With my coaching clients and in my leadership seminars, whenever I speak of the central role that personal stories can play in a leader’s communication, I am invariably asked if storytelling is more a natural gift or a learned behavior.
As we have seen previously (in the entries of October 12, October 29, and December 10, for example), a growing number of researchers today are concluding that giftedness and talent play only minor roles on the road to mastery of any complex activity, if indeed they play any role at all. What one can say conclusively is this: While genetics may exert some influence, it is certainly far less than most of society has tended to assume.
So, as my clients and readers of this blog would no doubt predict, I often comment that there is “no such animal” as a born storyteller. There may be certain predispositions, but it is mostly about environment, passion and practice.
The past few weeks, my co-author and I have been considering the fascinating case of Abraham Lincoln for our forthcoming book on leadership and storytelling. Among the many scholars who consider Lincoln to be America’s greatest storytelling leader is historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. In Team of Rivals, she writes that Lincoln became an extraordinary orator and storyteller as a result of a “Herculean act of self-creation.”
How exactly was his remarkable storytelling ability shaped and honed, and how did this Herculean act of self-creation come about? First, Lincoln was born into the perfect environment. Second, he developed a burning passion for speaking, and a desire to improve himself. Third, he began early and practiced a lot, as he would continue to do throughout his life. Fourth, he received the type of ongoing feedback that allows one to grow and progress.
Indeed, Lincoln’s childhood environment was the perfect one to learn storytelling. The family lived on the frontier at a time of great migration. At that time, peddlers, adventurers, and pioneers making their way West would stop over at farms in the Eastern states where Lincoln spent his early years. At all hours of the day, they would do what people did back then to entertain themselves: They would swap stories. Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was “a born storyteller,” according to Goodwin, with “a quick wit, a talent for mimicry, and an uncanny memory for exceptional stories.” (Of course, I would take issue with the term “born storyteller”, but that is a subject for another day!)
Abraham Lincoln grew up a poor boy, with had little opportunity for schooling but with a burning desire to learn. And, in his father, he had an outstanding example to study. In the evening, when the elder Lincoln was enchanting his guests, a little boy would sit and watch silently, more riveted than anyone else. As he listened, he heard more than just the words; he observed how his father’s fluency and imagination would command attention and respect.
As an adult looking back on those early times, Lincoln recalled that he often felt stymied because he didn’t completely understand the grownups. Unable to sleep, he would replay their stories in his head, searching for their meaning. His goal, he said years later, was to translate what he had heard into “language plain enough. . . for any boy I knew to comprehend.”
As such, simply discovering the meaning of the stories wasn’t enough. Lincoln longed for an audience for telling the stories, in order to communicate what he had understood. And so, he devised a simply way. After spending his nights reworking the material, he would present his personal version to any ad-hoc gathering he could muster, usually the neighboring children. This simple scheme had an inherent feedback mechanism, as the other youngsters would not hesitate to criticize the boy telling the tale.
Goodwin describes how Lincoln, as early as age six or seven, would stand on a tree stump and entertain the other children, emulating the adult storytellers, but turning the tale in his own words, and in his own style. Like his father, the young boy found that he, too, could grab and hold a crowd. “He had discovered,” Goodwin writes, “the pride and pleasure an attentive audience could bestow.” Still a child, he was already on the path to becoming the Lincoln of history. He was, Goodwin asserts, “already conscious of his power.”