Thinking on Your Feet

Will became known when a steer charged into the stands at Madison Square Garden.  Will lassoed the steer and brought it under control.  Will was featured in the local papers and this led to a vaudeville career as a novelty act featuring rope tricks.  Eventually, Will became better known as a cowboy comedian.  He was best known for starting his performance by saying:  “Well, what should I talk about?  I ain’t got anything funny to say.  All I know is what I read in the papers.”  Then he would entertain the audience by making witty comments about what was being reported.  While his jokes had a bite to them, they were never mean spirited.

Will was Will Rogers, one of the most popular Americans during his career.  He made 71 movies in addition to his appearances on stage.  Many of the spontaneous comments he made have now become a part of our culture including:  “I never met a man I didn’t like.”

Just imagine how you would do in front of an audience with nothing prepared in advance.  Everything you say would be spontaneous as situations warrant.  Today, we call this thinking on your feet.  It’s a gift that requires real leadership skills.  And it’s very effective in message delivery because the audience gets a real sense of how you are thinking, not just a heavily scripted spin that has been developed by staff.

Thinking on your feet can also be risky, especially in today’s mean spirited environment where everything you say is recorded and then broadcast without any sense of the spirit and intent of what was said.  Will Rogers was able to think on his feet because he had strong personal values, largely formed from his Native American (Cherokee) heritage. Without strong values to guide everything you say, thinking on your feet may be better described as putting your foot in your mouth.

Those who have the ability to think on their feet also create as they talk.  Many of the quotes that Will Rogers is known for were spontaneous comments when first made.  Then they become a part of his message when specific comments elicited strong positive reactions.

Thinking on your feet requires an alertness to those you are interacting with.  It requires an ability to read facial expressions.  It also requires real time adjustments in what is being conveyed.  These are skills that are rare today.

How might we return to a time when public figures feel free to share their thinking with us in real time without creating mean spirited outbursts?  Are societal or organizational issues so complex that they need to be “worked over” before sharing them with others?  Might we use thinking on our feet as a way to educate others in uncertainty and invite them to contribute possibilities?

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Imagine a President giving a talk from the oval office that starts this way:  “My fellow Americans, I come to you tonight to share my thinking with you and ask you what you think.”

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