Tony Robbins’ dismissive comments about the #MeToo movement should make everyone who speaks from the stage step back for a moment and think hard.

(If you haven’t followed this story, there’s a pretty decent summary here. And if you haven’t seen the video from the performance in question, you should: it’s a master class in what not to do. There’s a short, edited version here, and a full 11-minute video here.)

There’s so very much going wrong there. Just a few examples:

  • In a discussion about a movement where women are speaking up and breaking silence, questioner Nanine McCool — a sexual abuse survivor — gets all of seven words out before Robbins interrupts, talks over her and speaks for a further two minutes.
  • Robbins describes women speaking out about their personal experiences with sexual harassment and abuse as trying to “get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else.”
  • He does an exercise where McCool had to push back against his fist as he looms over her and forces her backward.
  • He cites a male client of his who hired a man over an attractive woman who was the better candidate, so that the client wouldn’t be tempted to do something inappropriate. But he intends it, not as an example of bad, discriminatory and illegal behaviour by an employer, but as damage done by the #MeToo movement.

It’s tempting to wince and look away… but there are some valuable leadership communications lessons here. And one of the most important ones is about listening, and being willing to change the way you see the world.

Your worldview has not changed in 3 years. Check for update (y/n)?

Most leaders have a pretty well-developed worldview: a framework for understanding, explaining and predicting human behaviour and the sweep of world events — social, economic, commercial, political. (Sometimes that worldview is simplified and packaged up for public consumption…but that’s another conversation.)

When a big phenomenon comes along that your framework can’t account for, you have a choice. You can listen to what that phenomenon says, re-examine that framework, and change and improve it… or you can pretend it fits into some slot in your worldview, and ignore the parts that don’t.

Robbins has a worldview, but it’s relentlessly focused on internal change, and personal beliefs and motivation. His framework doesn’t look at power imbalances or systemic issues of race, gender or economic status. An issue like sexual harassment just doesn’t fit.

And instead of listening to the actual substance of #MeToo, he shoved it into a convenient slot — “Anger is unproductive” — and then tried to shut down the woman who pointed out how he was wrong.

Imagine if instead he’d recognized that the world is changing constantly, and that our frameworks for understanding and engaging with the world have to evolve with it.

Robbins is all about reframing threats as opportunities to be seized, obstacles as doors to be opened, failure as a springboard to success. So how about this framing:

A threat to your worldview isn’t a threat at all: it’s an opportunity to make that worldview sharper, more accurate and more useful.

But only if you listen.

With the #MeToo movement, thousands of women have come forward from every kind of workplace, saying they have been coerced and assaulted. They have asked us to break a silence that has hovered over workplaces for generations.

Doesn’t that deserve at a bare, bare minimum curiosity from leaders, and a willingness to listen?

And if a leader hasn’t invested the time and attention that kind of change deserves by the time they’re asked about it onstage… doesn’t that demand the humility to admit uncertainty, whether that’s off-brand or not?

Because none of us has all the answers.

This isn’t just about a presentation going badly. This is about doing damage.

Most of the media coverage has focused on Robbins being “tone-deaf,” and getting slammed on social media as a result.

But there are real-world consequences — and real-world harm — when a dogmatic speaker gets it this wrong, when you insist on sticking to a worldview that flies in the face of the actual world.

At best, you can steer people in the wrong direction and waste their time and money. At worst, though, you can reinforce terrible, damaging attitudes and behaviour. You can give some people the cover they need to keep abusing their power, and take from others the strength they need to confront it. And you can hurt individuals again who have already been hurt.

And that might be the most important point, even if you’re not up for confronting your worldview at the moment. If leaders do nothing else, we can at least listen — actually listen — with compassion and genuine humility.

Leadership communicators need to take responsibility.

We believe our work matters, and that when we’re sharing true insights about the world, it can change people’s lives for the better. We should also accept, then, that when we do that work in a state of ignorance, we can do real harm.

And if we really can’t change, maybe it’s time to clear the stage.

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