Politicians and the language of leadership
Jamaica has found itself in the throes of a leadership crisis that has permeated all sectors of society. For several decades there’s been an observable decline in leadership quality in the region, which begs immediate attention. It’s high time we ushered in a leadership revolution, not just within the boundaries of Jamaica but also across the broader Caribbean landscape.
Witnessing the disgraceful spectacle of political discourse over the past few weeks in the Jamacian political arena has made this cry even more urgent. This political atmosphere is rife with a slew of combative and vitriolic exchanges almost daily, from the cass-cass between some politicians on the Government side and the Integrity Commission to Opposition Leader Mark Golding’s controversial “dead vote” comment and ensuing retraction.
Throw into the mix minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation with responsibility for works Everald Warmington’s “tracing” (nothing new) of Edmund Bartlett, chairman of the Integrity Commission’s Oversight Committee, and subsequent exit from chambers and People’s National Party General Secretary Dayton Campbell’s lambasting the Director of Public Prosecutions Paula Llewellyn in a most uncouth way. This scenario unveils a political leadership crisis that is in dire need of attention. Bereft of sophistication befitting a leader, the current political communication risks spiralling further into unproductive chaos.
This is why I’m contemplating setting up a special leadership class for politicians, in the first instance. The purpose? To enlighten them about the language of leadership. For starters, Dr Campbell, Minister Warmington, Opposition Leader Mark Golding, and Deputy Speaker of the House Juliet Holness would be top of the admissions list. These political leaders will learn to transform their speech from mere sound and fury to impactful communication. They will learn the importance of linguistic intelligence, narrative leadership and storytelling, the anatomy of an apology, ethical leadership in an age of mistrust, emotional intelligence, among others.
Somebody has got to listen to Rema and Selena Gomez and Calm Down.
Good leadership is anchored in respect, thoughtful dialogue, and an unwavering commitment to the common good. Any behaviour that deviates from these principles, especially when exhibited by those in positions of power, is nothing short of lunacy. Central to effective leadership is the power of language. When wielded with precision and authenticity, it’s a tool that can ignite change, inspire action, and cultivate unity. American sociologist Charles Cooley puts it this way, “All leadership takes place through the communication of ideas to the minds of others.”
Recently I was reminded of this by a compelling example from the world of literature, in which Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s character Belisa Crepusculario transformed the political prospects of a military strongman through the power of words.
In Marquez’s fable, Belisa Crepusculario was born into poverty in an inhospitable land where survival was a constant battle. After witnessing the death of her brothers and sisters due to the harsh conditions, she decided to leave home in search of a better life. On her journey she discovered the power and beauty of words. Belisa decided to make a living by selling words. For five cents, she would offer poems; for seven, she would provide letters for lovers; for nine, she could compose a well-worded insult; for 12, she would write a unique, heartfelt letter.
Her fame as a wordsmith reached Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who wanted to be president and needed a powerful speech. He captured Belisa and demanded she write a speech for him. Despite her initial fear, Belisa’s strength and resilience shone through as she began to weave words together for the colonel. She spent days meticulously crafting a speech that not only projected the colonel’s power and leadership but also resonated deeply with the common people, offering them hope and a vision of a better future.
Belisa’s words were simple yet profound, drawing on the shared experiences and desires of the people. She instilled in the speech an undeniable sense of unity and common purpose. And she managed to present the colonel, a man known for his military might and intimidating presence, in a light that made him appear to be one of the people, a leader who genuinely understood and cared about their needs.
When the speech was finally delivered, it stirred the hearts of the listeners. The power and authenticity of the words crafted by Belisa were so compelling that people were drawn to the colonel, seeing in him the leader they had long desired. Thus, through Belisa’s gifted use of words, the colonel was able to significantly bolster his campaign and his chances of winning the presidency.
I am convinced that Golding could benefit from a Belisa, it would help him on the campaign trail and heal him from the constant attack of foot-in-mouth disease.
The need for linguistic intelligence in political leadership cannot be overstated. More than any other breed of leaders, politicians frequently find themselves at the intersection of policy, public opinion, political debates, and cultural discourse.
The ability to communicate effectively and eloquently is paramount. They must be able to explain complex issues in a language that resonates with their constituents, articulate a vision that unites diverse groups, and convey policies that foster understanding and acceptance. Linguistic intelligence allows politicians to use words not only as a communication tool but as a bridge that connects them to the people they serve, fostering trust, establishing credibility, and inspiring collective action. I have not heard him lately, but Damion Crawford is blessed with this kind of linguistic intelligence.
Moreover, when linguistic intelligence is combined with emotional intelligence, it elevates politicians from being merely office holders to becoming genuine leaders. Emotional intelligence allows them to perceive, understand, and respond to the emotions of their constituents.
When politicians communicate, they aren’t merely exchanging information, they’re also addressing hopes, fears, and values; thus, the interplay of linguistic and emotional intelligence helps politicians to engage at a more human level, enabling them to express empathy, inspire trust, and mobilise their constituents towards a shared vision.
This fusion of emotional and linguistic intelligence is crucial to crafting an efficient, respected, and admired leadership style.
Leadership Narratives and Embodiments
Remarkable leaders seamlessly integrate their narratives and personal traits, creating a profound synergy in which, to borrow from the poet William Butler, “one cannot tell the dancer from the dance”.
For example, late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill perfectly balanced the two by painting a compelling narrative emphasising the preservation of Great Britain. This he embodied through his unflinching courage (trait) during the tumultuous years of World War II.
An effective leader doesn’t just tell stories, they become the living manifestation of their narratives. Similarly, their personal traits do not exist in isolation but are integral to the stories they convey. This harmonious fusion of storytelling and embodiment is an art that every leader must master, and it is high time our politicians took note.
Dr Campbell and others, see you in class!
Henry Lewis Jr is a PhD candidate, a social scientist, and executive life coach. He lectures at University of Technology, Jamaica, in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.