Leadership and Rhetoric: An Essential Link [Part 1 of 5]

Rarely do books on leadership and organizational or institutional administration speak to the question of rhetoric – that is, the capacity for public speaking or oral communication.   Actually, as I think about this, I do not know of a single publication on executive leadership that makes that link.  And yet there is no avoiding this:  the capacity for effective rhetoric – oral communication – is essential to long term effective organizational leadership.   We see this, of course, in both public life and in the life of the church.  The masters of rhetoric in the civic square are typically political leaders – thinking here of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Barack Obama and John Kennedy as particularly good at the use of words – masters of the English language — but also of Ronald Reagan, who was the master of the occasion – the brilliant one-liner at the right time and in the right place.  Consider, for example, Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” and then a quarter century later, Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” – not just the right thing to say but the timeliness of those words that reverberate even still, decades after they were spoken. 

Here is the case I wish to make:  if you wish to be effective in organizational leadership, if you wish to provide effective influence in the life of an institution in which you are invested and perhaps for which you have some level of formal responsibility, then you need to cultivate the capacity for rhetoric – for the use of language, for the art of the presentation, for the timely remarks whether in a smaller venue or to a large gathering.   Effective leaders are effective, in part, because they know how to do this.  They have cultivated this ability to say the right thing at the right time for the sake of the flourishing of the organizations they serve. 

Organizational leadership includes the public event:  whether it is the preacher on Sunday morning, the US president and the annual “State of the Union” speech, or the high school principle who has to stand before all the faculty and staff, along with the students, or the senior executive of the company who has called a meeting of all employees to make an important announcement.    But it also includes smaller events that, in the long run, might actually be more significant:   the pastor to the governing board of the church, the denominational leader who has been tasked to present a new policy for the consideration of the membership, the faculty member who on behalf of the faculty has been asked to speak to the university governing board about a potentially controversial issue.   Leaders also are required to speak at fund-raising events where the primary audience are current or prospective donors.  Sometimes the presentation might be remarkably brief:   a college president is asked to bring some remarks as part of a gathering (brief remarks please!); a pastor speaks – again briefly – at the beginning of an on-line worship event to explain how the congregation is managing pandemic protocols.  And then, of course, there are the longer or more extended events where the presentation might last an hour or more – such as in my case when my report to the university board of governors takes up between 2 and 2.5 hours on the first day of a two-day meeting.   My point is that effective organizational leaders have come to master each of these diverse situations or opportunities to shape vision, articulate mission, nurture institutional culture and argue for the implementation or revision to either protocol or policy or both. 

I am going to go further and suggest that this comes naturally to no one.   For one and all it is learned; it is a capacity that is nurtured and cultivated and, further, while it may seem to come easier to some than to others, perhaps because of encouragement of family or their social or cultural context, it always takes time to master this art.   Mastery comes from doing this again and again and again and learning from what went well and what did not go so well.  For some, they are forced into learning this art because they are teachers or preachers and it simply goes with the territory; public speaking is part of the job.  For others, they are suddenly elected into a role or responsibility where they now find that they have to make the case for a new policy or they are asked to bring words before a public gathering or more, they are invited to give a speech or presentation.   Either way, my point is that this is learned – it comes naturally to no one – and that with diligence and humility, all of us can learn how to do this well. 

Over the next few weeks, I am going to provide a series of guidelines for effective rhetoric – the markers or indicators of good rhetoric.  But for now, for this first posting, consider two things.  First, learn from the masters; listen to the speeches of Churchill and ask what made him so effective.   Go to the masterful eulogy for Rev Pickney by Barack Obama in 2015.   Listen to a recording of a sermon by A.W.Tozer.  And in each case, note what they did in the speech that was effective.  Get past your own political or theological biases as you listen; you are attending to what made them effective, whether you agree with them or not.   Learn from the masters.  And second, remember that you need to cultivate your own voice; you are not merely channelling a great preacher or politician; you need to find your own voice as a speaker and presenter – and this, it must be stressed – takes time and doing it again and again and again and learning from having done it again and again and again.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.