A leader talks about things that matter.
By leader I mean — broadly — anyone, regardless of title or position, who influences or directs others to accomplish something worthwhile.
In troubling times, such as the ones we are in now, there’s all the more need for leaders to speak in a way that provides a sense of hope, of belonging, and of direction.
And yet in times like these there’s always the temptation to cop out. To deny reality. To confirm everyone’s worst fears. Or to offer false hope.
During the depression in Italy, when people were even more shaken by the economy that we are today, movie studios produced a slew of escapist films. They got titled telefono bianco or white-telephone movies. (White telephones were status symbols, something that only the rich could afford.) A white-telephone movie is a film about shallow rich people who have plenty of leisure time, doing trivial things in swank settings.
I learned about white-telephone movies in a film-appreciation class in college years ago. But I hadn’t thought of the term for decades, until it came back to me while I was watching the CEOs from automotive companies asking congress for money.
For an insightful analysis of the CEOs’ performance, see…
An open letter to GM, Ford and Chrysler (Mostly GM!)
If I can coin a term, I would say that a white-telephone speech is a presentation by people who are leaders in name only, talking about trivial matters in an inflated or pompous manner. White-telephone movies obviously served some need in the 1930s — for diversion, if nothing else — or there wouldn’t have been a market for them. But there is no need or justification for white-telephone speeches. Not now. Not ever.
Leaders speak — or should speak — to make a difference in the lives of the people they are addressing.
If you have an example of a white-telephone speech or of its opposite — a speech that matters — let me know.