How to lead like Jon Stewart (and why you'd want to)
No matter how much he may have argued he wasn't trying to, Jon Stewart sounded like the leader of a movement on Saturday. True the comedian, who has been called the most trusted newsman in America, made the sincere moments a brief 12-minute addendum to the three hour rally-as-comedy performance and joked about the finale's somber turn. ("I know there are boundaries for a comedian/pundit/talker guy, and I'm sure I'll find out tomorrow how I've violated them.")
But whether or not you prefer Glenn Beck's rally to Stewart's, it's hard to argue that Stewart's speech didn't sound very much like the kind of speech we might expect a leader to give. Unlike so many today, both inside and outside politics, he offered perspective on the bigger picture, made people feel better about themselves and encouraged compromise in a world that seems to have forgotten how to do it.
Stewart's speech was peppered with reminders of how easy it is to miss the forest for the trees. "We live now in hard times, not end times," one of the best lines of the speech. And though he was talking about the cable media industry (or the "24-hour politico pundit panic conflict-onator"), his comparison of it to an immune system--"if it overreacts to everything we actually get sicker"--could apply to his audience, too. At a time when so many leaders in both politics and the media are zeroing in on the smallest gaffe, the least consequential issue or the most niche topic, Stewart's reminder to step back and not overreact to everything was the kind of calming, rather than rabble-rousing, rhetoric that's a mark of good leadership.
In addition, he gave his followers (make no mistake: no matter how much irony/meta/satire was going on here, Stewart has them) an opportunity to feel better about themselves. Yes, he thanked them "just for their presence," as any leader would say in such a forum. But with a dose of humor, he also gave voice to a group of people who feel they "don't have anyplace to turn," as one attendee said. In Stewart's words: "Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats or Republicans or conservatives or liberals. Most Americans live their lives that hour just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often it's something they do not want to do, but they do it."
Finally, he offered up a "clarion call"--with ironic quotes or not--for compromise, something that's been in microscopically short supply among Washington leaders on both sides of the aisle. His analogy to the individual interests that must be negotiated in order for the drivers in a traffic jam to make their way through a tunnel was an apt one. Compromise gets us through the tunnel, and it's the only way to the other side. But we must keep our expectations in check. "We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. ... Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land. Sometimes it's just New Jersey."
There has been much criticism of Stewart's rally as a display of overreaching. The Post's Carlos Lozada implored Stewart to cancel the rally, calling it too earnest for Stewart. Time's television critic said he risked being seen as some kind of "messiah figure." Maybe so. But whether we are on the left or the right, or whether we watch Jon Stewart or not, the qualities on display in his speech--perspective, gratitude and compromise--are qualities we could use more of from our real leaders. Maybe it takes a fake one to remind us of that.
November 1, 2010; 8:24 AM ET |
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