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Thursday November 22nd 2012

Going, going, jargon

Nothing highlights the importance of language more clearly than a crisis. Contrast the recent fortunes of Obama and George Entwhistle. Both leaders have struggled with respective traumas: Entwhistle with Savile; Obama with Sandy. However, their responses couldn’t have been more different.

David Dimbleby summed up Entwhistle best when he said “George was a product of BBC bureaucracy – had grown up speaking its language – and that language was his downfall.” The most telling example of this was his response to the select committee investigating the BBC’s handling of the Savile affair. It’s hard to imagine a less inspiring, more bureaucratic response than Entwhistle’s: “Our systems need to be more carefully calibrated.”

Now compare this to Obama’s speech marshalling aid after Sandy hit NYC. “People have died. Lives have been upended….We need to get resources to where they’re needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible. “ No bureaucratic explanations, no fudges, no hesitation. Just plain speaking and promised action. Interestingly, the hurricane was always just “this storm” to Obama – diminished and tameable – while the human response was always magnified.

One of these men is preparing for a second term as the most powerful person on the planet. The other is scarifying his lawn. Who knows how far their responses have contributed to this. What’s certain is that language and leadership collide when times are bad – and that’s a lesson for corporate as well as public life.

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Andy Rigden