The Bully Pulpit
Our leaders show who we are just as much as they show who they are
“If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.” ― Carl Sandburg
Have you ever had to deal with a bully?
It’s not fun.
Not like in the “Oh, this is boring, let’s find something else to do” kind of not fun.
As in you're thinking about the aggressor all day, trying to find ways to avoid him (and yes, it's usually a him), coming up with things you might say to put him off, or even mapping out how you might handle yourself if things get physical.
It’s terrifying, exhausting, and downright debilitating.
The first presidential debate immediately brought this to mind. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with an abuser of any kind in their life — a boss, a spouse, a partner, a schoolmate — likely felt a sense of déjà vu.
There was interrupting, lying, gaslighting, refusing to back down, interrupting, countering with no facts, blustering, and did I mention interrupting?
It was a classic narcissist who didn't have good arguments (just listen to the response to the first question — it sounded like a schoolchild who didn’t do the homework and was just tap-dancing around the question using the same minor talking points repeatedly in two minutes).
In a situation like this, the narcissist simply needs oxygen. He needs to vent — to let out the rage he feels that someone would dare oppose him — HIM! It’s unthinkable, and in his mind, there is no space to occupy the empathy and counter-thinking that a debate requires.
You can't debate with a narcissistic abuser. You just can’t.
According to the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Volume 5): “Vulnerability in self-esteem makes individuals with narcissistic personality disorder very sensitive to ‘injury’ from criticism or defeat.”
He has no empathy for you, no ability to listen to your side and weigh your facts against his. All he knows is what he wants and needs. And that’s to be right, above all else.
The narcissistic sociopath puts his needs ahead of everything else. Everything.
“But if a man’s efficiency is not guided and regulated by a moral sense, then the more efficient he is the worse he is, the more dangerous to the body politic. Courage, intellect, all the masterful qualities, serve but to make a man more evil if they are merely used for that man's own advancement, with brutal indifference to the rights of others.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
He eventually wears you down, because you're too exhausted to fight back. The torrents or avalanches of lies keep coming, machine-gun style, piercing you, washing over you, making you fight against the momentum until it's too much for you and you just give in.
That’s how a narcissistic bully wins. Not because he has the better argument. But because he has the stronger will to win.
And it’s winning that matters. He doesn't care about reaching a mutual agreement or finding common ground. It’s about winning at all costs. Life is a zero-sum game where there are winners and there are losers. Give no quarter. Cede no ground.
This comes from a lifetime of neither being held responsible nor refuted; from a career wherein he was an industrial dictator who didn't have a board to whom he reported, nor a performance review process to hold him to account.
In short, the dream career of a narcissist.
This is far from what we need in exemplary leaders—particularly those who represent our country. The world is large, yet we’re all interconnected and rely on each other's sense of morality and decency.
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1862
As a microcosm, think about how COVID has been handled between states. There's no overarching federal plan, therefore each state is left to its own devices. The virus doesn't respect state borders. And yet we're addressing it as if it’s a sovereign entity.
The same goes for your teams. The entire company — from the C-suite to the front-line workers — needs to embrace the same vision and the same language.
It’s reminiscent of a story about Christopher Wren, the world-renowned architect. The story goes:
He was walking unrecognized among the men who were at work upon the building of St. Paul’s cathedral in London which he had designed.
“What are you doing?” he inquired of one of the workmen, and the man replied,
“I am cutting a piece of stone.”
As he went on he put the same question to another man, and the man replied,
“I am earning five shillings twopence a day.”
And to a third man he addressed the same inquiry and the man answered,
“I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build a beautiful cathedral.”
That man had vision. He could see beyond the cutting of the stone, beyond the earning of his daily wage, to the creation of a work of art—the building of a great cathedral. And in your life it is important for you to strive to attain a vision of the larger whole.
Collective vision and a desire to move ahead together. How likely do you think it was that Wren was a narcissist? We actually have an answer from the man himself.
He didn’t want a portrait or statuary of himself after he died. He is buried in a corner of St. Paul's Cathedral, and the inscription on his tomb reads:
“Si monumentum requiris, circumspice." ("If you seek a monument, look around.)
He knew that his work would carry his reputation forward. Not a statue or other personification of his mortal being.
But back to the original topic: bullies.
You’ve undoubtedly heard the term “bully pulpit” before. What does it mean to you?
It's frequently associated with Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, who is also well known for his foreign policy “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
Many people hear “bully pulpit” and envision a leader as one who commands attention and therefore can use the power of the pulpit to make their point known, doing so by getting on the proverbial soapbox and verbally browbeating their opposition, simply because they have the floor. In other words, they can bully people into submission because they have a larger platform.
Does that seem to align with what you thought?
If so, I’m sorry to tell you you're wrong. I wouldn't be surprised if you thought that, though. Because the leader behind the pulpit for the last four years has indeed been a bully, as he was last night (despite his wife’s #BeBest campaign).
The bully pulpit does indeed give the occupant of an office (whether it’s political, industrial or familial) the opportunity to speak out on any issue. That’s one of the benefits of leadership. By virtue of your position, the leader commands attention.
Leaders have the opportunity—nay, the responsibility—to speak up for virtuous reasons, not nefarious ones.
It’s one of the reasons I’m outspoken on my social channels about the indecency, ineptitude, callousness, and corruption that are visible nearly every day. Some people have counseled me to keep my opinions to myself, but I feel a sense of duty to speak up because of the size of my platforms and because there are those who don't have a voice. It’s my bully pulpit.
“The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1862
“Bully” in this case traces its roots to that phrase that Teddy Roosevelt used freely. “Bully!” he’d often say to someone who gave him great news. If they accomplished something splendid, he’d say, “Bully for you!”
Thanks to T.R., the bully pulpit has meant using your powers for good, not for evil. It’s a rallying cry to bring the assembled people together, to create a common vision, and to forge ahead in solidarity.
In his famous “The Man in the Arena” speech at the Sorbonne, Roosevelt reflected on our needs to transform from the more base instincts to intellectual and spiritual ones:
“As the country grows, its people, who have won success in so many lines, turn back to try to recover the possessions of the mind and the spirit, which perforce their fathers threw aside in order better to wage the first rough battles for the continent their children inherit. The leaders of thought and of action grope their way forward to a new life, realizing, sometimes dimly, sometimes clear-sightedly, that the life of material gain, whether for a nation or an individual, is of value only as a foundation, only as there is added to it the uplift that comes from devotion to loftier ideals.”
T.R. wasn’t satisfied with such platitudes; he drove his point home in what was expected out of each of us and from our leaders:
“With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average women, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional cries which call for heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”
The quality of our leaders determines the quality of our citizens (or employees, or children). They see the example we set and emulate our words, actions, and eventually our thoughts.
Now think again about what you saw last night.
“Self restraint, self mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution — these are the qualities which mark a masterful people. Without them no people can control itself, or save itself from being controlled from the outside.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
Who represented what you’d like to see in your fellow citizens, in your colleagues, and in your children? Whose relative patience and good humor was something you’d encourage in those who look to you for guidance?
And whose behavior was obnoxious, abusive, petty, demeaning, and puerile, filled with excuses, blame, false acclaim, and talked excessively without saying much?
“The phrase-maker, the phrase-monger, the ready talker, however great his power, whose speech does not make for courage, sobriety, and right understanding, is simply a noxious element in the body politic, and it speaks ill for the public if he has influence over them. To admire the gift of oratory without regard to the moral quality behind the gift is to do wrong to the republic.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
Think about those qualities destined to serve as a guide for your fellow citizens, employees, children, and grandchildren.
Who is the “bullier” choice?
Who would Teddy Roosevelt have been proud to recognize as a Man in the Arena?
As he said in his final sentence of that speech in Paris:
“Long may you carry yourselves proudly as citizens of a nation which bears a leading part in the teaching and uplifting of mankind.”
Thanks, and I'll see you on the internet.
P.S. I'll be back on Friday with a follow-up piece on decency and compassion, along with links, stories, and recommendations. I hope you'll sign up for those updates by subscribing: