The Internet is changing how leaders talk. Leaders from Rome to Beijing and beyond are helping usher in a new era of plain speaking. But American leaders are lagging behind, stuck in old patterns of windy and obfuscatory speech.
Around the globe, what's in? Plain words, concision, and speech that is clear on who does what.
Consider the Catholic Church's new leader,
A world away, the same incentive to speak plainly shows up in
Contrast Xi's natural mode of speaking with that of his predecessor,
Elsewhere we see the same push to speak plainly. In India, young leaders like Kavita Krishnan, furious at the state of women's rights in her country, are challenging the word games of older, traditional male leaders: "The word 'safety' with regard to women has been used far too much. All us women know what this 'safety' refers to. ... It means, 'You behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don't dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom.' ... We reject this entire notion. We don't want it."
What is driving this move toward plain speech? In part, generational change. Young leaders step forward and speak in more direct and unadorned ways than their elders. But why?
Credit the rise of social media like Facebook,
Yet, American leaders lag behind.
For his part,
And when the president does try to speak plainly, he often falls flat. Trying to rally Americans last month in the
Nor do we get much clarity from other leaders in politics or business. Five years after a devastating financial meltdown, we still lack a clear explanation from any leader of who did what, what went wrong, and what has changed.
And the obfuscation continues. A report this month from a Senate subcommittee investigating JP Morgan Chase's disastrous "London Whale" trades last year, which cost the firm upwards of $6 billion, points the finger at "jargon that even the relevant actors and regulators could not understand."
Such obscurantism is an American tradition.
Much of the rest of the world seems to understand that real leadership demands plain speaking. When will we? The writer Victor Hugo famously said you can resist an army but not an idea. He was not quite right. The way to defeat an idea — or to hide a difficult fact — is to make it incomprehensible. And in this lamentable regard, our leaders are world class.
Michael Harvey teaches leadership and business at