CUMMINGS: Two ways to be persuasive

April 28, 2013 

Wives: can you persuade your husband to take out the garbage? Husbands: can you persuade your wife to budget her shopping? Parents: can either one of you persuade your 20-year-old son to go through college without drinking?

How many of us are good “persuaders”? When I worked in San Francisco, we had a VP we called: “The Tyrant.” He drove the new company car; he had the corner office with the view; he had the mahogany desk and the tufted rug and the hand-rubbed, cherry-paneled walls. When he spoke, you listened. When he was angry, you hung your head. And when he shouted and screamed and swore in language that would make a sailor blush, you took it and said nothing. He called it, persuading. We called it bullying. Eventually, he was fired.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII had been pope for only a few months. He called his cardinals together and told them he wanted to hold an “Ecumenical Council.” In the business world, that would equate to an annual strategic planning session. In the Catholic Church, however, it happens only once every 500 years and crusty old Catholics, steeped in the ancient traditions of exclusiveness and fear, needed to be “persuaded.”

I was there, and I watched Pope John persuade. He didn’t lecture us; he didn’t tell us we had to believe “his way or the highway.” He used an Italian word “Aggiornamento” (upgrade). We translated it: “Open the windows; I can’t breathe.”

At his urging, we began to do extensive research, throwing open biblical and theological documents which -- up till then -- we were forbidden to read. He wanted us to come up with our own questions, our own opinions and our own answers. And we did. We were persuaded.

If you’re the boss, however, you need to get the work done. You don’t have time to let your people “do the research and come up with their own answers.” You’ve got the answers; you’ve done it all before. Why waste the time? If you threaten them with their jobs, they’ll be “persuaded.”

But think about the best teacher you ever had; ask yourself: “How did she persuade me to learn math or English or poetry?” Did she stand over me with a ruler and bang on my desk? I don’t think so. Did she shout at you when you made a mistake and embarrass you in front of your classmates? I don’t think so. Did she make you feel stupid or lazy or “different” from all the other kids? I don’t think so.

Pope John was the best teacher I ever had. He persuaded me, and all the Scripture scholars with me, to turn upside down our old entrenched ideas of the “one true church and all the rest are false” and come face to face with real Christianity. And he did it without condemnations and excommunications and threats.

He did it with questions and patience and understanding. He did it with listening and love. He did it the same way your “best teachers” did it for you.

The Japanese have the same word for both teacher and leader, and that’s because the best teachers and the best leaders know how to persuade. You can do it, too, if you want to.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is

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