Theodore Roosevelt, one of the country’s most admired former presidents, often quoted the African proverb, Talk softly and carry a big stick. My father, a man who adored “TR” and called me his Teddy Bear (after the president), taught me the value of Roosevelt’s catch-phrase as well as the related notion, “Talk is cheap.”
Today I use the insights gleaned from my dad when asked, by corporations or venture capital firms, to evaluate the psychological strength of candidates being considered for C-level jobs. In my capacity as a “screener” I attempt to determine if candidates talk-up their game or if they are humble-but-assertive. It isn’t easy. Although “it ain’t bragging if you can do it,” you cannot forget that actions speak louder than words. Therefore, I rely on my dad’s “test” to weed-out blowhards from those who will put points on the board, valuing quiet strength with nascent “strike power” over slick sales pitches.
I never thought of using what my father taught me in a presidential election, but while watching both candidates in a made-for-TV question-and-answer session this past Saturday (08/16/08), I realized how valuable it was. You see, one candidate kept answering questions with, “When I am President of the United States” –a remark that would have failed my dad’s litmus test for authentic strength— while the other guy kept saying, “If I am elected President,” language that would have “said” to my father, “this guy’s the one.”
I can virtually hear some of you groaning, “C’mon Berglas; you wouldn’t really base your vote for the next president on stylistic self-presentational nuances would you? Don’t you know that these guys have speech coaches who probably directed what they said?” Yes, and no. Yes, I place enormous value on “little things” candidates say. Thus, I put great stock in the meaning of a candidate’s “pre-emptive close” (WHEN I am President) vs. a show of authentic humility (IF I am elected…). And no, I do not believe that speech coaches can put words into the mouths of U.S. Senators if these elected officals find them unpalatable.
Forgive me, but it takes incredible audacity of ego for anyone running for president to proclaim, “WHEN I am your President” before the Electoral College meets. Forget about Bush vs. Gore and what happened in Florida; consider Hilary Clinton who prefaced every remark she made with “When I am President…” Where is she now? Someone with inner strength accepts the infinite number of “unknowables” that go into electing a president. It takes a strong ego to face that sort of ambiguity with the attitude, “I’ll do my best…I hope that it is enough.” On the other hand, I do not trust people who attempt to manage their anxiety with denial.
I doubt that this argument will convince those of you who think I’m nitpicking to come over to my point of view. What may get you to see it my way is for me to take you inside the work I do vetting C-level executives. To that end, what follows are brief descriptions of two (2) “sub-tests” I use (in conjunction with my dad’s “TR’s Motto Test”) that may help explain why I trust the “IF vs. WHEN” discrimination to tell me who is the stronger candidate for president in the upcoming election.
● The “Two-Men-Exiting-the-Dojo” Test. If you ever find yourself standing outside a school of martial arts (dojo) with a hankering for a fight, and you see two possible sparring partners exiting the school, here is the money-back-guaranteed method for determining which guy has the 3rd. degree black-belt (i.e. the sensei [teacher] who runs the dojo), and which guy has taken less than a dozen lessons at the school: The guy to pick a fight with (i.e. NOT the sensei) will likely be wearing a Ninja outfit or a jacket with the school’s logo or some Asian symbols on it. That’s the guy with 12 lessons under his white-belt who is saying to the world, “WHEN I have a black-belt…” or “I will have a black-belt some day so be careful!” The sensei doesn’t need the external accoutrement of strength & power because he has an authentic “big stick” that he earned (represented by a black-belt). As a consequence, the sensei will be dressed comfortably (e.g. in California, expect him to be in jeans and a T-shirt).
● The Leona Helmsley Test. You remember “The Queen of Mean,” don’t you? The former real estate agent who married real estate mogul Harry Helmsley and inherited his empire when he died? Marrying money does not give you an inner (“big stick”) sense of strength since it is irrelevant to the attributes that comprise an authentic sense of self-esteem. Lacking an authentic “big stick,” Leona acted just like a candidate who says, “WHEN I am elected President” before the election. One day she haughtily proclaimed, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Why did she say it? Who was she attempting to convince that she was not a “little person”? Was she engaging in a “Whistle A Happy Tune” self-help strategy? Did she believe, “the more I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well”? It sure seems that way since Leona voiced her view of what differentiates “little” from “BIG” people to one of her domestic workers. Not only did this woman pay taxes, she most likely declared income that was less than Leona spent each year on dog food. [Despite being one of the little people, this woman was smart enough to “drop a dime” on her boss.]
To use the Leona Helmsley Test I always dine with job candidates I’m vetting (and with coaching clients, as well) to see how they treat “little people” (e.g. bartenders, waiters, etc.) in restaurants. If they act like Leona did I know –with virtually 100% certainty— that regardless of how they talk, they are not carrying a “big stick.”
As always, you will decide if my vetting process has merit, and who gets your vote. As I see things, those who carry “big sticks” have too much self-respect and respect for others to presume the outcome of a fight before they step into the ring for 15 grueling rounds of combat. Guys in denial about how easy it is to get knocked-out in a championship fight should, for my money, suffer that fate.