Friday, August 1, 2014

The Language of Leadership by Randy M. Ataide

I have now been a citizen of the U.S. for a total of ten Presidents, starting with President Eisenhower (no, not Roosevelt, Theodore or Franklin!) And I voted for the first time while I was actually in my first months of service in the U.S. Navy, a privilege that had been recently granted me by a constitutional amendment. (My candidate lost.)

But I am not here to talk about my own particular political views, but rather the language that Presidents and other influential leaders use. And I must admit, President Obama's use of the office and the language he employs to speak to the nation (and to the world), is unusual, to say the least. As a Professor of Entrepreneurship, I am used to the unusual, the disruptive, the activities and innovations that move companies and economy actively, aggressively, assertively. So it is not the style per se that is problematic, but rather the sheer ineffectiveness of it as used by the President.

Yesterday in Kansas City, using what has become almost a signature staccato style, President Obama chided Congressional Republicans with "Come on and help out a little bit. Stop being mad all the time.  Stop just hating all the time. Come on." When I first heard it I did a double-take--did the President just call other Americans "haters?" I went online and confirmed that is exactly what he did. With a beaming audience behind him nodding and applauding. (Ugh! These staged audiences for politicians of all types makes me ill. I can see it now, a 23 year old aide freshly minted from a good university manipulating people as mere mannequins or props--"OK, now, when he/she turns to his left, and looks back at you, applaud loudly. And when he/she gets quiet, around the middle of the speech, look serious. Got it?" )

Now President Obama certainly has his vociferous and at times unfair critics, and a House of Representatives majority of Republicans who are committed to thwarting every idea or initiative (of which there are scarcely any of in the past year), so some of this can be understood. But I simply cannot imagine any President of any stripe, and of any level of competence, intrigue, or background, calling other Americans who disagree politically with him as "haters." Was it in jest? Used to lighten the moment? Often with our current President, one cannot distinguish in his tone if he is chiding or praising, lifting up or tearing down. It makes those of us away from the extremes and vulgarities of politics confused, dispirited, disillusioned. And it is fairly new to Presidential politics and the prestige of the office, and frankly, it seems very ineffective.  It is a poor substitute for governance by inspiration, and six years after he stormed to power what seemed so fresh as a candidate now is stale beyond belief.

Long ago as an undergraduate student, I started with great certainty on a path of a radio-television broadcasting major. After four years of military service, much of it deployed overseas, I was enthusiastic and hungry for higher education, soaking in knowledge and instruction that few of my peers likely had. I had dreamed of in 1979-80 of finally starting college in earnest. And in my first "R-TV" course, taught by the Department Chair, I was crestfallen by a style and engagement with his students that was distant, aloof, cold, and sterile. With several decades of instruction, academic papers and accomplishments, and of course, his Ph.D. certifying his mastery of the topic, he seemed frustrated that we introductory students were somehow below his standards. 
During one lecture, he asked for questions and I referred to our textbook and the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville, a noted French political thinker and historian. I pronounced Tocqueville's name with an ending of "hard" L's, something Americans often do. The instructor stopped, and in what I perceived to be a sneering and non-instructive way, corrected my mistake. Later that day, I changed majors and never thought again about broadcasting as a profession.

It has been my experience in business and academia that my mistakes more often than not come not from having bad ideas but rather failures in my capacity to communicate in an uplifting, inspiring, and engaging way. This is a lesson of leadership, and fortunately I have had and do have others who tell me when I have acted this way. Often it is unintentional (which is no great excuse), but it is a lesson I must continually learn and re-learn.

Any President, Prime Minister or Monarch., as well as any other senior executive or leader in any industry, has great capacity to use his or her office to compel, persuade, cajole, reveal, propel. And I am just not seeing this in President Obama, and I say this not with glee but with chagrin. 

Perhaps my standards of Presidential leadership are too high, for I have had the benefit of leaders as diverse and distinctive as Kennedy and Reagan, long before Obama. But these days I am increasingly drawn back to 1980 again, and in a warm classroom at Fresno State University, I am feeling more and more like I need to change majors.

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