What thought leaders can learn from presidents

Ronald Reagan against a backdrop of jelly beans
One of Ronald Reagan’s quirks was actually a gambit calculated to foster a warm, fuzzy public image. This led to the birth of the term “jelly bean journalism.”

Thought leaders are made through innovation. However, everyone has role models – people who influenced and inspired them as they cultivated new ideas and brought them to life. In honor of Presidents’ Day, we’re taking a look at US presidents’ communication styles and what we can learn from them.

They use emerging media to reach people

George Washington knew his first State of the Union wasn’t just for Congress: It would reach American citizens through newspapers, as well. He was the first in a long line of presidents who were early adopters of new media:

They have a thoughtful POV about their image

George Washington – who was a reluctant president at best – worried at length about how he would be perceived by the citizenry. What was appropriate conduct for the leader of a young country? How and with whom should he socialize? Who should advise him?

Washington’s approach set the tone for future presidents, for better or for worse. Washington focused on gravitas; Ronald Reagan tried to strike a lighthearted tone, with photos often showing him digging into a jar of jellybeans.

The highest leadership position in the nation holds terrific persuasive power. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Most presidents have understood this. So have their toughest critics.

They don’t lock themselves in an ivory tower

The 2020 presidential campaign wasn’t the first to use unconventional tactics to engage voters. In 1896, William McKinley invited citizens to his Ohio residence in “the ultimate porch campaign.” Twenty-four years later, Warren G. Harding did the same.

The television age helped transform citizens’ connection with the presidency. President Eisenhower was the first to allow TV cameras in the White House. A few years later, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy hosted a TV special that gave viewers a “private” tour of her family’s living quarters.

Plainspoken, informal communication is integral to humanizing the president and the presidency. It has taken different forms throughout history, but the spirit remains the same: To meet people on a human level, exchanging sound bites for authentic connections.

They harness their strengths

Not every president was a gifted orator. Jimmy Carter delivered his final State of the Union by letter (kind of a proto-ghosting, 40 years before Donald Trump’s abrupt departure from Washington, DC). George W. Bush was roasted for his unintentional neologisms.

In the 19th century, political discourse was synonymous with political oratory. Today, it’s much more fluid. As a result, leaders can succeed without visionary speechcraft. (Anyways, it’s widely acknowledged that presidential rhetoric is enormously derivative.)  But they still must adopt a tone, style, and medium that showcase their best qualities while enabling them to convey big ideas and collect valuable feedback. It’s a tall order, but one that serves as the living link between a concept and its successful execution.

They occasionally surprise us

We’ve discussed, obliquely and otherwise, the rote and routine nature of presidential communications. However, it’s the outside-the-box moments that draw us in and live on in memory. Here are a few examples.

In the rare moments when we see the leader of the free world in an unguarded, quirky, or lighthearted moment, we see in them a reflection of ourselves. This kind of empathy breeds support and loyalty.

Where politics and enterprise intersect

We believe the words and actions of US presidents offer valuable lessons for today’s thought leaders as they strive to share their ideas and innovations with employees, stakeholders, and other audiences. Even though innovation is, by definition, something bold and new, its path to becoming fully realized follows the same steps as the innovations that came before it. Presidential communications can provide a blueprint for influencing and inspiring people while getting the job done.

Are you just starting out on your own thought leadership path? Consummate Prose Consulting offers tried and true methods for effectively sharing innovative ideas with the right people at the right time. Contact us today to get started.

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