In the book "Being There" by Jerzy Kosinski and the movie staring Peter Sellers where Sellers plays an ignorant man named Chance the gardener. Chance had to vacate a house where he had lived all his life after the owner ("Old Man") dies. One day as he was trying to walk between two cars parked on the sidewalk, a limousine backs up and hurts Chance's leg. Instead of calling an ambulance, the wife of a rich magnate (Mrs. Rand) takes Chance to her house since she feels he will get a better care from a doctor who is attending her ailing husband, Benjamin. During the drive Mrs, Rand misunderstands Chance introducing himself as the gardener as Chauncey Gardiner; suddenly Chance has been reinvented with no effort of his own but just by being himself.
All Chauncey knows is gardening since that is all he has ever done for the old man. So, how is it that he resonates so well with a business magnate and the President of the United States? Because he knows gardening and powerful men like talking in abstraction and not in details; hence, Chauncey is able to connect with them well.
(I know people have a much deeper interpretation of this movie, but for this blog I am focusing on Chauncey's interaction with the powerful men.)
When Chauncey is having a dinner with Benjamin Rand and Mrs.Rand and when Ben asks Chauncey about his business, here is how he responds: "It is not easy ... to obtain a suitable place, a garden, in which one can work without interference and grow with the seasons. There can't be too many opportunities left any more ... I've never seen a garden. I've seen forests and jungles and sometimes a tree or two. But a garden in which I can work and watch the things I've planted in it grow ..."
Instead of asking Chauncey to go into details, Rand does not do this and completely takes this as a metaphor for business since he lives with abstraction and says the following: "A person who makes a flinty soil productive with the labor of his own hands, who waters it with the sweat of his own brow, and who creates a place of value for his family and for community. Yes, Chauncey, what an excellent metaphor! A productive businessman is indeed a laborer in his own vineyard!"
Later, Chauncey is invited by Rand to meet the President of the United States where Chauncey says the following to the President: "In a garden, growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well."
This insight resonates with the President as he says the following: "I must admit. Mr. Gardiner that what you've said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time....Like nature, our economic system remains, in the long rin, stable and rational, and that's why we must not fear to be at its mercy...I envy Mr. Gardiner his good solid sense. This is just what we lack on Capitol Hill."
Does Research Support Why Chauncey Resonates With Powerful Men?
You may be saying that I am making too much of this excellent work of fiction, but not so fast.
In the blog in Inc. titled, "The Sad Truth About Why People Use Business Jargon," it cites the research done by Cheryl Wakslak, Assistant Professor of Organization and Management at USC Marshall School of Business, who found that people look more powerful when they communicate in abstract terms and focus on the big picture. Wakslak is quoted as saying that "Our findings suggest that if you want to seem powerful to onlookers, it is important to demonstrate abstraction, to use abstract language to communicate the gist of the situation, rather than concrete language that spells out the specific details."
The answer is a definite yes. If you watch this clip Chauncey (well acted by Peter Sellers), you can see he has all three traits of EP. If you look at the thin-slice of behavior, you would think that Chauncey Gardiner is a business guru and even the President of the United States can not see that Chauncey is ignorant.
In her book "Executive Presence," Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes about the importance of executive presence for success in life. She writes that "... No man or woman attains a top job, lands an extraordinary deal, or develops a significant following without this heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal . It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be."
It is one of those things you sense when you see it whether it is in a salesperson, a CEO, a politician, an author, an actor, an artist, etc. But what are the qualities that one must possess to have executive presence? Hewlett cites three traits that a person having an EP must possess:
Chauncey talks in a metaphor of gardening with the President; he does not explain any details. It is up to the President to interpret it to his particular situation which he does with the help of Benjamin Ward. There is no better metaphor for business than gardening. The people who know Chauncey well know that he is an ignorant fool but these powerful men don't know that since they only get to see Chauncey in a setting where he can shine.
Chauncey does this extremely well in that he uses silence before he starts speaking which makes the President focus on what is about to come out of Chauncey's mouth. Then look at how deliberately he speaks and stays on focus and shuts up after he makes his point about gardening. He does not try to explain it further (which in his case he can't) but nevertheless he is very effective. He lets the President think about what he just said and then Benjamin Ward offers his thought on Chauncey's insight. Chauncey may be ignorant but he is exhibiting characteristic of a master communicator especially in this meeting with the President.
Chauncey looks like a business guru, talks like a business guru, hangs out with famous business person so he must know what he is talking about. The President does not challenge Chauncey's credibility to offer advice on economics. Chauncey's metaphor does the work and the President has found a way to solve a problem. Chauncey does not really offer any advice and that is why he resonates. In his case this is not a strategy but just being himself.
You can even become President with having executive presence
Chauncey Gardiner gets this far because he has executive presence and is able to get away with it. This is what makes this movie such a great comedy, but this has even helped a small town newspaper editor become the President of the United States.
In Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink," he writes about how Warren Harding became the President. It all started when a man named Harry Daugherty, lawyer and lobbyist, took one look at Warren Harding (who was one week away from winning the state senate election in Ohio) and saw that he was looking at the future President of the United States. Daugherty saw executive presence in Harding very early.
Subsequently Daugherty helped Harding get elected to the US Senate in 1914. As a senator, Harding did not distinguish himself as he missed voting on two most important legislation of its time: women's suffrage and prohibition. This lack of accomplishment did not deter Daugherty as he placed Harding's name to address the Republican convention in 1916.
When people at the convention took one look at Harding, they saw a person who sounded, moved and looked like a President. So when the convention was deadlocked and the delegates had to look for an alternative, they selected Harding. What the people saw and heard at the convention was all the convincing they needed.
Does Chauncey Gardiner have a "street presence"?
Warren Harding and Chauncey Gardiner succeeded where they could shine that is with powerful people or large number of people who don't get to know them real well. But they don't do well when they have to perform in a different venue where they have to interact with common folks.
A good example of this is when Chauncey flops big time when he runs into a bunch of tough street kids as shown in this You Tube clip (at the 3:55 mark). He approaches them and asks if they know where he can find a garden. As you can seem he lacks street presence and is lucky to escape with his life.
He lacked the street presence since he does not know what is going on in the streets, does not know how to communicate using the street language and is appearance is not that of someone who is a street person; hence, he lacks street credibility and flops.
Next time if you don't resonate it is not you, it is just that you don't speak and think like the way the other person does. If you do some research on this, you can connect and resonate with just about anybody, even with powerful men as well as street thugs.