How Leaders Use Personal Stories to Make a Tangible Difference

How Leaders Use Personal Stories to Make a Tangible Difference

Obama_José Luís AgapitoThe forthcoming book that I referred to in the last post—about how individuals use their personal stories of identity to influence those around them—opens with an example from the career of Barak Obama, a tale that demonstrates how telling his personal stories propelled him to prominence on the US political stage.

My co-author and I thought long and hard about whether or not we should use such a powerful world leader as our initial vignette. On the one hand, we want to emphasize that this is not a book about politicians, or even about people who lead from positions of authority. Our goal was always to write a book for everyone who wants to impact their world, large or small.

On the other hand, the case of Obama is quite a compelling example, regardless of one’s political leanings. So, without any desire to express an opinion for or against America’s current leader, we decided to use him as an illustration of someone who influenced his world in profound ways with his personal storytelling.

Today, not many people remember just how rapid and dramatic Obama’s rise to power was. In 2004, he was  a little-known state senator from Illinois’s 13th district, on Chicago’s South Side. Somewhat surprisingly, he was chosen by John Kerry’s presidential campaign staff to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, on July 27th in historic Boston, Massachusetts.

The young state senator would have only 15 minutes to speak, but he knew just what to do to inspire his audience. He told his own story.

After expressing his deep gratitude for the privilege of addressing the convention, he spoke of his eclectic origins, a family history that made his presence on the stage “pretty unlikely”. He told of his father, the son of a domestic servant in British Kenya, who spent his childhood herding goats in a small village, while attending school in a tin-roofed shack. His maternal grandfather was a white farmer from Kansas—half a world away from Kenya—who fought in the American army and got his education through the G.I. Bill.

Obama then put his own story into the larger context of his country, making it at the same time profoundly personal and infused with broad significance. “My parents,” he explained, “shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name…believing that in a tolerant America, your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential.”

As the partisan Democratic crowd applauded wildly, he proclaimed that his was an unlikely tale that could only happen in America: “I stand here today grateful for the diversity of my heritage, aware that my parents’ dreams live on in my two precious daughters…I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

In the 3 months following his landmark speech, the same optimistic story of personal identity, effectively told on the campaign trail, would help Obama win election to the United States Senate. Four years later, still talking about his exotic but somehow utterly American roots, he would become president of the United States.

What we see in this example is someone who influenced his world by telling personal stories. It is my experience that this is what people of influence do. They use who they are and what they stand for to energize others, to move those around them to action. Throughout his career, Barack Obama has indeed used this type of storytelling to great advantage throughout his political career.

Of course, not everyone will aspire to becoming president of a nation, or to running any type of large organization. However, it is my belief that everyone can—and should—aspire to making a tangible difference in his or her world. Our book’s goal is to show how anyone can learn to use personal stories of identity—tales of who they are and what they stand for—to influence others, and to have a positive impact on those around them.

Image: Flickr-user José Luís Agapito

1 Comment

  1. Matt Pocock 8 years ago

    Lovely – I remember the Obama DNC speech and I’ve taught it many times in my classes.

    But how do we reconcile this storytelling, inclusive aesthetic with the world of Trump?

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