Governing in Prose

On WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show today, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter and The Nation’s Katrina Van den Heuvel commented on the disappointment being expressed by Progressives that President Obama has not fulfilled his promise as the passionate evangelist for transformative change.  One of them cited Mario Cuomo’s adage that “we campaign in poetry but we have to govern in prose.”  Inevitably, the name of the “Great Communicator,” President Reagan, came up and we got to wondering about business leaders: how important is the silver-tongued CEO and how effective are powerful speeches delivered to internal and external audiences in today’s consciousness?

But first, back to Ronald Reagan. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Reagan spent more than 4,000 hours in front of a microphone on behalf of GE talking to workers, chambers of commerce, executive clubs and political groups extolling the importance of the free enterprise system.  It was pretty good practice, but he also had the advantage of belonging to the generation of Americans who could take credit for two victories — surviving the Great Depression and defeating fascism.  This made for simple and arresting images.  Here’s an excerpt from a campaign speech when he was running against Gerald Ford in 1976: 

“No one who lived through the Great Depression can ever look upon an unemployed person with anything but compassion. To me, there is no greater tragedy than a breadwinner willing to work, with a job skill but unable to find a market for that job skill. Back in those dark Depression days I saw my father on a Christmas Eve open what he thought was a Christmas greeting from his boss. Instead, it was the blue slip telling him he no longer had a job. The memory of him sitting there holding that slip of paper and then saying in a half whisper, “That’s quite a Christmas present”; it will stay with me as long as I live.”   Cue Tiny Tim.

If managing people is the biggest challenge in business, as Stefan Stern comments in his column in today’s Financial Times, is there in fact a role for great business leader/communicators motivating and inspiring employees through in- person and videotaped speeches?  We think there is, but in today’s global economy it can’t be “Morning in America.”  The effective CEO needs to speak to the aspirations of employees all over the world for satisfying work, economic betterment and improvement opportunities.  The call to employees must be to ask for their help not only to innovate and solve difficult challenges, but to become co-stewards of the world’s resources.  To be ingenious in response to our dwindling natural assets.  These are messages that could resonate with Reaganesque vibrancy anywhere in the world.  Perhaps, after all, we can manage in poetry.  President Obama could, too.

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