More on storytelling, manipulation and authenticity in politics…

More on storytelling, manipulation and authenticity in politics…

After Eduardo’s discussion of Real Madrid and Barcelona, I followed with interest their recent meetings, particularly the Champions League match between these two sides on Wednesday April 27. I was even tempted to write this blog post about football. Was this game, which Barcelona dominated and won, a case of the triumph of style and culture over substance and efficiency? In the end, though, I decided to leave the football follow-up to Eduardo (if he chooses to write one!) and instead to continue on my discussion of politics, storytelling, manipulation and authenticity.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, a colleague sent me a copy of Leading Minds: an Anatomy of Leadership, by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. It was this book that got me started thinking about leaders and their stories of identity. Gardner profiles eleven outstanding leaders of the 20th century: Margaret Mead, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., George C. Marshall, Pope John XXIII, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Thatcher, Jean Monnet, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Gardner’s portrayal of Britain’s Iron Lady is perhaps relevant to our discussion of politics, storytelling, manipulation and authenticity. For if anyone in recent history has demonstrated that authenticity in politics is possible, it is certainly Margaret Thatcher.

Since any discussion of politics risks inciting strong emotion among readers, I should emphasize, as I always do, that my discussion of political leaders seeks to analyze their stories of identity, not to take a position for or against the leader’s policies. For example, when I state that Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Barack Obama are all master storytellers, I am merely making an observation about their discourse, not stating my opinion about any of them as politicians. In any case, whatever one may think of Margaret Thatcher and her role in British or world politics, it is hard to argue about her effective use of personal stories of identity, or about her authenticity.

Authenticity comes from “walking the talk”, from absolutely no gap existing between the leader’s words and actions. So, we make sure we are not only living our stories, but embodying them in visible ways. If we fail to live our stories, and if others do not observe us living them, we will lose the trust of our followers. Authenticity is about finding the right story to express our values, and then showing that we can stay true to our principles.

As such, Margaret Thatcher is one of my favorite studies in leading by autobiography. In effect, Thatcher was able to transform an entire 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, she spoke of 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 electoral victory, and also for her transformational leadership.

Why was Britain “lost” according to Margaret Thatcher, and what were her childhood values that could help put the nation back on course? I will discuss all that next time.

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