Those leading in the era of social media need no convincing of the importance of words, but often true meaning can get lost in the noise. When we forget the impact of what we say can have, it is often best to return to those who said it best. One book that has continuously aimed to collect the words of some of the United States’ most influential figures is, The Presidents Speak. Its newest edition, released in 2018, composes speeches made by each of the first forty-five U.S. Presidents. As diverse in subjects as they are in their sources, the speeches in the book separate into the following seven categories: Religion & Culture, Humanity & Liberty, Politics & War, Inaugural Addresses, State of the Union Addresses, Farewell Addresses, and Miscellaneous Speeches. The overall format is refreshing and makes its content easily digestible for readers in a time crunch, while giving each piece room to breathe. While every speech included deserves to be discussed in its own right, the larger mosaic provides multiple key lessons for junior leaders interested in making their words count.
Say What Needs to be Said
“If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”- Dwight D. Eisenhower
These words concluded a speech that was never given publicly, to prepare for a failure that never came. He planned this speech if the allied invasion at Normandy proved unsuccessful. While this was far from the actual outcome, this speech and the language Eisenhower used within it are both evidence that the author understood the importance of writing and speaking when it is necessary, not only when it is advantageous. It is only natural to want to avoid hard topics, but this speech and others like it show that they must overcome this urge when it is time to say what needs to be said. Eisenhower understood the purpose of his writing was not to shift blame, confuse the issue, or soften the blow; it was to state clearly what happened and why. Serving as an Army leader will provide plenty of chances to communicate vital, sometimes negative, information; many have faced up to the challenge of doing so, and few regret it.
“If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.”-James A. Garfield
The quote above comprises the entire speech given by Garfield on the occasion of the first Memorial Day, known then as Decoration Day. Then, still a Republican congressional representative, he served only six months as President before being assassinated. While the short length of his administration was a tragedy, Garfield fittingly understood more than most how brevity can serve as an advantage. We remember many of the earliest presidents for their lengthy sentences and sprawling paragraphs, but Garfield only needed one line to convey the gravity and purpose of the day he was commemorating. From Occam’s Razor to “brevity is the soul of wit”, there is an ironically vast amount of heuristics and quotes praising the ability to say a lot with a little. Garfield’s one line did so, but it was what he left unsaid that truly had the biggest impact. Leaders must remember their people’s time is precious, rambling can decrease the potency of what they are saying, and being succinct can leave the audience time to ruminate on what they said. When a speaker chooses the right words, the silence that follows can truly be golden.
Recognize and Seize Opportunity
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”-Theodore Roosevelt
These words mark the start of what became one of Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous campaign speeches, given in Milwaukee just five minutes after being shot by a would-be assassin, John Flammang Schrank. A glasses case slowed the bullet down and the fifty-page manuscript for the speech that sat in his breast pocket prevented it from piercing his heart. Never one to miss or shy away from an opportunity, Roosevelt gave the ninety-minute speech in its entirety before receiving medical attention. While few are as bombastic as the Bull Moose President and such circumstances are obviously exceptional, any leader could benefit from taking advantage of surprise changes. Being an officer sometimes means representing your unit or commander, commemorating events, or offering your input on short notice. Be adaptable in your words and your actions; it will take you far.
Aim to Unite, Not Divide
“… I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible. It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional of candidates. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts–that out of many, we are truly one.”-Barack Obama
The “More Perfect Union” Speech, as it became known, was given during Obama’s campaign for the Democratic Nomination and worked to commemorate the actual possibility of the first black president. Obama, with a broad understanding that came with his diverse background, used the speech to connect disparate parts of American culture and bridge gaps that had continuously grown wider with time. While a few choice words can devastate or diminish, the greatest has often been used to uplift or bring people together. Obama was certainly a pragmatist at heart, but he exemplified a more idealistic point that army leaders must understand if they are to be successful: the best motivation comes from highlighting the bonds that bind a team, not the forces that challenge them. While militaries must acknowledge they are often called to face a human enemy, their leaders need to promote unity whenever given the chance. A unified team can overcome any challenge.
Speak with Confidence and Purpose
“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”-Ronald Reagan
While this last line has now gone down in history, President Reagan’s team furiously debated its inclusion prior to him having spoken at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. Then Deputy National Security Adviser Colin Powell joined detractors who felt it was too confrontational when the Soviet Union just reformed decades old systems. Reagan, like many other leaders placed in a controversial position, spoke with confidence and purpose, making his and his country’s intentions clear. The result was that his words have since taken on an almost prophetic air, but the situation could have ended completely differently. Controversy often tempts army leaders to mitigate their speech or use passive language when communicating to hedge their bets or to take the edge off what they are trying to say. Reagan’s and the examples of many others show that while we will never know the outcome of what we choose to say before saying it, it often pays off to speak boldly and with intent. Speak respectfully to your audience, regardless of their rank or position, but earn their respect by being direct and honest.
Life has a way of putting people on autopilot, but leaders more than most must fight this urge and struggle to live and speak intentionally. We often forget the power our words can have, and we are therefore lucky to have works like The Presidents Speak that remind us. Its passages encourage us to discuss hard topics, to acknowledge failure, to choose our words carefully, and to let what is unsaid speak volumes. These leaders and their words teach us to stay vigilant for opportunities to speak into the lives of those we lead, to create unity, and to always communicate with authority and conviction. They set their words in stone, but what we say and how we choose to influence the world are still up in the air. We must remember the one thing our words have in common with those of these influential leaders. Our words, too, will echo into eternity.
1LT Dylan Nigh is an Active-Duty Army Officer currently serving as the Executive Officer for the Technical and Information Support Company (TISC) in First Special Forces Group (Airborne). He hopes his words were clear, and that they served their purpose.