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The Problem with Speeches from “Great” Leaders

I’ve gotten the chance to hear a few speeches from a few “great” leaders of today, and I have a slight reservation about what I’ve been hearing. If you ask me, there are two types of great leaders and they give two types of great speeches.

The first kind of leader is the Dr.-Martin-Luther-King-Jr. type of leader (or feel free to insert your favorite transformative historical figure—I recommend those of the Jim Crow or decolonization persuasion). What characterizes these types of leaders is the sense of moral and historical brevity that seems to imbue the very words that come out of their mouths. The speeches they give seem to strike somewhere at the indefinable space between their passion, and the spiritual economy of our hearts and minds. In essence, there’s something greatly at stake when they speak. And we, as an audience, feel the weight of the stakes, and are compelled to act. The words of these leaders are not just words. They are catalysts for change, and you feel their weight. These speeches take risks. These speeches are change agents because they have no choice but to be.

Then, there are these other speeches that I hear as of late. The speeches from more modern leaders. And these speeches, though captivating, seem to derive from some formula hidden within the confines of a how-to-make-a-great-speech wikiHow page. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard speeches from educational innovator Geoffrey Canada, transformative mayor of Newark, New Jersey Cory Booker—and I even (at the excitement of a friend) decided to revisit the Stanford Commencement Address given by the late Steve Jobs back in 2005. There were common threads among all of these speakers:

1) Don’t be afraid of failure.

2) Take risks.

3) Have integrity and stay true to your values.

Of course, I am over-simplifying their eloquence into their purest forms, thus depriving them of a bit of their nuance, but nevertheless, these are the lessons that they want to project to their audience. My problem with their words? Certainly not that I dislike integrity or risk-taking, but often times these sort of cookie-cutter messages try to universalize struggles that these leaders have gone through–and, by trying to craft a message that everyone can relate to—they run the risk doing a great disservice to the complicated struggles people face on a daily basis.

To be frank, it’s frighteningly easy to tell people to take risks when you’ve already reached your personal successes, when your rags have turned to riches, and when the ink on your elite ivy league degrees have dried up a bit. Dropping out of college seems to be an ok idea when Facebook and Apple are already off the ground. However, to tell the single mother who is returning to school, or the struggling father who’s been laid off of a job for over a year to have integrity is a pretty tepid response to the real and complex problems we have today. These speeches are suffering from a terrible case of hindsight bias, and because they try to adhere to this universalizing formula—fail to speak real truth to all parties involved.

Now this is not meant to be a tirade against great leaders. Of course, they are geniuses in their own right. And they have speckles of valuable insight coursing through their verbal veins. (Booker had wonderful commentary on what he called a “conspiracy of love,” and Jobs’ reflection on Death in the face of cancer gave me chills) And of course, it’s difficult to compare speeches of racial equality with that of a technological innovation. But, as geniuses, it is not their job to make everyone feel as if we can be them (their underlying assumption must be that we don’t feel that way), instead, they have the privilege of offering us their genius. We need the particularity of their experience, not the watered-down universal version.

In short, history making geniuses spoke truth, and in doing so, accomplished universality. Modern leaders—at least the ones I’ve seen of late—seem to be mixing a little bit of sugar, spice, and everything nice before serving us their universality and letting it simmer. I would appreciate, instead, a little bit of truth and genuineness. Stop telling me to have integrity. I’m trying for crying out loud.

This all comes to down to the question of what leaders, especially our black leaders, should be saying when they speak to us, and what really resonates with people–I think–is not the fluffy formula of empowerment, but truth.

(As a side note, I really enjoyed this speech given by Harry Potter author J.K Rowling for Harvard’s 2008 Commencement Address. It still rings of the same formula, but I think she has a moral purpose behind it that tries to break out of the mold. Listen for her story of the refugee told in part 2.) I’m also quite the fan of Obama’s speeches, pre-elected-into-office–of course.