EVERYONE tells stories. It’s one of the ways we connect with our friends and families. It’s how we impress people when we apply for jobs, or sell business products to potential customers. Telling stories is also what we do on Facebook and Twitter, and is even part of how we go about finding a partner.
Leaders tell stories too. They just do it better and more professionally than the rest of us. A leader has to possess many different skills. But, without the ability to tell stories, he or she would have no followers and would cease to lead anyone.
In my new book, Lessons From The Top, I explore the power of such stories. The book is based largely on leaders I have met, and examines the changes which have taken place in the kinds of stories leaders now feel they must tell in order to impress us in the twenty-first century.
Why, for example, did Barack Obama write in his autobiography that he had used illegal drugs? Why, in the last British election in 2010, did David Cameron answer media questions about his relationship with his wife and family? And can you imagine leaders from the past being open to discussing what were once considered private matters? Would Winston Churchill admit that he drank too much? Would Margaret Thatcher discuss her personal life? Why have things changed for leaders, and the rest of us, in the past 30 or so years?
Sometimes a leader’s storytelling can be summed up in a phrase. Thatcher was “the grocer’s daughter from Grantham” — five words reminding us that, unlike previous Conservative leaders, she was not especially posh, did not go to Eton and was a woman. When the Russians called her the Iron Lady, she was blessed with a story which appeared to fit her character perfectly in just two words.
Bill Clinton, when I first met him, described himself as “the boy from Hope,” the small town in Arkansas where he grew up. Actually, much of his childhood was spent in Hot Springs, a gambling town. But that did not make for such a snappy story. He later called himself “the Comeback Kid” — and he had quite a lot to come back from.
Every leader that I have met or studied – including business leaders like Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs, as well as political and cultural leaders like Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga – tells three key stories: “Who am I?” as a person, “who are we?” as a group, a political party, a nation, or a business, and finally “what is our common purpose?” In other words: “Where will my leadership take us?”
If you are applying for a new job or a promotion, trying for a university place or obtaining a loan from your bank, the kinds of stories you tell about yourself, your business and your skills, will fall more or less into these three categories. And learning by example is one reason why studying how the most successful leaders use their own stories can be so instructive.
I’ve looked at the storytelling techniques of leaders ranging from Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Obama to President Zardari of Pakistan and Deng Xiao Ping of China. I’ve also considered the most unlikely leaders — terrorists, from the IRA to Osama bin Laden, plus Hollywood stars and other cultural leaders, royal families, and even those who told a story in Singapore in 2005 to secure the 2012 Olympic Games for London. Those behind the Olympic bid admitted to me that London was not the most obvious candidate. But by carefully crafting the right story, they were able to persuade the International Olympic Committee to give London the Games.
Even if many of us do not aspire to a position of leadership, we are all followers. We may follow an ideal, a philosophy or religion, a football team, a rock star, a political party, a brand of computer, or a fashion trend.
But beware. The stories leaders tell us are designed to make them look good. Such stories may be in the leader’s best interests but they may not necessarily be in ours. We need to understand, interpret and, at times, debunk the stories leaders tell us and the ways they often mislead us for their own benefit.
Gavin Esler is a television and radio broadcaster, and presents BBC2’s Newsnight. Lessons From The Top is published by Profile Books. You can follow Gavin on Twitter: @gavinesler