Barack Obama has come under fire by the Clinton’s for being able to speak well but offer little in the way of actual ideas or policies. Rush Limbaugh this week claimed that liberals hate George Bush because he lacks talent when it comes to public speaking. At first blush, the idea that a great leader needs to be a great speaker seems ridiculous, and yet if you were to name the first ten names of great leaders (by “great” I mean effective at getting large numbers of people to follow them, not that they were great people I’d love to hang out with), just about all of them would also be great speakers. Here’s a list off the top of my head:
Martin Luther King
Now, I frankly don’t know much about Lenin or Lincoln’s speaking abilities, but I know every other one of these leaders were specifically noted for their speaking abilities, and I suspect Lincoln and Lenin weren’t too bad either.
So why the disconnect? If most of us initially don’t see great leaders as needing to be great public speakers, then why is it that most great leaders have been or are great public speakers?
I think it boils down to laziness. Most of us believe a leader is someone who gets things done, rather than someone who just talks about getting things done. But at the same time most of us choose our leaders based on what they say, and then we rarely bother to investigate whether that person’s past or present actions are in harmony with what they say. After all, we’re busy.
Here’s a self-test for you.
1. Choose the candidate you hope wins the national elections this year.
2. Write down five specific policies in that candidate’s platform (FYI: “hope” and “change” are not policies).
3. For each of those five policies, write down evidence from that candidate’s past record that proves they have experience getting things done in that area.
For example, if you chose McCain as your candidate, and “cutting government spending” as a policy (I think that’s one of his policies), then you would need to be able to point to a specific occasion on which McCain cut government spending. If you chose Obama as your candidate, and you put down “ending poverty” as a policy (I don’t know if he’s specifically running on that or not), then you would need to be able to write down evidence of how he has done something substantial to end poverty in the past.
4. Now, for each of those same five policies, write down something that candidate is doing right now that is evidence that their actions back up their words, and remember that saying more words is not an action that backs up other words. We’re talking about results.
I would guess that 99% of the population of this country would not be able to correctly name five policies of their favorite candidate, and out of those who could, 99% of those could not identify any evidence to back up their claim.
And yet we follow these people about whom we know almost nothing. And why? Because what they’re saying sounds good. It’s what we want to hear. And after all, sometimes it works out. Then again, sometimes it doesn’t and tens of millions of people are murdered as a result. So does being a great speaker mean someone is a great leader? Perhaps not, but perhaps those who would be great leaders but don’t have the speaking skills simply never get the chance. One thing’s for sure, if you want to run a country, being a great speaker doesn’t hurt. Throwing words around like “hope” and “change” a lot doesn’t hurt either.