Last time, I wrote that it was Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds that got me started thinking about leaders and how they use their stories of identity. For Gardner, “the artful creation and articulation of stories constitutes a fundamental part of the leader’s vocation”, and these well-crafted stories constitute “the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s literary arsenal.” Whether consciously or unconsciously, inspirational leaders always fashion and tell stories of identity.
It is important that a leader become a good storyteller, but it is equally crucial that the leader embody that story in his or her everyday life. Gardner goes on to state that a political leader, when dealing with a diverse group, must tell stories that are sufficiently elemental to be understood by the “unschooled” mind.
Some of Gardner’s basic concepts would lay the foundation for a part of the methodology that I developed in my work with leaders on self-expression, a set of tools and techniques that I have come to call “learning to lead by autobiography”. While Gardner’s landmark work focused on leaders of world-class stature, my coaching experience has taught me that some of his basic concepts –telling compelling stories of identity, learning to simplify them, and living these stories authentically—apply to leaders at any level of any organization.
More on the striking example of Margaret Thatcher: When she became prime minister in 1979, there was a postwar consensus in Britain around the policies of soft socialism, soft internationalism, powerful unions, and the need for strong market controls. Thatcher told a powerful and clear-cut story, one that even the “unschooled” mind could readily understand: that Britain had simply lost its way. The wrong way was the socialist way. The right way was a return to a market model, individual initiative, self-reliance, and the rebuilding of a sense of national pride. She looked back nostalgically to the Victorian era of free enterprise and voluntary charity, and to the patriotism of the world wars, while disdaining the collectivist vision of the modern welfare state.
As the daughter of middle-class shopkeepers from a small and traditional English town, Thatcher thought that her own story and values could become a model to help Britain find its way again. The virtues of self-reliance, initiative, and decency that she had absorbed from her upbringing were just the remedies for what ailed the nation, she said. In fact, upon her selection as the prime minister, she declared: “Well, of course, I just owe almost everything to my father. He brought me up to believe all the things that I do believe, and they’re just the values on which I’ve fought the election.”
Thatcher not only told this story brilliantly, she also embodied it. She appeared to be a straightforward, serious, self-made person who took no flak from anybody. For example, speaking to aspiring businesspeople, she declared: “The only thing I’m going to do for you is make you freer to do things for yourself. If you can’t do it, I’m sorry. I’ll have nothing to offer you.” And, she really was the small-town grocer’s daughter who espoused those values and worked tirelessly to uphold them. The simplicity of her story, and her complete embodying of it, made her discourse thoroughly authentic and convincing.