The late Shirley Temple Black taught me an invaluable lesson – one that didn’t involve tap-dancing or the ‘Good Ship Lollipop’. This was much more important: if you want people to listen to you, actively show them you are treating them as human beings, not ciphers or serfs. A mentor of mine, an old State Department hand, praised Shirley Temple to the skies. This surprised me, as I had thought of the ex-movie starlet as a lightweight who got her ambassadorial postings (in Ghana and Czechoslovakia) as a result of her Hollywood fame. Further, the career foreign service staff at the State Department are typically neutral, at best, when it comes to political appointees who become ambassadors. Often their hope is the ambassador won’t see his/her job as the equivalent of a potentate, who gets into a snit when the flowers at the ambassador’s residence look a bit wilted.
What was different about Shirley Temple Black? The story my mentor told me reveals why he thought so highly of her. Back during the Gerald Ford administration, Black was the ambassador to Ghana. She was scheduled to meet with an important official, but somehow she knew the gentleman had a bad case of hemorrhoids. (My guess is she learned this informally, perhaps from her staff. If she received the information via the CIA, thinking about what that briefing was like still makes me laugh.) Black’s reaction was to ensure the meeting room was supplied with very well-padded chairs, so her visitor would be comfortable. In a practical sense, she also was ensuring that her visitor wouldn’t be so preoccupied with his pain that he would be inattentive to anything she would say to him.
By my mentor’s account, the meeting went very well, and she accomplished whatever her goal was for that encounter. But think of the (sadly) more typical ambassador/potentate approach. As in: “I am the U.S. ambassador, he’s coming to see the important me, and he’ll sit in whatever chair I want him to. The pain in his backside is his problem, not mine.” How successful would the meeting have been with an attitude like that?
As for me, years later when I was employed at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), I was given the assignment to escort a group of Egyptian veterinarians who were coming to the U.S. to certify that certain beef slaughterhouses were using the proper methods when they slaughtered beef for the halal (Muslim) market. At that time, the U.S. had a very good export market in Egypt for beef liver; a win-win situation, as Americans don’t tend to consume beef liver. But Egyptian fundamentalists were upset, accusing U.S. slaughterhouses of not using proper halal standards. (I won’t go into details, but halal standards are less complex than kosher ones.)
I drove these gentlemen around in a van from one dusty little town to the next. (Slaughterhouses may be near an interstate or main highway, but they’re not located near residential areas.) Once we stopped at a supermarket for snacks, and it turned out that one of the men had a serious desire for Ho Hos (cream-filled chocolate cakes). This became a running joke for the rest of the trip – on a flight they would ask (in serious tones) if 'Ho Hos' were available, and then break out into laughter.
At a slaughterhouse visit in northern Utah, the plant manager anxiously approached me. The veterinarians were observing the kill floor (I was always invited along, but I always declined) and would be returning in an hour or so for lunch. The manager asked what it would take to get the Egyptians to approve his plant. My answer: Ho Hos. He gave me a skeptical look; I told him that the vets loved Ho Hos; he needed to send someone immediately to a 7-11 convenience store to get a box of them, and ensure they were on the dessert plate with the usual cookies, etc. The manager overcame his skepticism, got the Ho Hos, and right on cue, the youngest vet in the group grabbed one, lifted it up and laughingly said ‘look, Ho Hos!’
Smiles all around, everybody was in a good mood, and the manager grinned at me in relief. The approval went off without a hitch. This was the Shirley Temple Black approach – clearly these smart vets knew the Ho Hos weren’t there by accident, and recognized it was the plant’s way of making them feel welcome and comfortable. To Ambassador Black, wherever you are, thank you for teaching me a valuable life lesson. You were a woman of style, sensibility, and sensitivity, and may we all learn from your example.
Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.