Here's the key to Elizabeth Warren's deeply psychologically satisfying rhetorical style

Here's the key to Elizabeth Warren's deeply psychologically satisfying rhetorical style

Elizabeth Warren

  • Elizabeth Warren was a standout in the first round of debates.
  • Her rhetoric features a signature mix of vision statements and policy specifics.
  • This is a display of toggling between different "levels of construal" - going between the abstract and concrete.
  • Effective leaders can do both.
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The first round of 2020 Democratic-party debates have come and gone.

Among the field of 20, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren stands out with her policy ideas, which clearly set the agenda on the first night - and maybe the second, too.

It started with her opening statement.

"When you've got a government, when you've got an economy that does great for those with money and isn't doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple," she said. "We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country."


Big Structural Change. That's one of two of her calling cards. The other: "I've Got a Plan For That."

What Warren is demonstrating, to the eye test, is a capacity documented in the psychology literature as being essential for effective leadership - being able to go up and down levels of construal.

Read more: 15 large American companies that have the best environmental policies

Construal is how abstract or specific a statement or idea is. High construal is the stuff of vision, grand strategy, and generalization. Low construal is the concrete, the detailed, the nitty-gritty execution.

From their perch atop hierarchies, leaders are contextually nudged toward high construal stuff, vision and dreams and the like. They get in trouble when they can't make it down into detail. Batia Wiesenfeld, a management professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, held up Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes as a cautionary tale - focusing on massive growth while skimping on product specifics.


Among the political field, without naming names, it's easy to spot candidates who can pronounce or denounce from on high, but aren't getting into detail.

Meanwhile, Warren is alternating from getting into the weeds to speaking from on high.

Again, from the first debate, her take on Medicare for All:

I spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke. And one of the number one reasons is the cost of health care, medical bills. And that's not just for people who don't have insurance. It's for people who have insurance.

Look at the business model of an insurance company. It's to bring in as many dollars as they can in premiums and to pay out as few dollars as possible for your health care. That leaves families with rising premiums, rising copays, and fighting with insurance companies to try to get the health care that their doctors say that they and their children need. Medicare for all solves that problem.

That's the virtue of being a researcher-turned-politician. The rubber meets the road. Vision turns into execution. Dreams become plans.