Follow your gut, get good leaders, and be of service—those were some of the themes from Oprah Winfrey’s opening keynote address Monday morning. Following U2’s “Beautiful Day” introductory music, Winfrey acknowledged the global audience. “What I understand and know for sure,” she said, “is that we share a common language: truth. We all want to live out the truest expression of ourselves as human beings.”
Focus on Leadership
Winfrey noted that things have only gone wrong in her life when she hasn’t listened to her gut and when she’s chosen the wrong leadership. “Good leadership is everything,” she said.
When she chose to open the school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa, Winfrey said she rushed ahead too quickly. She searched for remarkable girls who were number 1 and 2 in their classrooms and said she thought it was all about the girls. She noted at the time that she thought, “We’ll just find the teachers, the administration.”
Winfrey built a dream school—one she would have wanted to attend—and took safety precautions to protect the girls: erecting barb wire, only having female security guards after dark. But several girls eventually came forward to the school’s administration to report that they had been sexually assaulted. A female dorm mother was charged as the perpetrator.
Winfrey acknowledged that while she couldn’t have foreseen that situation happening, she could have ensured she had the right leaders and also could have spoken up when some of the selected individuals “didn’t feel right.” Another lesson she noted learning was that taking girls from a life in which they were just trying to survive to a life of structure and discipline brought to the surface that many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Winfrey and the school needed to address this trauma—it wasn’t just about the girls’ academics.
Be of service
Following her speech, in a Q&A with ATD President and CEO Tony Bingham, Winfrey also spoke to the importance of service. Harkening back to intuition, Winfrey spoke about seeing a story about a school principal buying washing machines for families—students weren’t attending school because they didn’t have clean clothes. Winfrey was touched. But two weeks later, she had taken no action. Then a friend shared the same story via email. Winfrey knew it was a sign and took steps to contribute to the school and its students.
Those opportunities to serve “happen in big and small moments all the time,” Winfrey urged. She noted that we are all here to offer our gifts and talent and to use them in service of something other than ourselves. Indeed, each day is a beautiful day.