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Storytelling: A leader's greatest weapon

George Burns famously said, “Too bad the only people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.”

He was referring to the ability of inveterate talkers to give us the benefit of their wisdom while holding us captive. The connection being that the winners in any election are invariably the most convincing storytellers.

In this thought he’s not alone.Howard Gardner, the eminent psychologist, offered an intriguing view in Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, where he dissected and analysed the lives of 11 political, business and religious leaders – such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Pope John XXIII and Margaret Thatcher – and identified one of the hitherto neglected components of leadership: the ability of effective leaders to achieve and exercise power through the stories they tell.

Gardner’s view is that leaders need to not only be good storytellers but also live out those stories in their lives, and in a way that’s obvious to the people they want to influence.Leaders who don’t practice what they preach are hypocrites, and hypocrisy kills the effectiveness of their stories.

That’s particularly true when we live in a cynical age where disillusion with our leaders is prevalent and their flaws and foibles are scrutinised constantly and relentlessly by ubiquitous media sources.

References to storytelling have a common theme – the deep human need for having stories told, hard-wired into us from the time of our cave-dwelling ancestors. Stories help us make sense of a confusing and paradoxical world.

Through storytelling, politicians can convince us they’re worth following. The best definition of a leader is “someone who has followers”, and a corollary is the assumption they know where they’re going and it’s somewhere their followers want to go too.

When a leader tells stories to experts, the stories can be quite sophisticated, but when the leader is dealing with a diverse, heterogeneous group, the story must be basic enough to be understood by untutored minds.

Only around two percent of the voting public ever takes the time to study, let alone understand, the issues at any given election. Some can be persuaded to change their minds, but 90 percent of us vote the way we do out of entrenched habit, peer group alignment or, more venally, out of a perception of WIFM – “What’s In It For Me”.

Research in the US indicates our perception of a story is strongly influenced by the storyteller. A listener is much more likely to accept something a leader says if they’re aligned with them already, than if the same thing were said by someone from an opposing camp.

Moreover, our minds aren’t easily changed. In a series of studies the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. Often it was the reverse – they became even more strongly set in their beliefs. We frequently base our opinions on belief rather than fact, and belief trumps truth.

It’s also crucial that political parties clearly articulate that they stand for something. Voters need a flag to follow. All too often, opposition parties take the word “opposition” too literally and expend their efforts demonstrating what they are opposed to rather than in favour of.

Major political shifts are hung on the principle of fairness. It’s not so much absolute hardship that drives people, as relative hardship – not a sense of “How am I doing?” but “How am I doing compared to everyone else?”

It’s widely accepted that French Revolution wasn’t so much triggered by the poverty of the peasants and working class, but by their revulsion at the wretched excesses of the aristocracy. In other words, the extent to which things weren’t so much bad as they were unfair.

There are striking parallels to the economic situation today. The GFC has direct roots in greed and in the obscene rewards lavished on money traders, the “Thieves of Wall Street” (or Queen Street, or any other financial high street in the world) who add cost but little value to an economy.

No matter how much the government might argue that the worst is over and recovery is in full swing, there is a narrative emerging that nothing fundamental has changed and we are still far from remedying economic inequities.

I must remind my hairdresser of that so he can help spread the word.

Mike Hutcheson is a former Saatchi & Saatchi grand fromage, a director of Tangible Media, and a storyteller from way back.