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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.

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 1, 2010; 8:24 AM ET |  Category:  Crisis leadership , Humor , Leadership advice , Pop Culture , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Posted by: itkonlyyou362 | November 6, 2010 9:26 PM

truth_hammer and jolt1,

There is saying that goes, "it's not the end of the world." But that's not what Jon said. He said, "hard times, not end times."

I looked at the speech again and he clearly uses the words in reference to the religious interpretation of end times.

Here's the link to it at YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JzGOiBXeD4

The set up begins at 2:10 and the actual statement begins at 2:40. See for yourself.

He said he didn't mean to "ridicule people of faith, etc., but..." and then made the joke.

For my sources of information I use television (cable and broadcast), and edited publications that post their content free to the web. I also draw upon my formal education, my life experience, and the insights I've been taught by others. For radio I listen to WTOP --news and traffic.

I rarely talk about politics, religion, or history because there is virtually no one who can hold up their end of the coversation. Several days ago I posted a serious question in an online chat to Robert Reich who was Clinton's Labor Secretary and he wouldn't touch it.

Sometimes I wish that people would disagree with greater politeness to one another, but then I know that excluding speech that I don't agree with is the first step on the road to limiting viewpoints. Stewart does not share my belief that all discourse has some value, and I do not share his belief that the media and Internet make solutions more difficult to achieve. It may be that all our consensus in the past has been built by limiting the viewpoints available to participants.

People who shout talking points at one another and young Hispanic men who vote for Arnold because of his films aren't the standards of participation that we learn in Mother Goose history class. But they are valid forms of democratic participation.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 3, 2010 3:24 PM

On behalf of those who attended, if anyone somehow found offense or felt maligned for the inclusion of the phrase "end times" in a sentence - please accept our apology. It appears this was taken out of context for what it was meant to be. But, from the sincerity of the comments here, it does seem some people genuinely think it was an intentional affront.

It was meant in the context every parent has used for their children to console them when they think a temporary problem has overwhelmed and doomed their life - when you smile kindly to your child and simply say "Hey, it'll be alright. I know it hurts, but it's not the end of the world." I assure you there was no hidden insult intended to any group in the statement.

And I would respectfully submit mentioning the world is not ending currently is not a violation of any boundaries for a secular event on the Mall.

As to the rally itself, I did not drive 1000 miles to see a 3 hour comedy show. Some did, many didn't. I came to hear Mr. Stewart speak, and in earnest. There's a slow poison slipping into our democratic system. Compromise has become weakness. Rational discourse has become elitist. And we've been fed intolerance and distrust far, far too much.

That is what we came together for. I packed my conservative self in a car, along with my liberal wife, and we drove across the country to let an insightful, sincere man know, and everyone else who watches him every evening know - Hey, you're not alone. And we agree.

Tea-partiers, East coast liberals, our older conservative hard-liners, independents.... none of these people wake up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee and ponder "How can I destroy this country?". We, all of us, rise with the best of intentions I would hope. And the belief in our fellow citizens' sincerity is what makes our system work.

Do we agree on everything? No. But if we can remember for a moment that the person sitting across from us means just as well as we do, we have a foundation to build upon.

We won't entirely have our way, but we're a plural society coming together under one unifying government - e pluribus unum. Our founders didn't say it because Latin is just way fun to speak. They said it because it was vital for our survival and it is, in my earnest opinion, why so many recently birthed democracies are now failing.

That is why many of us came. If it so happens Mr. Stewart is the one to bring that long overdue reminder, so be it. Praise to Mr. Stewart and for shame he had to.

When was the last time people honestly sat down, without trying to verbally eviscerate each other, in an honest argument with someone of differing political views - devoid of hateful rhetoric, respectful and with the end goal of finding some agreement everyone could live with? I pose that question to all. Some will smile and have a quick answer, others...perhaps it's a good time to start.

Posted by: truth_hammer | November 2, 2010 7:54 PM

(Sign Hanging around the neck of a stuffed and mounted coyote)

"I'm not a Coyote,
I'm You"

Posted by: maupin1 | November 2, 2010 6:51 PM

My Wife Thinks I'm Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Posted by: maupin1 | November 2, 2010 6:50 PM

I'm not angry,
I just want a taco

Posted by: maupin1 | November 2, 2010 6:50 PM

John Stewart, Mr. Hindsight.
A GREAT speech would be on how to end unemployment, what to do about immigration, how to care for the uninsured. I never feel like he says anything that's not opportunistic, i.e. banal.

Posted by: kls1 | November 2, 2010 5:58 PM

Jon Stewart and the Rally define grace in the midst of awkwardness. Comic or not, the moment was wonderful.

Posted by: Geezer4 | November 2, 2010 5:03 PM

Commentators have disagreed as to whether Jon Stewart’s closing remarks at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear exceeded what he called the proper “boundaries for a comedian/pundit/talker guy”--and as to which end of the major political spectrum, if either, benefited more from the rally’s spirit of fun. In seriously praising the daily compromises that enable lines of traffic to merge before entering a tunnel, however, the speech failed to distinguish between two kinds of compromise--or between two ends toward which compromise is only a means. In good compromises (often BETWEEN political parties), people reach across aisles to solve problems. In bad compromises (usually WITHIN political parties), by contrast, power mongers cut secret deals to harden barricades against opposition from outside. The former is social contract ethics; the latter, corruption.

Posted by: dbarclay | November 2, 2010 4:51 PM

Blasmaic, I'm unclear how asking people to rationally discuss topics rather than just scream some talking points at each other somehow implies "squelching political speech".

Also, not to put words in you mouth but does your reference to "too much democratic participation" correlate to the ability of us media consumers to pick and choose (and participate with) sources that only cater to our preconceived beliefs?

Call me a wing nut but in my view rational discussion and actively seeking out counter points of view (NOT talking points) is a better way to be an informed citizen. Personally I religiously read the Economist and listen to NPR on my commute. If you don’t mind me asking, what are your primary news sources? Please be honest because if you think the rally was just a bunch of liberal kids with nothing better to do then you are clearly very misinformed.

Posted by: jolt1 | November 2, 2010 3:43 PM

What I find most ironic is that the people on the far right who are dismissing Stewart and Colbert because they are mere "entertainers", take Glenn Beck (another entertainer) entirely seriously. Guess it's OK for a conservative entertainer to have and speak his political opinions but not OK for moderate or liberal entertainers to do the same. Can you spell HYPOCRISY?

Posted by: wildfyre99 | November 2, 2010 1:38 PM

Went to the rally. Had fun. Love Jon Stewart. But he's not a leader, he's an entertainer. Like Will Rogers, or George Carlin, or court jesters through the ages, he doesn't have to actually get people to do things. Nice speech, though.

Posted by: HillWilliam | November 2, 2010 1:29 PM

kschur1,

Actually, I have put on a few pounds in recent weeks, and my undies are a little tighter.

That stuff about End Times and prophecy in the book of Revelation is a part of Evangelical faith. And it has been a part of Christianity for a long, long time. In fact, they stopped building churches in the late 10th century because so many people believed Christ would return at the end of the millennium, the first millennium.

If Jon Stewart wants to have a theological discussion about whether we're in hard times or end times, then there is a place for that. But a secular event on the Mall in Washington, DC was certainly not the place for it.

And if you doubt the backlash that Stewart's rally has created, then consider that there's been nothing else in the national news while the last polls were being conducted.

But if you must differ then you must. You can posit that the late GOP surge is because NPR fired a black man with a Hispanic name.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 2, 2010 11:59 AM

I think you spelled "conflictinator" wrong. Therefore, your entire argument is worthless and should be ignored.

Posted by: tomguy1 | November 2, 2010 11:42 AM

When I watch Jon Stewart do a good interview with someone he disagrees with, I admire his ability to charm and confront, but I am also fully aware his interviews are not debates or the defense of a bill that would dictate the direction of a nation. Stewart has no responsibility to constituents. It's just an conversation, albeit a good conversation and there is no need for conclusion or a concession.

I'm sorry to see that this is turning into yet another personality driven worship movement Americans are so good at doing.

Posted by: dogdiva | November 2, 2010 11:37 AM

The rally was nice, but anyone who thinks it changed any voters' minds is kidding themselves with wishful thinking.

Posted by: bpai_99 | November 2, 2010 10:48 AM

Glad to see your undies are getting tighter Blasmaic. Looks like the rally worked. Have fun squeeking an octive higher.

Posted by: kschur1 | November 2, 2010 10:39 AM

Well said. I think he might be doing for our age what Will Rogers did for my parents' age. I get the impression that some do not like him because he is not one sided -- he is an equal oportunity humorist who will point out absurdity on both sides as anyone who watches him knows. If people see him as being more critical of the right, perhaps it is because they are doing more laughable things. But if anyone saw his interview with Obama can tell, he does not pull his punches. Just ask yourself if Fox would ask such tough questions of O'Donnell or Angle? There is a reason why such people will only appear there. Think what you may, Stewart goes for humor wherever he finds it.

Posted by: TomfromNJ1 | November 2, 2010 10:30 AM

Blasmaic, you gotta be kidding right?

Posted by: JustTheFacts11 | November 2, 2010 10:25 AM

Jon Stewart, a professional comedian, is by far more informative and fair than any members of the so called "Main stream media" who have no concern for the truth.

Posted by: WESHS49 | November 2, 2010 8:36 AM

I thought his reference to "end times" was a cheap shot at Evangelicals. But heck, it sounded good so he couldn't just toss it away.

His solution seems elitist. He said when we amplify everything we hear nothing. Implicit in that belief is the legitimacy of squelching political speech. That happens all the time, but rarely is too much democratic participation actually cited as a roadblock to progress.

I also noted that after about five days of non-stop Stewart/Colbert coverage in the national media, Republicans are experiencing a late surge in support as the polls open. That's what can happen when you take narrow-casting comedians who appeal to young liberals and put them on a huge stage with mainstream coverage.

C'est la vie.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 2, 2010 1:12 AM

I agree with this assessment. No doubt Stewart held this rally because he was distressed by the rancor between the parties and perhaps not mostly because he thought it was a funny thing to do. There is a lot of depth to Stewarts humor. He's one of the smartest people in the media.

Posted by: commentator3 | November 1, 2010 7:37 PM

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