Learning From Great Leaders

“The Art of Rhetoric” makes the point that Pericles had great powers of persuasion, and that he could directly affect the will of the people through his rhetorical strategies. When the Athenian citizens got too proud and even arrogant, he would settle them down into reality — but when they were struggling to believe, he could lift them up to a higher place. This was the sum and substance of “The Art of Rhetoric” and the lesson from this narrative is that the clever, creative, careful and strategic use of words — and language in general — can manipulate people in the way the speaker wishes them to be maneuvered. This paper verifies the validity of this theory through the literature and through the successes that political leaders and business leaders like Lee Iacocca and others have utilized by having the power of persuasiveness.

Don't use plagiarized sources. Get Your Custom Essay on
Ways of Learning From Great Leaders Article
Just from $13/Page
Order Essay

Pericles’ Skills — A Closer Look at a Great Leader

Before this paper delves into how business leaders and politicians have used rhetoric effectively to sway others’ opinions — and to compel them to sit up and take notice — a closer look at the skills displayed by Pericles seems appropriate. Oliver Goldsmith was the author of a book about the history of Greece that was published in 1817 and digitized in 2010. On page 195 Goldsmith writes that Pericles began to change his behaviors after assuming the “whole authority of the state” (Goldsmith, 1817, 195). Prior to his ascendance to the highest rung of power in Athens, Pericles was a “fawning and humble suppliant,” but once in power, thanks to his ability to chose words that moved people in the direction he wanted them to move, he practiced “the haughty airs of royalty” (Goldsmith, 195).

Sometimes Pericles would “win his fellow citizens over to his will,” Goldsmith explains; but other times, when Pericles found citizens to be “obstinate,” he would, through his polished rhetoric, “compel them to consult their own interests” (195). And so, between “power and persuasion, public profusion and private economy, political falsehood and private integrity,” Pericles took over as the total ruler of Athens, Goldsmith writes (195). Moreover, his speeches and his ability to twist minds through word usage meant that his “enemies” became “the enemies of the state” (Goldsmith, 195). Clearly the Athenians were greatly “impressed” with the “exhortation of Pericles,” Goldsmith continues on page 203.

One of Pericles’ most notable speeches was the “Funeral Oration” he delivered in 430 BCE; it was the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War and a large assembly of people gathered outside the walls of the city to witness the huge funeral pyre where the bodies of dead soldiers had been (or were being) burned. Pericles said:

“I have no wish to make a long speech on subjects familiar to you all: so I shall say nothing about the warlike deeds by which we acquired our powerwhat I want to do is, in the first place, to discuss the spirit in which we faced our trials and also our constitution and the way of life which has made us great. After that I shall speak in praise of the dead, believing that this kind of speech is not inappropriate to the present occasion, and that this whole assembly, of citizens and foreigners, may listen to it with advantage” (Murphy, et al., 2013).

Pericles was skilled at first telling his audience what he was not going to speak about and instead turning their attention to a softer theme. In this case he chose a more pleasant theme than death, which he described as “the spirit in which we faced our trials” (Murphy). This device has been used effectively by business icons and social and political leaders over the years, including Dr. Martin Luther King. In his speech the night that he was assassinated in Memphis (where he had gone to rally people behind a garbage strike) King said, “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’”

Using “Soft Power” to influence audiences

An article in the website of the Business School at the University of Navarra points to the four dimensions of “soft power,” which is defined as persuasiveness. The first dimension is “emotional intelligence,” which entails the speaker recognizing his or her own feelings and more importantly the feelings of “those of the person or persons he or she is speaking to (Leggett, 2013). Empathy certainly enters into the speaker’s soft power; what is the attitude of the listeners? How can I change their attitudes so they mesh with my message?

The second dimension of “soft power” that Leggett presents is the actual message being communicated, which doesn’t have to be “grandiose” in its vision but it must be wholly relevant to the situation in which the speech is given (Leggett). The third dimension is the most salient to this paper — the “rhetoric,” which communicates the vision of the speaker, and the credibility of the speaker (Leggett). The speaker must, as Pericles surely did, be able to create exactly “the right emotional environment” for the message to be received. The three languages that Leggett describes when evaluating the quality of rhetoric are “the languages of feeling, meaning, and action.” Leggett references Aristotle’s view of rhetoric: to wit, the speaker must feel “the same emotions while speaking that he expects his audience to experience,” and Pericles did that.

Is persuasion more important today than ever before?

The Harvard Business Press published a book called The Essentials of Power, Influence, and Persuasion, and in this book the authors assert that a great percentage of people in the American workforce “have grown up questioning authority” and hence they don’t respond positively when “told what to do” (Society for Human Resource Management). What they do respond to is quality persuasiveness; when they are convinced through effective persuasive rhetoric that there is a “logic and benefit” of doing things “a particular way,” they do act in response (Society for Human Resource Management).

Of course the persuasive rhetoric must be presented by a person with credibility, who has a good understanding of his or her audience, who possesses a “solid argument” to be sold, and who engages in “effective communication” (Society for Human Resource Management). The cornerstone to effective persuasiveness is “credibility”; and if the speaker doesn’t have a lot of credibility at the start of the presentation, he or she can build credibility through the persuasive power of the speech. Moreover, a speaker can build trust in his audience through the emotion, sincerity and credibility one puts into a presentation (Society for Human Resource Management).

Business leaders whose coy and creative use of language propelled them to the top

Lee Iacocca — Chrysler Corporation

Lee Iacocca was the CEO of Chrysler Corporation at a time when the company was struggling to compete with imports from Japan, autos that got much better mileage than U.S.-made cars. In 1978, Iacocca began to speak out about Chrysler’s problems, but he didn’t stop there. He also addressed — in his powerful voice, with body language that showed he was a person committed to his cause, and with words that made an immediate impression on his audiences — social issues, political issues, along with business and economic issues (Seeger, 1994).

His style was “direct,” Seeger writes, “and highly credible”; and his “blunt discussion of business and social problems” touched the hearts and minds of white collar and blue collar workers. He was aware that he had credibility and explained how he achieved that credibility as a speaker: “People are hungry for somebody to tell the truth” (Seeger, 17). Iacocca’s message was believable for the same reasons that the Society for Human Resource Management explained in the section above this one: he knew his audiences (and knew how to captivate the media); he established trust and hence, credibility; and his rhetoric was relevant to the listener’s ears. Moreover, he was skilled at using words — like Pericles did — that stirred people up if they needed to be awakened. And if government seemed a bit uppity and out of touch with the middle class, he turned his verbalized scorn towards Washington, D.C., much to the delight of the tax-paying man in the street who was weary and wary of do-nothing politicians.

Iacocca’s notoriety was one of his great strengths, and he used his notoriety brilliantly. For example he was smart enough to use Chrysler’s resurrection (which he ) as a metaphor, a symbol, of America’s “larger economic struggle” (Seeger, 17). Chrysler was a microcosm of America’s problems, he insisted, and (after nearly going bankrupt but being bailed out by the U.S. Treasury, which Iacocca had demanded) Chrysler’s renaissance pointed to practical “and tested solutions” for America (Seeker, 17). Iacocca was unsurpassed when it comes to linking his own automobile industry issues with the greater American economic and social issues.

Audiences were “hungry for success stories,” Seeger writes, and this was especially true in Iacocca’s era because the headlines in the news were in large part reflective of quite negative economic and political events. There was the hostile takeovers of corporations by bigger corporations; the savings and loan scandals were widely publicized; there was insider trading along with “ballooning federal and trade deficits” (Seeger, 17).

It was true during the 1970s that most business leaders — according to “conventional wisdom” — avoided talking about controversial issues, Seeger continues (18). Why? Because business leaders did not want to alienate “potential customers and investors”; but that said, Iacocca did not hesitate in the least to step to the microphone and express his views on politics, education reform, the trade deficit, business competitiveness, and social issues (Seeger, 18). His message always appealed to “fundamental values,” and he insisted that business should be about much more than “making a profit”; during his fiery speeches, he used “rich imagery and symbolism” that most people associate with high-toned speakers in ceremonial situations (Seeger, 18). His ability to depart momentarily from a prepared manuscript with “authority, flair, and animated delivery” while he made “” vis-a-vis his own message (Seeger, 18).

While respected U.S. Senator William Proxmire and economist Alan Greenspan loudly criticized the government bailout of Chrysler, Iacocca “rejected these critics as ideologues” and emphasized instead the value of saving thousands of jobs (Seeger, 18). He pointed out in his widely reported speeches that various groups, workers, suppliers and other had a “vested interest in the salvation of Chrysler Corporation” (Seeger, 18). Also, Iacocca helped his company by appearing in television commercials; in those commercials he was “aggressive, direct, and tough, traits that soon were associated with Chrysler” (Seeger, 18).

Business leaders whose coy and creative use of language propelled them to the top

Jack Welch – GM

Jack Welch is legendary in the annals of American corporate enterprise, because he came into General Electric in 1981 when the company’s market value was $81 billion; by 1998, Welch had helped GE grow to be worth $280 billion (Byrne, 1998). While some managers in corporate America “struggle daily to lead and motivate mere handfuls of people,” and many CEOs work hard to squeeze just “average performance” from corporations just a fraction of the size of GE, Welch managed to inspire over 276,000 employees in more than 100 countries worldwide (Byrne, 3).

Welch accomplished this remarkable renaissance of the giant company “through the sheer force of personality, coupled with an unbridled passion for winning the game of business” (Byrne, 3). Moreover, Welch knew how to put words together in sentences that stirred his employees’ minds into positive avenues of growth. He held frequent decision-making meetings and insisted that the candor used in those meetings be “near-brutal” (Byrne, 4).

At one company meeting in 1998 it was announced that GE had experienced a 13% growth in earnings; while most CEOs would give a “feel good, congratulatory chat” at such great news, Welch warned his executives that the coming year would be “one of the toughest years in a decade” (Byrne, 7). He chose the right words to convey his reluctance to pat workers on the back, using the formula mentioned earlier in this paper (by Pericles and Dr. King) that begins with what isn’t going to be (or shouldn’t be) discussed.

“The one unacceptable comment from a GE leader in ’98 will be ‘Prices are lower than we thought, and we couldn’t get costs out fast enough to make our commitments.’ Unacceptable, he shouts, like a preacher” (Bryne, 7). Later in that meeting Welch said the market was rewarding his top managers “like Super Bowl winners or Olympic gold medalists,” words that obviously convey very special meaning as metaphors. But “Are you proud of everyone who reports to you?” he asked. “If you aren’t, you can’t win. You can’t win the game” (Byrne, 8).

In a recent commencement speech Welch warned graduates not to use negative comments in a workplace situation: “[Colleagues] will see any comments you make about, say, how the team could operate better, as political jockeying. And they will eventually peg you as an unrestrained strivera label that all the A-plus performing in the world can’t overcome” (Business Week).

In conclusion, the way in which Pericles used words specifically to build people up when they were down, and bring people down to earth when they were too puffed up, was a classic success story in the history of rhetoric. The way in which Jack Welch and Lee Iacocca used words and language in their business dealings was also extremely effective. The whole point of this paper is that thoughts and opinions can be manipulated — even orchestrated — by speakers that have a need to make strong points and put across powerful ideas. Dating back to 430 BCE, and more recently in the era of Chrysler’s revival and GE’s renaissance, the use of rhetoric to move, shake, motivate and greatly influence audiences is still a vital part of communication.

Works Cited

Business Week. (2013). Top Commencement Speeches / Jack and Suzy Welch. Retrieved January 14, 2014, from http://www.linkedin.com.

Goldsmith, O. (1817). The History of Greece, from the Earliest State, to the Death of Alexander

The Great: To which is Added a Summary Account of the Affairs of Greece. Digitized by the University of Madrid, 2010.

Leggett, B. (2013). Influence Through “Soft Power.” IESE Business School / University of Navarra. Retrieved January 14, 2014, from http://www.iese.edu.

Murphy, J.J., Katula, R.A., Hoppman, M. (2013). A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric.

Florence, KY: Routledge.

Seeger, M.W. (1994). I Gotta Tell You: Speeches of Lee Iacocca. Detroit, MI: Wayne State

Society for Human Resource Management. (2006). The Essentials of Power, Influence, and Persuasion. Harvard business literacy for HR professionals series. Boston, MA: Harvard

Business Press.