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The Rhetoric of Leadership
A look at messages during a time of crisis
“We'll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” — Joseph R. Biden, Jr., 2021
Words matter, as we’ve said here before.
Not only the words you read and the words you write, but the words you choose to speak.
George Washington, as we discussed in the previous edition, was careful about the words he chose, being acutely aware of the precedents he would set.
So too were the words spoken about Washington in his eulogy, given by his longtime friend and fellow soldier Major-General Henry Lee:
“First in war, first in peace, first in the heart of his countrymen.”
Those words are still in use today, not only because they accurately sum up George Washington’s place in our collective memory, but because of the musicality of the phrase.
Even in the age of technological advances, scientific reason, and intergalactic exploration, we need more than logic, facts, and reason to move people to action. We need words that touch our hearts and stir our souls — words that ring true and sing true.
“The new president, Republican, Democrat, lays out a vision for the nation. If the words ring out, it is not only due to the power of the oratory, it is because the dream of America has no limits and resonates well beyond any single day.” — Tom Hanks, 2021
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a president of the United States, a president of a company, or a president of the PTA; the way you approach addressing your people on day one sets the tone for everything else that follows.
Team members, employees, and citizens all need to understand what you stand for and what your vision is as you chart a course for the future. Not the minutiae of your plan, but the grand strategy that will take you there.
There is no time more critical for communicating this than in a crisis. Whether the crisis was already in full swing before your arrival or if it cropped up during your tenure, every stakeholder will be alert as they listen for your carefully chosen words on the occasion.
In our country’s history, there have been precious few times in which new leaders were elected and had to begin their terms with an inherited crisis. And they used the power of oratory and rhetoric to meet the moment with wisdom, empathy, and courage.
Below, we’ll look at examples of humility, reconciliation, urgency, and circumspection that were right for their times.
The Humility of Washington
George Washington was tasked with a difficult task on the heels of his success leading the American Revolution: mapping a course for a newly-formed entity, bringing together parochial and regional factions. His years of experience as a surveyor may have prepared him: to what was possible from the natural landscape of the country.
Still, it was a daunting task and he was self-conscious about his abilities:
“[T]he magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
It’s amazing to think that George Washington experienced impostor syndrome. But his humility was part of the charm of his words. His people had the utmost faith in his abilities.
The Reconciliation of Lincoln
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln had to deliver an inaugural address to a nation that was already beginning to tear itself apart.
Seven states in the South seceded from the Union just the month before, and Lincoln saw the function of his speech as one of unity, appealing to the consciences of the leaders of the Confederacy:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
By the time Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the country was nearly at the conclusion of a hard-fought war with itself over the course of four years. His job was to offer a sense of healing and progress:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
The Urgency of Roosevelt
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, the country had been reeling from the Great Depression for three years.
Roosevelt knew his role as a leader at that moment called for confidence, empathy, reassurance, and a strong direction based on addressing the challenge head-on:
“I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
A full quarter of the nation was unemployed by the time FDR arrived in office, and he had to clean up the mess left by President Hoover, who had relied on businessmen to try to restart the economy. In doing so, he reminded the American people of the power of gratitude:
“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.”
Roosevelt pledged a hearty work ethic, and a determination to labor tirelessly and doggedly on their behalf, noting that the American people put him in the job because they trusted him:
“I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
“But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
“For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.”
Here we see FDR echoing Washington’s words of humility, Lincoln’s cry for unity, and the whole-hearted approach that each brought to the job.
These are the words of a leader that inspire confidence in stakeholders. Devotion. Determination. Humility.
The Circumspection of Biden
We are at a moment in the country’s history like no other. Still, we see reflections of the past in the present in the midst of a crisis.
The perfect time for a nod to the great speeches that marked past crises. The perfect time to bring a sense of urgency, humility, and unity to the message, crafted with rhetorical devices to make key phrases withstand the test of time.
How did Joe Biden’s inaugural address do that?
His humility was on display from the opening: “we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause.”
He outlined the urgency of the time, acknowledging the crisis: “Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now.”
And he highlighted the four individual crises he intends to address: the pandemic, racial inequity, climate change, and domestic terrorism. Any one of those would be a significant undertaking for a leader; to take on all four is gargantuan.
Again and again, Biden returned to the concept of unity.
The root of the word is in the very name of our country: the United States of America. And as he pronounced it, he didn’t say it as we often hear it said (the “United States of America”), he said the “United States of America.” A subtle, but meaningful difference.
It’s a small but powerful word. Its definition rests not on being aligned on every decision, but more significantly on having shared values and ideals.
Biden’s speech gets to these values by showing us where we came from, where we are, and where we need to go in three powerful steps:
First, he tangentially noted the Constitution — the founding document that forever sealed the vision of America:
“The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On “We the People” who seek a more perfect Union.”
Next, he identified common ground today — one or more struggles we may all be experiencing or witnessing in the present time:
“Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.”
And finally, he outlined a vision for the future — offering optimism and common goals:
“With unity we can do great things. Important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice. We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world.”
It’s a beautiful trinity of unity. A trifecta of common history, happenings, and hopes. Of the principles upon which we can all agree.
When a leader can help people understand the vision for our progress, we see the power of working together, as former Ford CEO Alan Mulally used to preach, and the relentless execution of those ideals. Together.
In addition to the theme, the structure of parts of Biden's speech made certain phrases stand out. These are tools used in rhetoric, the art of effective persuasion in speech or writing.
The conspicuous repetition of identical initial consonant sounds in successive or closely associated syllables within a group of words:
“This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope. Of renewal and resolve.”
“Uniting to fight the foes we face.”
“[T]hrough struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our better angles have always prevailed.”
The repetition of the last word of a preceding clause:
“Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy.”
The repetition of a word or phrase at the middle of every clause:
“For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos.”
The repetition of words in successive clauses, but in transposed order:
“We’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words
We’ve focused so much on words that I thought it was worth spending just a moment on imagery.
Joe Biden was diligent about selecting the décor for the Oval Office, as this frequently seen room holds much symbolism.
Gone is the portrait of populist president Andrew Jackson. It has been replaced with Benjamin Franklin, a founding father and a believer in science.
And he looks out from the Resolute Desk, President Biden won’t see the lone portrait of George Washington. Instead, he’ll have Franklin Roosevelt in the center, flanked on one side by Washington and Lincoln, and on the other side by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
We've spoken of the center figure and of the former two and their formidable tasks, but the latter two are significant. They were legendary foes who reached compromise to help set the country on the right track.
Also, here are a couple of videos from the @POTUS and @WhiteHouse accounts. Notice how they don’t feature President Biden, but the American people — where he is clearly putting his focus.
Leaders know that everything communicates.
Especially when everything is riding on their success.
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” — John F. Kennedy, 1961
A good speech builds trust. And trust is needed right now. Amid the pandemic, trust is down 18 points year-over-year in China and five points in the United States. And it’s down nearly across the board: there’s an infodemic, a crisis of leadership, and trust is lagging for government, NGOs, and the media — only business has an opportunity. (Edelman Trust Barometer)
Whether we speak on a stage or on a digital platform, our words have an impact. This is perfectly illustrated with the statistic that misinformation online dropped by 73 percent the week after Twitter banned Trump, as charted by Zignal Labs. (The Washington Post)
In addition to the inaugural address on January 20, the other oration that has stirred millions of people is National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb. Her performance and her written words were perfectly timely, but will also be a timeless message for America. (Medium)
“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.” — William Shakespeare, 1599
An appropriate valedictory speech: A Farewell to False Love by Sir Walter Raleigh (The Poetry Foundation)
One of the most gifted orators of the mid-19th century, Frederick Douglass, taught himself to read and he got hold of The Columbian Orator at the age of twelve; it was possibly the best investment in his life. There were many others as well. A Frederick Douglass Reading List (Lapham's Quarterly)
What makes a great speech? Simply put: style, substance, and impact. These are 35 of the greatest speeches of all time. (The Art of Manliness)
Curated Listening / Reading
“Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.” — Dionysius of Halicarnassus, c. 15 BC
🎧 Words move humankind for good and for ill, and in the American experience our most important public speeches have been both mirrors and makers of the nation's manners and morals at key moments in our common life. Written and narrated by Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Jon Meacham, It Was Said tells the stories of those crucial words, taking listeners back to inflection points ranging from the McCarthy era to our present time through the real-time rhetoric that shaped and suffused America as the country struggled through storm and strife. It Was Said captures the nation we've been, and points ahead to the nation we hope to become.
📖 The Columbian Orator presents 84 selections, most of which are notable examples of oratory on such subjects as nationalism, religious faith, individual liberty, freedom, and slavery, including pieces by Washington, Franklin, Milton, Socrates, and Cicero, as well as heroic poetry and dramatic dialogues. Augmenting these is an essay on effective public speaking which influenced Abraham Lincoln as a young politician.
As America experiences a resurgence of interest in the art of debating and oratory, The Columbian Orator—whether as historical artifact or contemporary guidebook--is one of those rare books to be valued for what it meant in its own time, and for how its ideas have endured. Above all, this book is a remarkable compilation of Enlightenment era thought and language that has stood the test of time.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.