“Straight Talkers” Are Bad Leaders

"Straight talkers" like Chris Christie make for lousy leaders.

A brief word about the love for Chris Christie and the desire to see him run for President. Most of it seems to stem from the love for his blunt, “straight talk” – which is media speak for “undiplomatic jerk.”

A note from my personal experience: blunt “straight talkers” make for lousy leaders. Their style breeds resentment, and makes people unwilling to contribute ideas or bring up problems. They might shake things up in the short term, but in the long run a “straight talker” will devastate the institutions of an organization.

The reason why that is is because straight talkers make people fear failure and foster syncophancy and groupthink. Nobody wants to be on the receiving end of blistering insults, so nobody’s going to bring up fresh ideas or criticism when they’ll probably just get chewed out for it. The result is a lack of innovation, the lack of a cohesive organizational culture, anxiety, and an erosion of institutions in favor of the personal. That is not a recipe for long-term success.

It’s also a leadership style that is lousy in focusing on the details – something that has plagued Christie’s Administration in particular.

The media and the public at large swoon over straight talkers in large part because I think we chafe a little bit against the societal demands for civility, and there’s a part of us that wishes we could just say what mean, too. But if you think about your real life, and the people you know, do you admire the folks who say what they feel without regard for politeness? Or do you just think they’re jerks?

Personally, I’m in the latter camp.

Real leaders are strong, but they also welcome new ideas, foster consensus, and respect civility. George Washington wasn’t a “blunt talker.” Neither was Abraham Lincoln. Both of them were strong men or were more than happy to oversee Cabinets with people who vehemently disagreed with each other. And both were nonetheless able to bring those people together as a team to both begin the institutions of the United States and to preserve them.

Can you imagine Chris Christie being able to do the same? Can you imagine him giving a speech containing this sentiment?

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Me neither.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Politicians
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. John Peabody says:

    When elected governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura was a straight talker and an independant to boot. Very little progress was made in state government during his term, aside from the feel-good “Jesse checks” that were refunded to taxpayers in a surplus year.

  2. MBunge says:

    “The media and the public at large swoon over straight talkers in large part because I think we chafe a little bit against the societal demands for civility, and there’s a part of us that wishes we could just say what mean, too.”

    It’s modern elite groupthink and political correctness of both liberal and conservative vintage that has perverted what “straight talk” even means. Would people who behave like Christie have been called “straight talkers” in the past? No. A “straight talker” would have been like the characters portrayed on screen by John Wayne, men who spoke plainly but without verbally abusing those around them. And when confrontational speech was applauded in the past, is was almost always linked with a certain cleverness or intelligence which separated it from mere boorishness.

    Mike

  3. samwide says:

    I agree, in general. Of course, there’s no reason Christie can’t learn the art, is there?

    “Real leaders are strong, but they also welcome new ideas, foster consensus, and respect civility.”

    My fav Lincoln story. Some issue had come up, and it was important to Lincoln that that his solution be implemented. His cabinet had put down their knives for the time being and were uniformly against his solution. “Alright,” he said, “let’s put it to a vote. All in favor, say ‘Aye’.” Lincoln said, “Aye.” “All opposed,” he said, “say ‘Nay’.” The cabinet to a man said, ‘Nay'”. “The Ayes have it,” said Lincoln.

    What a jerk, huh?

  4. Fiona says:

    There’s a difference between being a straight-talker and an asshole. A straight-talker speaks honestly and is unafraid to address big issues. You can be a straight-talker while still taking people’ s feelings into account, acting with civility, and utilizing a decent degree of self-censorship. An asshole, however, says whatever he thinks is true whenever a thought first enters his head. I haven’t seen enough of Christie in action to know which category he falls into, but I suspect the latter.

  5. Hey Norm says:

    The problem with straight talkers…is that usually they aren’t.
    Bush billed himself a straight talker. But a humble foreign policy, no nation building, and compassionate conservatism went right out the window once the rubber hit the road. He didn’t get OBL dead or alive. He didn’t fire those involved in outing a CIA covert operative.
    Christie has said repeatedly he wasn’t going to run. In February he said “…short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running. I’m not running.” Now he’s reportedly telling his donors to come to Trenton for a big announcement on Thursday.
    Saying Christie is a straight talker is like saying Palin is down-to-earth and honest.
    The Political ad is going to be easy. Just string together a bunch of soundbites of Christie saying he isn’t ready, doesn’t want it in his heart…and isn’t running.

  6. Wayne says:

    You are not correctly defining what a straight talker is. Some are assholes but many are not. Yes they will tell you the truth even if it might offend you. The alternative is to lie to you. Are you saying leaders that lie to you are better than the ones that tell you the truth?

    In my experience in the military and many different businesses, leaders who are liars are much worse than those who tell the truth.

    Washington and Lincoln were both known for their honesty. Washington even had fables told about him to demonstrate how honest he was. Lincoln had the nickname Honest Abe. Reagan was praised and bashed by some for his sometime undiplomatic speech. When he said “tear down this wall” it was considered very offensive to the Russians. Many bash him them then but praised him now for doing so.

    You might like to be told lies. You may prefer someone who says one thing to one person and the opposite to someone else. You may not like straight talkers but many like I do.

  7. Brett says:

    I’ll third the point about there being a distinction between a “straight-talker” and being an “asshole”. A good straight-talker generally fosters an atmosphere of honest discussion, provided that he sets it up right – it’s a good way to avoid groupthink in committee.

  8. rodney dill says:

    …guess that would mean Obama’s a good leader then.

  9. Rick Almeida says:

    @samwide:

    I agree, in general. Of course, there’s no reason Christie can’t learn the art, is there?

    There is no reason that I can think of, but I can imagine this is not an easy habit to acquire one week before beginning a run for president.

    Also, how easy can it be for the proverbial leopard to change his spots?

  10. WR says:

    @Wayne: Well, if the definintion of a straight talker is someone who tells the truth, that rules out Mr. “Um, no, I didn’t screw up, that guy over there screwed up, hey, don’t look at the signatures on that paper” Christie.

  11. John425 says:

    “Real leaders are strong, but they also welcome new ideas, foster consensus, and respect civility.”

    Like this bumbling Democrat administration? Yeah, right. I’ll take a Christie over an Obama any day of the week.

  12. samwide says:

    @Wayne:

    Washington and Lincoln were both known for their honesty. Washington even had fables told about him to demonstrate how honest he was. Lincoln had the nickname Honest Abe.

    Uh, Wayne, I think it’s generally acknowledged by historians that Lincoln would break a promise in a heartbeat if he thought keeping it was an impediment to what he understood to be the proper course of action.

    But, as bad promises are better broken than kept, I shall treat this as a bad promise, and break it, whenever I shall be convinced that keeping it is adverse to the public interest. [Last public address]

  13. samwide says:

    @Rick Almeida:

    There is no reason that I can think of [that would prevent Christie learning the art], but I can imagine this is not an easy habit to acquire one week before beginning a run for president.

    Fair point.

  14. Drew says:

    Heh. I feel strongly bothways…..

  15. mannning says:

    Well, whoever mans the post of president in 2013, we do need some very straight talk from that office, the WH, if we are ever to dig our way out of the current spinthrift mess. Since I have seen little or none of it so far from this president and his appointed czars and praetorian guard, I have great hope that the new president will tell it to us and act on the issues in a straightforward and transparent manner. We could use the honest, open, ideology-free, and unspun truth for a change, and I believe the nation can handle it quite well, contrary to the spindoctors’ recipes. Is that what straight talk is?

    As for Christie, I have no idea yet. He is not well-known to me.

  16. WR says:

    @mannning: And by “truth,” I suppose you mean any of the following:

    Tax cuts lower deficits.

    Illegal immigrants are to blame for everything.

    Poor people don’t pay enough taxes; rich people pay too much.

    Everyone will have health care if only the government gets out of the way.

    The financial system will work better if we end all regulations.

    There will be no more pollution if we shut down the EPA.

  17. Racehorse says:

    I believe that Harry Truman was known about as straight shooter as you can get. He is regarded as a great leader.

    WR: Your list would make a great platform that I would certainly favor.

  18. Wayne says:

    Re “I think it’s generally acknowledged by historians that Lincoln would break a promise in a heartbeat if he thought keeping it was an impediment to what he understood to be the proper course of action.”

    Please supply some references of historians who think so.

    Your link to Abe’s speech show as much about his honesty than it doesn’t. A slick politician would lie and say he never gets it wrong. We have plenty examples of that.

    Most people understand a bad promise. They are promises that shouldn’t have been made, were done under very different circumstance or simply unrealistic of being fulfilled. Promising your child you will always be there and protect them is an unrealistic promise many have made but is unrealistic. Promising your friend that you have their back but breaking it when he tries to rape a girl is understandable. It is also very different than running out on your friend at the first sign of trouble.

    An honest man doesn’t always get it right or never has broken a promise. A dishonest man doesn’t always lie or always break promises. Yes it a bit subjective but there is a big difference between honest people and dishonest ones but they do exist.

    If you think Abe Lincoln was a dishonest man please show some references.
    Here are some on his honesty.
    http://www.inspirationalstories.com/4/436.html
    http://listoy.com/Presidents/Abraham-Lincoln.htm
    http://www.greatamericanhistory.net/honesty.htm

  19. Drew says:

    I’m thinkin’ Eric Holder for President…………….(snicker)

  20. mannning says:

    @WR:

    How very insightful you are! But your list is so incomplete it isn’t useful at all!
    You must add several categories:

    Corporate jets are efficient transportation and time savers for movers and shakers.

    There is nothing wrong with making a lot of money, and keeping it– minus taxes, of course.

    Contributors to our society reap rewards commenserate with their value in the marketplace.

    Deficit spending has a hard limit; it will have to stop when you cannot pay back in full. (We are too near that now for comfort.)

    There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    It isn’t a secret that corporate taxes are factored into the price to the customer, and the higher these taxes, the higher the price charged, and the less competitive the product is in the world market. So now we have an ever decreasing manufacturing sector and number of jobs, because to remain competitive we have shipped the manufacturing jobs overseas, mainly to China. They will not return.

    The top 10% of tax payers today pay over 70% of the taxes: The bottom 40-50% pay nothing, so in a real sense the bottom half are not stakeholders but simply takers.

    The free market is the most efficient way to control an economy, but it needs the right amount of regulation to ensure a level playing field and control of fraud and abuse, and this needs constant work to keep up.

    This free market approach has been the best for our economy, including health care.

    Environmental stewardship is an important objective for society, but we cannot wreck the economy to achieve unrealistic environmental goals, or we will only achieve a beautiful, clean, yet dirt poor, vulnerable and starving nation. Further, the world measures of clean air and water will continue to be negative until China and India, for two, make enormous strides in their lands.

    The jobless rate is far closer to 16% to 18% than the carefully calculated 9.1%, because the government doesn’t count those who have stopped seeking non-existent jobs, and shouting out the true number would be politically rather bad for Obama.

    Judicious tax cuts stimulate the economy via increased consumer spending and demand, which in turn sparks hiring, production of more supplies and thus the flow of wages and profits, and lo and behold, greater tax revenue. The deficit is reduced by the disciplined spending of less than the revenue income.

    The chief characteristics of illegal immigrants is that they are here illegally and they work well for less than citizens demand.

    If we pursue our main natural energy resources to the fullest we can become energy independent inside of 10 to 15 years, and that means coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. By playing with solar, wind, and wave sources, but not the main sources, we will still be heavily dependent on imported oil from the ME after that same 10 to 15 years. We need to get cracking and fracking right now!

    Utopian or collective societies fail because they are diametrically opposed to human nature, and you can’t change or homogenize human nature by edicts or at the point of a gun. You can, however, create a huge mound of bodies of misfits and a bare subsistence level for the majority of sullen and resentful citizens who live on the promise of nirvana in another five years, and another five years, and…. No thank you!

  21. Luminosity says:

    You can tell it like it is without creating confusion or hard feelings, you simply have to think about the words that you choose carefully so that those in the situation will understand without hard feelings.