What Tim Cook can do for you

By the careful timing and thoughtful writing of his coming-out column, Apple's CEO may help speechwriters have more productive conversations with their bosses, about when to get personal.

One of the ground rules at our annual meeting of top executive communicators is: What happens at Leadership Communication Days, stays.

But if Apple CEO Tim Cook can come out and announce he's gay, I guess I can reveal the Leadership Communication Days conversation that Cook's announcement put me in mind of.

We were talking about storytelling (what else?), and the importance of CEOs to share their personal experience in speeches.

Inevitably, one participant said, the CEO demurs by saying gruffly, "It's not about me."

"Well if it's not about you," somebody retorted, "then why are you making all those millions?"

Tim Cook expresses the same personal and professional reservation about drawing attention to himself, in his Bloomberg essay today.

"I come from humble roots, and I don’t seek to draw attention to myself. Apple is already one of the most closely watched companies in the world, and I like keeping the focus on our products and the incredible things our customers achieve with them."

That is an important point, and an important instinct. In communicators' professional desire to have our leaders connect on a human basis with their audiences, we can forget that it is entirely possible to over-personalize the message. I have seen painful evidence of speakers who feel that if they tell a few seemingly candid anecdotes about themselves, they've sated the audience's only desire: to get to know them better.

It is far better to be reserved and come off as stiff than share semi-pertinent yarns instead of ideas, and come off as self-involved and vacuous.

A leader must know exactly when it is, why it is, how it is about him or her. And a leader must realize that those factors vary depending on the moment and the leader's position in relation to the moment.

At 53, Tim Cook doesn't seem to regret not sharing his sexual orientation until now. And he sees the potential downside in having done so: becoming pigeon-holed as "the gay CEO," and overly influencing Apple's brand in the process:

I’ve made Apple my life’s work, and I will continue to spend virtually all of my waking time focused on being the best CEO I can be. That’s what our employees deserve—and our customers, developers, shareholders, and supplier partners deserve it, too. Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender. I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things. I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy.

But he came to the conclusion—and likely brought Apple's board members to the same point of view—that at this moment, it is his responsibility as a human being to use his influence on this particular issue, saying, "If hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy."

In our own closeted world, I hope that hearing the CEO of Apple share something so personal and pertinent will help our CEOs have more thoughtful conversations with the people who help them communicate, about when it is, and when it is not, "about me." —DM

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