In the MBA and Global Executive MBA classes I teach in Leadership and Communication at INSEAD, I always get two volunteers to give short speeches based on two American presidents’ inaugural speeches.

Their aim was to read it persuasively.

And based on how my students gave their speeches, they were evaluated by their peers (the audience) how well they were received or how convinced they were before audiences subscribed to the presidents’ vision for the United States of America.

Based on academic research that analyses U.S Presidents’ speeches that correlate with perceptions of charisma and greatness (see Cynthia G. Emrich, Holly H. Brower, Jack M. Feldman, and Howard Garland, 2001), it has been shown that speeches that contain image-based words and metaphors – such as “heart”, “dream”, “hunger”, “darkness”, “journey”, “laughter”, “hand” – are judged to be more visionary or charismatic.

In most of the experiments demonstrated in class, the student who read aloud John F Kennedy’s speech was voted to be the most charismatic, an observation in alignment with the research. Kennedy talked about exploring the stars, conquering the deserts, eradicating diseases, tapping ocean depths and encouraging the arts and commerce – all the image-based words that communicated a compelling vision.

So, even the student who read this aloud was perceived to be most influential and charismatic.

However three days ago, the polls switched and the audiences voted for the speech that used less image-based words. It was the inaugural speech from Jimmy Carter who did not share a vision for the country, but shared his humanity and humility.

He said:

“You have given me a great responsibility to stay close to you, to be worthy of you, and to exemplify what you are. Let us create together a new national spirit of unity and trust. Your strength can compensate for my weakness, and your wisdom can help to minimize my mistakes. Let us learn together and laugh together and work together and pray together, confident that in the end we will triumph together in the right.”

We speculated what would happen if JFK read this instead, and if he would be deemed to be less charismatic.We couldn’t tell.

But this leads to two interesting observations:

1.   The CONTEXT of the times will determine how well received you are as a leader. If a country had undergone wars or is at the brink of an economic recession, the different contexts would require different rhetorical styles. In other words, the kind of speech that probably moves and inspires would be one that is different from the political, economic, and social contexts in which the organisation operates. A contrast is unexpected but needed.

2.   The more important one, I believe, is about the VALUES of the leader. He or she embodies all the values she believes to be true, and if these values are the same ones that resonate with the populace, then it would be most receptive.

The question to be asked about your leadership that goes beyond rhetorical style then is:

What are your personal and organisational values?

This requires a deeper reflection of self and your relationship with others and the environment.

·     Who are your role models in business, in spirituality, and in life?

·     What is your attitude towards power?

·     How would you respond to rules and breaches in rules?

·     What are your feelings towards minorities?

Somehow when the MBA student read Carter’s speech, many of the audience members felt that what was necessary in this day and age is humility as a leader.

Those hard-hitting decisive skills are needed, but they feel that a more empathetic grounded leader is one who can change things around today.

Do you agree?

© 2010 | EDMUND CHOW