Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton put down the script this week. The words that escaped the bondage of talking points prove the power of discourse that comes not from a page, but from one’s soul.
On the political stage, even the corporate stage where every word spoken is weighed and measured, parsed and dissected, the governor displayed a moment of rhetorical brilliance—a teaching moment for leaders of all stripes.
This was no ordinary audience. No ordinary setting. The gilded comforts of the governor’s capitol conference room were gone. The clicking keyboards of reporters and the silent streaming of Tweets for a headline snacking world living in the moment were all as devoid as the hundreds of eyes staring back at him.
Those eyes belonged to the classmates of two young boys who just lost their lives. Mohammed Fofana and Haysem Sani were fourth graders at Peter Hobart Elementary School in St. Louis Park. Their simple field trip to Lilydale Regional Park in search of fossils ended with a rock slide. The tragedy didn’t just suffocate two fourth grade boys, if left their entire school gasping for answers.
The governor didn’t have any.
Therein lies part of the simplistic strength of a message that was so powerful. Before an entire school sitting cross-legged on the playground, the governor, like the school teacher he once was, bent down to talk to some of the kids at eye level. Then getting up to the podium he did something nearly every executive of his stature never does—he stepped away. Looking directly at the children he said these words:
“At a terrible time like this, there’s nothing I can say. There are no words that can make you feel better. I know that because I lost my very best friend in an accident not unlike the one that took Mohammed and Haysem away from you. He was hiking in a canyon in California and a rock slide came tumbling down. It was raining a couple of days before and he was killed.
I remember the horror I felt, I remember the shock, the disbelief. And I remember greeting his wife and his daughter who is my God daughter, who was eleven years old. And I said why, you know, why? Why did this happen? Why did not just a bad thing happen to a good person, but why did a terrible thing happen to a terrific person? And in your school a terrible thing happened to a few young boys and two more who were injured. And we pray for their recovery.” - Mark Dayton
For exactly three minutes and ten seconds Mark Dayton wasn’t a chief executive, he was a chief grandfather. His own story of personal loss transcended the moment for those children and their parents. Like a warm blanket, he covered their frailties by exposing his own. He didn’t have an answer. But he had a connection. He had a narrative.
What makes this moment especially remarkable is that Dayton, like many executives, is a leader who often struggles to find the right words. Lofty oratory is not among his chief gifts. But his brief moment with those Peter Hobart students this week was a masterful example of the power of speech when one searches for a connection and a story to tell.
The teaching moment for communicators and leaders alike is the essential need to always consider one’s audience. In this case they didn’t need words on a page; they needed words from the heart. Dayton put down the script and let his soul fly free.
Speech class is dismissed.