“The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.” This is Drew Westen a psychology professor at Emory University, writing in the Sunday, August 7, 2011 issue of TheNew York Times: “What Happened to Obama?” Westen strongly believes that one reason President Obama has apparently lost the initiative in the current political debate over the economy is his failure to tell a compelling story to the American people: making sense of the events that brought our economy down, clearly assigning blame for the events, expressing his understanding of our fear and anxiety, and pledging to restore order and security.
Now, you don’t have to agree with Westen that the President has lost the initiative in the current debate to recognize that story telling is one of the most important tools that a US President can use to educate, inspire, and foster support and commitment among followers. We have some stunning examples of effective story telling at the national level. There’s Abraham Lincoln re-interpreting the meaning of the Civil War at Gettysburg in 1863, directly tying that terrible war to the Declaration of Independence’s promise of human equality rather than relying solely on the imperative of preserving the national Union. In his eloquent words, the fundamental purpose of the war was “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” And millions of Americans in the Great Depression were inspired and heartened by Franklin Roosevelt’s call to resist the power of fear, telling his audience in Washington and all over the country on March 4, 1933 that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
What you should keep in mind is that story telling can be a powerful leadership tool in any setting, not just on the grand scale of our nation as a whole, but also in public and nonprofit organizations such as social service agencies, public transportation authorities, and school districts. Over the years, I’ve seen nonprofit and public CEOs inspire and rally support by telling stories about the importance of high-quality, friendly customer service, the right and ability of all students to learn, and the obligation to make prudent use of scarce financial resources. What stories do you need to tell as a leader in your organization? What stories have you heard that have infused your work with greater meaning?