How leaders use their stories of identity

How leaders use their stories of identity

People who read this blog, and many others, often send me stories. Of course, I am grateful for this, and I find many of these examples of leadership enlightening. These tales of all types of social influence often provide interesting reading.

At the present time, though, I am writing specifically about how leaders use their stories of identity to inspire those around them, and to influence their worlds. The type of story I look for is one of a leader who actively speaks of his or her life lessons, in ways that demonstrate who they are, the values they live by, and why they do things the way they do.

The distinction I make may seem small, but it is important. For me and my current book project, it is a matter of how leaders use their stories.

Of course, there are a multitude of tales of individuals, in a wide variety of fields, who are shaped by their stories and molded by their environments. We understand more about who they are when learn something of where they come from. Many take the lessons of their past and apply them to various situations and undertakings throughout their careers.

The great Italian car designer Ettore Bugatti, for instance, came from a family of celebrated artists. Rather than become an artist himself, though, he brought an artistic flair to the design and construction of automobiles. He often stated that he owed much of his ability in design to his family and his upbringing.

While I often hear or read interesting stories similar to that of Bugatti, from the famous and not so famous, the trait I have come to call “leading by autobiography” has an additional element. Leaders who truly mobilize others often do so by actively telling the stories of identity that express their life lessons, their values, their views of the future.

An example I often cite to illustrate this concept is Margaret Thatcher, who used her personal stories of identity frequently during her election campaigns–stories that demonstrated who she is, where she comes from, and what her formative years taught her.  As the daughter of middle-class shopkeepers from a small and traditional English town, Thatcher’s vision was that her own story and values could become a model to help Britain find its way again.  The virtues of self-reliance, initiative, and basic human decency that she had absorbed from her upbringing were just the remedies for what ailed her nation.

Writing in the April 1999 issue of Across the Board, Howard Gardner cites Margaret Thatcher as an example of someone who truly embodied her story of transformation. When she ran for prime minister in 1979, there was a popular consensus inside Britain that had existed since the Second World War—a consensus of powerful unions, moderate socialism, soft internationalism, and government intervention to control the “free” market.  Thatcher’s story was extraordinarily simple and powerful.  Britain had simply lost its way; the socialist consensus was wrong.

The story she told so brilliantly was one of a return to individual initiative, to truly free markets, to a strong and proud Great Britain. Her story was all the more effective because she appeared as a symbol—the grocer’s daughter, the self-made person, the no-nonsense, straightforward, rugged individualist—of the change she proposed for her nation.  Only such a powerful representation could defeat the entrenched post-war consensus.  Her persuasive story, and her complete embodiment of it, transformed the way her fellow citizens perceived their world and their nation.

Margaret Thatcher is a compelling case study in leading by autobiography.   Whatever one’s political views, one cannot help but admire this remarkable woman’s ability to lead by using her personal stories of identity.  In effect, Thatcher transformed a nation by presenting herself as a change agent whose personal values mirrored precisely the principles necessary for putting a “lost” Britain back on course.

After convincing the British to vote for a change of direction in government, Thatcher continuously emphasized the connection between her personal story and her story for a new Britain: “The passionately interesting thing to me is that the things I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things I believe have won the election.”  Thatcher’s stories of identity formed the foundation for her transformational leadership.

Britain’s Iron Lady is such a wonderful example of leading by autobiography because her stories of identity were so clear. As is true of many effective leaders, she processed her life experience, integrated the lessons of her past into her worldview, and expressed these lessons in the compelling stories she told to others. When the public listened to her, they understood the origin of her values and beliefs, why he did things the way she did, and where her vision for her nation’s future came from.

In the coming weeks, I will provide more examples of other leaders who have used their stories of identity to explain, to influence, and to inspire. Please send your along.

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