At last week’s Speechwriters and Executive Communicators Conference, Pepsi communications exec Rod Thorn gave what will no doubt be the most memorable keynote since JFK’s “intellectual bloodbank” Ted Sorensen spoke a half-dozen years ago, and Jack Welch’s seven-figure scribe Bill Lane, a half-dozen years before that.
I won’t try to recreate Thorn’s speech, except to say, as he did, that when he climbed into his first corporate jet, he realized it was nicer and larger than the trailer home he grew up in during an impoverished and violent childhood.
During his unlikely flight toward the c-suite sun, Thorn learned how to apply a few lessons, including a tip his Uncle George gave him when he was a teenager. “Lose the ego, Bub.”
But how exactly does one “lose the ego” in order to successfully serve powerful people—and at the same time hold onto the ego sufficiently to seek such professional heights, and believe one belongs there.
Thorn spoke of staying in a five-star hotel, and being completely comfortable polishing the boss’s shoes.
I told him I admire him and all the other speechwriters I know who can balance ego and humility in that way. I confessed that I can’t do it. I’m not too big to shine someone’s shoes. And I’m not too humble to advise a high-profile leader on communication. But I’m too emotionally rigid to do both with the same leader—and certainly not on the same day.
Successful speechwriters are good at that, and it takes something more than “emotional intelligence,” which we so often hear about. I think we think of “EQ” as a measure of emotional competence: You can read people’s verbal and nonverbal cues, you’re in touch with your own feelings, you can handle a measure of ambiguity. Emotionally speaking, you can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Much less do we acknowledge “emotional genius,” the magnificent stuff that we see in some leaders, some salespeople and some psychiatrists. And some professional communicators: most of the really good ones, and all the halfway happy ones.
How does a guy as confident and bold and funny and smart as Rod Thorn switch effortlessly, when the moment calls for it, into shoeshine mode—and back!? I don’t know how he does it any more than I know how Mozart wrote the Requiem.
Genius, that’s what it is.
I sure as hell don’t have it. Do you? —DM