If one studies the great leaders of history, one often observes a synergistic relationship between leader and story. As we have seen before on this blog, people of influence express themselves and inspire others with their personal stories of identity. These stories are in fact constructions; we build our self-image based on the stories we come to believe and tell about ourselves.
In most instances, a leader’s stories begin small, and leader and story grow together. As individuals begin to feel that they can influence their worlds, they tend to craft personal stories of possibility, stories that can push them in new directions, and to greater heights. During my doctoral study, I found striking examples of this phenomenon in the life stories of such luminaries as Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.
As we saw briefly last time, before the Montgomery Boycott of December 1955, Dr King did not have a burning desire to lead. The mantle of leadership was thrust upon him when he was chosen as spokesperson for the protest operation. Subsequently, he crafted a story for himself and the civil rights movement—a tale of nonviolence, inclusion, and the dream of an America with better race relations. As he addressed larger and larger audiences over time, the story grew, and the man grew with the story.
As was the case with Martin Luther King, it is not surprising that many people grow along with the stories they come to believe about themselves. This is simply because story, human identity and behavior are intimately intertwined. In other words, if stories are the way human beings define themselves, then crafting and believing larger stories of possibility will amplify the teller’s sense of self.
A number of diverse voices have spoken of the direct link between story and identity. In Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence, sociolinguist Charlotte Linde writes that we all create our sense of a coherent self through the medium of stories, since human beings are defined principally by the stories they tell themselves. According to science fiction writer Orson Scott Card: “Our very identity is a collection of stories we have come to believe about ourselves.” In A Whole new mind, Daniel Pink follows a similar line of thought, stating simply: “We are our stories…That has always been true.”
We create our sense of what matters—or what we believe, or how we should act—by referring consciously or unconsciously to the stories of identity we tell and believe. According to the esteemed moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, author of After Virtue, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what stories do I find myself a part?’”
The more we tell our stories of identity, the more our sense of self evolves. In the best cases, our stories of possibility become self-fulfilling. Indeed, the stories leaders tell are frequently dreams that they seek to grow into, notions of self that they would like to attain. For example, as Martin Luther King began defining and telling his stories of inclusion and nonviolence in Montgomery in 1955, it was very much an evolving story of the type of movement he sought to construct.
Using his personal stories of identity, Dr King conceived and framed a movement that was largely in his own image. With his audiences and in private, he referenced the years of academic and theological training, where he studied all the world’s religions, as his fundamental reason for advocating inclusion. As such, his novel protest strategy combined the mobilization of black churches with solicitations for white support.
When some radical voices called for violent uprisings in Montgomery, Dr King spoke of his deep admiration for Mohandas Gandhi’s precepts of nonviolence. Combining inclusion and nonviolence would in the end allow him to keep much of mainstream America, both black and white, on his side.
As he was called upon to speak to increasingly larger audiences, and as he told the personal stories that justified his positions on inclusion and nonviolence, King’s conviction and self-confidence grew steadily. The stories of identity he told continued to shape him; along the way, his voice would become increasingly sanguine, and far more powerful.
Image: Flickr-user Pedro Ribeiro Simões