The legal argument about whether corporations are people is politically important but practically dull, like whether or not a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit. Whether or not corporations are people, we know what kind of creatures they are: Cold, thoughtless, self-involved, phony, not-very-well-read, humorless, borderline sociopaths. Like giants with a buzz on, they thunder around the landscape with their big bellies and clumsy feet, and in mobs we zig and zag to eat their boulder-sized crumbs where they drop, and to avoid being stepped on.
And what's our role in this, as leadership communicators? To make these giants seem more attractive, by making their brains seem more like ours. We want people to think corporations are well-meaning, just like us.
Is this a proper mission?
In researching advertising in the 1960s, I came across an account of a meeting where an ad agency account executive pitched a corporate branding concept to General Motors, which was full of lines like, "We make cars because you take your children to school." And the GM executive spurned the idea as preposterous. "Nobody'll believe this. Everybody knows we make cars to make a profit!"
The account exec wrote off the client's objection as typical GM square-headedness. But really. Didn't the guy have a point? Fifty years later, how much do you really buy this line: "Love. It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru." Money can't buy you love, but you can't get a Subaru without it.
I've been working for months on the connection between my Mad Men-era ad man dad's life's work, to persuade companies to speak to their customers in terms that move them as human beings, and my work, to help speechwriters and other communicators make their bosses, and their organizations, seem more sympathetic and persuasive through storytelling and other rhetorical techniques.
Is it possible we've been doing the wrong thing all this time? Is it possible we should be trying to influence our leaders to be more clear about their real intentions, rather than warmer and fuzzier and more intimate and more charming than they naturally want to be?
Maybe they're the honest ones. And maybe we're the ones trying to fool everybody about what our companies and their leaders are all about, the way we have fooled ourselves.
It's a depressing thought, only to the extent that it's right.