August 04, 2009
F-words, S-words, and Leadership
Posted by Gordon Smith

Justice Scalia and four others on the Supreme Court recently upheld the FCC's attempts to clamp down on the "foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood," but that case was about "fleeting expletives," not this:

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner blasted top U.S. financial regulators in an expletive-laced critique last Friday as frustration grows over the Obama administration's faltering plan to overhaul U.S. financial regulation, according to people familiar with the meeting.

A couple of years ago, we learned (supposedly) that using "taboo words" at work can reduce stress. So now that Timothy Geithner is all relaxed, I wonder about the people he was trying to influence. Does swearing work as a leadership strategy? Are Mary Schapiro and Sheila Bair now going to fall in line behind Geithner and Ben Bernanke?

I suppose that the message of swearing is not intended to be, "I have lost control of myself," but that's the way it often comes across to me, especially when someone who doesn't normally swear let's out an "expletive-laced" tirade. Fleeting expletives I can understand, but talking like a comedian? The fact that this was a W$J story suggests to me that Geithner is not in the habit of speaking to other agency heads in this manner, so when I read about his "repeated use of obscenities," I conjure an image of a man on the edge. I don't know about you, but I tend not to take advice from people who are emotionally overwrought.

Then again, people who routinely use expletive-laced tirades don't fare any better with me. They seem like little children throwing tantrums. For example, I officed near a law partner who seemed unable to control his potty-mouth, and when people stopped reacting to his language, he started breaking pencils and throwing things. At that point, we usually walked away to avoid getting hurt. Not an effective leadership style, I would suggest.

I assume that Geithner was going for something like, "I am really passionate about this." We have plenty of non-expletives in the English language for conveying this message, and non-verbal cues are helpful, too. If Geithner is unable to convey the message without repeated use of obscenities -- a tactic obviously designed to intimidate rather than persuade -- then I wonder not only about his temperament, but about his intellectual capacity. Does he lack the vocabulary to adequately express his outrage?

Or is he just losing it?

UPDATE: Below are the results of a poll that was attached to the WSJ story.(Click to expand.)


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