadership as the head of her class, she came across as selfish, small-minded and entitled. Who did this serve? When the interviews, articles and attention slow down, who will benefit?
At best, this is neutral for Ms. Buhr’s career and left the seniors with something to snicker about. Realistically, this will follow Ms. Buhr for years and make her life more difficult, regardless of how high her grades in college turn out. Sadly, Ms. Buhr missed an opportunity to create a positive three-minute advertisement she could use for the rest of her life.
Hiring managers look for individuals with high emotional intelligence, something you can’t practice when you live in the library. A high grade point average only proves that you spend more time studying than others. It is not a license to behave like a self-centered snob who attacks others with no forum to share their side of the story. Listen to the speech carefully, and you will hear that all of the gripes are self-centered. Even those who didn’t do anything wrong are accused of not doing enough to further her cause. This high school staff was eviscerated yet had a hand in helping her get accepted into college.
For her sake, I hope college helps Ms. Buhr learn the value of teamwork and empathy. College can be a great reset to form new relationships and seek better mentors than those who encouraged this demonstration of vitriol.
For anyone else considering leaving high school, college or even quitting a job with this approach, remember that your next hiring manager will assume you will treat them the same way. If you burn a bridge once, you will do it again, and few companies are interested in taking that chance.