How is your ‘guesser’ guessing?

CEOs have made their living largely on appearing supremely self-assured. This is one moment when that's not the right stance.

"Persuasive guessing," Kurt Vonnegut called leadership.

I included that term in a piece I wrote for The Atlantic a few years ago, about the resignation of David Petraeus as director of the CIA, and what the loss of a reliable leader meant to America.

I thought of it Monday when I got a call on from a PSA member who had an idea, in the immediate wake of Charlottesville: As executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, I should quietly contact a number of speechwriters who worked for influential CEOs and offer to help them form a kind of coalition. They could urge their chiefs to safely come out together to stand by their Merck colleague, against President Trump's inadequate response to hate groups. (This was before Trump's press conference on Wednesday.)

Well, there were a number of reasons I wasn't going to do that. It had been a long day, and I needed a beer, not another chore; and the next day, as fast as things were developing, would present a whole different landscape. Also, political action is not the PSA's mandate. And most importantly, I thought the idea was naive. In a follow-up email, I wrote: "I think it’s basically a surefire way to make speechwriters feel more guilty and embarrassed and powerless than they already do. And also, because I think CEOs have phones, and they don’t need their speechwriters to organize them, and don’t want their speechwriters to prod them."

Since I wrote that, it seems I've been vindicated. In various ways and in varying tones, the top execs of Intel, Under Armour, 3M, Hewlett-Packard and even Wal-Mart have expressed their displeasure with Trump: without the help of the PSA and its members, thank you very much. That list looks like it will grow. (Oh! And grow it did. UPDATE.)

But maybe I'm wrong. First off, maybe PSA members are helping their CEOs make these decisions to take these stands. And in a larger point: Maybe more PSA members should at least be more assertive than they otherwise might be, with corporate leaders who must be disoriented in this moment, and feeling guilty and embarrassed and powerless themselves. Damned by employees, suppliers and customers if you don't. Damned by employees, suppliers, customers—and the President of the United States—if you do. Unprepared to make these daily decisions, because they've never had to make such decisions before.

Maybe at this moment—or in the many moments sure to follow during this increasingly disorienting time for all of us—it's not so naive for a speechwriter to walk, if not into the CEO's office, at least into the communication VP's. And to suggest, after long and thoughtful personal consideration, a new stance for the leader. A stance that acknowledges the strangeness of the time, the many political uncertainties (even amid moral certainty), and the sheer difficulty of leading a large organization at this moment in history. A stance that acknowledges, at least to a small extent, that times like these make "guessers" of us all.

At the end of my Atlantic piece on Petraeus, I wrote that leaders partly rely on the integrity of the led: "We must each cultivate in ourselves the intellectual rigor and the emotional discipline to admire our leaders, watchfully. Perhaps there should be a name for this quality. I suggest, adulthood."

Institutional leaders who are still admired (however watchfully) are as valuable today than they ever have been. Sometimes, it seems they are standing between civilization and mass frenzy.

They need all the help they can get. They should ask for it, and we should give it, the best way we know how, and the way our consciences dictate.

We speechwriters. We Americans. —DM

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