A few years ago I wrote a magazine profile of a monomaniacal suburban mayor, and then had the temerity to attend the next year's "State of the Village Address."
In his speech, the mayor didn't address my article directly—though he reportedly had his lieutenants buy up every copy of the magazine in town so that locals wouldn't see it—but answered obliquely by reading a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt's 1910 speech, "Citizenship in a Republic."
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Since that amusing day, I've heard a number of leaders—usually beleaguered mayors, actually—use that speech, which is more commonly known as "The Man in the Arena" speech. If Toronto mayor Rob Ford hasn't used it yet, it's only because his enthusiasms and devotions have simply been too great to afford him a chance to read old speeches.
Do leaders think that the audience (of followers) doesn't notice how self-serving and impossibly condescending such a quote is, coming from a leader?
Dear Arena Man: First of all, you're not Teddy Roosevelt. Neither was Richard Nixon, who also quoted the speech. And neither is Miley Cyrus, who has part of it tattooed on her arm.
More important: We "cold and timid" critics—we journalists, activists, employees, customers and interested citizens of every stripe—we are the ones who notice the dust and sweat and blood on your face, who point out your errors and shortcomings, who decide if your daring has succeeded or failed. And for that matter, reap the rewards or suffer the consequences.
We "critics" would never declare that society's institutions could run without you. That would be stupid. But worse than stupid is your suggestion that the critic does not count.
Not that a mayor—or a CEO or a president—should not discuss the matter of where we all stand vis a vis "the arena." It's a terribly important ongoing conversation, in a democracy.
But I prefer to quote from a more obscure writer than Teddy Roosevelt. Larry Ragan was my first professional mentor, at Ragan Communications. Larry thought a lot about insders and outsiders, and how they relate to one another, and in a Catholic magazine, he wrote a little prayer for them both.
There are the insiders and the outsiders. Two kinds of people. Two ways of looking at life. Two ways of making things happen.
The outsiders raise hell. they demonstrate; they organize marches. They issue reports that excoriate the establishment, challenge the status quo, appeal to all who thirst for justice.
The insiders? Often dull. The insiders speak a different language: they know the tax tables, the zoning variations, the assessment equalizers, the square-foot cost to educate the kids. You'll find them on the school board, city government, on the village board. Ordinarily not word people, they have mastered the art of the platitude.
Outsiders are often wild. At first, they don't seem to make sense. The first black kids who sat at a lunch counter and refused to move were outsiders. The first marchers to Selma were outsiders. Surely it was an outsider who first proposed the shocking idea that the generic "he" is a sexist word. Dorothy Kay, who in the 1950s stopped Manhattan traffic to protest atom bomb tests, was an outsider.
Please God, let us always have outsiders and give me the grace, in my better momnets, to know how to be one. But I'm torn because I want to be an insider too. The insiders resist the first answer that comes to them: they have heard it before. They are offended when they see the world's complexities reduced to slogans shouted into a microphone or preached at a town hall meeting. They are saddened when they hear someone argue that God is on his or her side, and they wonder why God doesn't speak so clearly to them.
Sometimes you've got to feel sorry for the insiders. When they win, few know of their victory. When they go wrong, their mistakes are branded as evil. Often they share the goals of the outsider but continue to say, "things aren't that simple."
The world is filled with people who like to feel they are right. Insiders are not always certain they are right. They are unhappy when they must resist the simplicities of popular sloganeering. So when we tip our hats to outsiders, as so often we must, let's not do so with such vigor that we fail to give two cheers to the insider.
If not in those words, isn't that a little closer to what a leader—even a besieged leader—ought to say?
I expect to be doing some reporting here on IABC next week. And I'll hope to keep all of this in mind.
In case you've wondered why my posts have been on the short side lately ... after you watch me try to work from the dusty, deafening, profane center of my home office renovation, you'll wonder how I've mustered any writing at all. But now that the office is finished ... well, now the holidays are coming up. After the New Year, boy—I'm really going to get cracking!
* "Kurwa" is Polish for "whore." The closer you listen, the more you'll hear it.
"Congratulate Torlaminda Nudol on her new job."
(Torlaminda owns her own communication shop, and recently named herself its President.)
"Congrats Torlaminda! Best of luck!"
"Torlaminda, congratulations to you! I love hearing such good news!"
Torlaminda tells Writing Boots, "I did it for search reasons, but isn't the response hilarious? Americans."
(Torlaminda—not her real name—is an American.)
To reward her for some hard-earned straight As and to convince her that school isn't everything, we took Scout to the Chicago Symphony on a school night and told her she could sleep in the next day. She woke up late and sat on the edge of her bed crying. "I don't want to be late."
She hurried and got ready, and came down with her backpack and announced with an air of resignation, "Dad, I guess I'm just going to be a good student my whole life."
Scout had to use "whatever" in a sentence.
She wrote, "Whatever, Jack."
Going through old files as part of an office renovation, I came across these samples from a post-collegiate advertising "book" that I was creating, half-heartedly it appears, at the kitchen table in my studio apartment, with a typewriter and crayons.
And only yesterday—23 years after it was committed—did my wife catch the typo in the headline below. Where was she when I needed her?
Put the airline cell phone thing to a national referendum and let we who are free to move about the country save us from ourselves.
At Ragan.com today, I have a piece on the purpose of employee communication, past and present. I was moved to adapt it from a speech I gave a couple of years ago as my long response to a roaring conversation in IABC's LinkedIn group.
Roger D'Aprix started that conversation with the provocative question, "Is Our Profession Intellectually Lazy?"
"He forgot to mention morally bankrupt and emotionally dead," begins my answer Ragan.com.
I'd love to contine the conversation with you: here, there or anywhere. To kick it off, here's a response I got from a communication veteran I've known for many years.
Thanks for your column. The sad reality is, Dave, I have pretty much given up. What made your column so worthwhile for me was your description of employee communications as a place that in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, became a haven for ex=journalists (like me).
A place where we cared about messaging and innovative ways of fostering dialogue and motivating people to a new way of thinking, rather than trying out the latest gizmo.
I have wondered if I just wasn't operating in the right locales recently. But the fact is, in the past 3 years alone, I've worked with a whole host of Fortune 500 firms.
Maybe 20% of the time the experience felt remotely like what corpcom felt like to me in the 1990s even. Mostly, it was a bunch of goofballs checking their Twitter feeds and laughing about what Miley Cyrus did last night on the MTV Awards while I am asking them what 3 strategic messages are most important to them at the moment. And getting blank stares in return. From people making $55,000 - 90,000 a year. Plus benefits.
Sad but true. But thanks to your column I now know although I may be feeling out of touch at least I am not hallucinatory.