Saturday, May 17, 2008

Obama: Storyteller and Dream Catcher, a Study

Obama: Storyteller and Dream Catcher
draft 7.0 May 17 © Paschal Baute, 2008 (spell check 4/21)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Becoming a storyteller, listening, owning your own story, heart connections, weaving others’ stories into your own; synthesizing hopes and dreams for a buy-in so that the story becomes the lisjeners’ own.

The sudden rise in public endorsement of the candidacy of Barack Obama is nothing short of phenomenal. Beginning only 15 months ago, the 46 year old U.S. Senator for only four years, a skinny guy with a funny face and funny name, has overtaken the well financed Democratic front runner in fund-raising, votes and delegates. He is now poised to capture the nomination of his party to run against the Republican nominee for the office of President. We offer that one of the main reason for he popularity and enthusiasm is his storytelling skill and art.

It is also striking that at the very time storytelling is experiencing a renaissance among many disciplines, with Financial Times rating Steve Denning’s The Secret Language of Leadership (Storytelling) as one of the best business books of 2007, while Annette Simmons Whoever Tells the Best Story wins,(how to own and tell one’s own story) , that this young politician steps up to the plate to illustrate the models that experienced storytellers commend.

This is not an endorsement of Obama’s politics nor of his candidacy for the highest office in the land. Political issues are not addressed. However, some dangers of charismatic leadership combined with masterful storytelling are noted.

So we raise these questions. 1 Are there several sources of Obama’s storytelling skills? 2 What are his skills? 3 How important is listening to his skill and his own story? 4 How well does he express experts in leadership via storytelling recommendations? 5 Beyond storytelling, Whence the skill in synthesizing and weaving narratives into his own? 6 Does his storytelling skills resemble that of other politicians? ? 7 Is this a model for other leadership, even business leadership? 8 Shamanic dream catchers and cautions.


Obama’s unusual background, child of a white Kansan mother and a black Kenyan father, who met in Hawaii was a rich story source. His mother and “Gramps” dealt with his father leaving when Obama was two years old with storytelling and myth-making, while the young Obama sorted out the differing versions. Significantly, he called his autobiography “Dreams of My Father.” On almost every page one can find the phrase “I can imagine...”

A large imagination is an asset for storytelling. As a storytelling friend said to me, “Imagination is the source of storytelling. Great imagination is the source of great storytelling.”

Obama was exposed to different cultures: Hawaii, Indonesia, New York, Harvard, and Chicago. His first job after college was as a community organizer in the south side of Chicago. He listened to people in the projects and learned to so “wrap” their narratives to inspire motivation to change.

Owning one’s own story is a story-catching and story making skill. Obama had the opportunity to do this not only in his work and politicks up to ten years ago, but also in writing his autobiography Dreams of my Father.

It is clear that storytelling and myth-making was prominent of Obama’s early life since his father returned to Africa when he was two years old and never returned. His grandparents and mother told many stories about his father, narrated in Dreams of My Father.

post graduate reference. Also from B an Z. Better from his own bio. Community organizer first?
When Obama returned to Chicago, he turned down big-money firms to take a job with a small civil rights practice, filing housing discrimination suits on behalf of low-income residents and teaching constitutional law on the side. He had thought he might enter politics since before he left for law school, and eventually he did, winning a seat in the state Senate at the age of thirty-seven.


Lt us ask “What is it?” Let me suggest it is four fold: First he has a unique background and educational diversity that lends itself to story; Second, hr listens well to how others live their lives, their hopes and dreams. Thirdly , he taps where they feel stuck in common with others, and many others, Thirdly, he can weave others stories with his own masterfully; Fourth, he raises our sights to the possibilities of something better. He evokes snot only where we have been as a people but where we summoned to be.

Stephen Denning describes Obama’s skill at the recent Jackson _ Jefferson dinner in Richmond, Virginia. (February 9, 2008):

[Obama] began with the story of who he is,[italics added] telling the story of the disadvantages he faced as a presidential candidate . . . This story seamlessly merged into a story of who we are: we are a people who are tired of the divisive politics of the past. This story then slid into the story of who we are going to be: we are a people who are going to write a new chapter in the history of American politics and get beyond partisan politics with a different kind of president, i.e. Obama. This was interwoven with the story of who we have been: we are the party of Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, and JFK—a party that has successfully tackled great challenges, proud inheritors of a grand tradition. He then went back and retold similar stories in the context of the economy, health care, education, global warming, foreign policy and then the Iraq war. In each case, the story of who he is flowed seamlessly into the story of who are and the problems we face, and then on to the story of who we are going to be: we have done this before: we can do it again. ( )

Denning also observes that Obama’s narrative style has four distinct characteristics. The story of “who I am” merges seamlessly with “who we are” then sliding into “who we are going to be,” strongly implying that this is not about me, It is about us.

Obama’s stories are tightly aligned with his own conduct, Denning proposes. He tells the story he is still living. His delivery, authentic and thoughtful leaves no doubt that he means what he says.

Then he does something else. He explicitly acknowledges the objections to his candidacy, inexperience, pretty words, then uses simple phrases to counter these attacks, to demonstrate they are unfounded. For example. “Experience in Washington is a problem, not a solution.”

But most important, says Denning, is that his version of the story of who we going to be cannot be realized by the other candidates. Only his campaign, in his narrative, has this imagination and this future. The other candidates are “the past,” We are “the future.”


Obama grew up in a storytelling, myth-making home while living and learning the perspectives of several cultures: the cultural diversity in Hawaii, then in Indonesia, then returning to Hawaii to cope with being one of the four Black students in an International college prep school. After college and graduate school, first organizing people from the focus groups, he listened to their stories in order to motivate them to change their situations. Certainly the time he took to write his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, helped him listen more intently and understand his own story better. Annette Simmons, (Who Tells the Best Story Wins, 2007) insists that the best way to connect with the stories of others is to learn one’s own story well.

"We were doing a focus group in suburban Chicago, and this woman, seventy years old, looks seventy-five, hears Obama's life story, and she clasps her hand to her chest and says, 'Be still, my heart.' Be still, my heart — I've been doing this for a quarter century and I've never seen that." The most remarkable thing, for Harstad, was that the woman hadn't even seen the videos he had brought along of Obama speaking, had no idea what the young politician looked like. "All we'd done," he says, "is tell them the Story." From that moment on, the Story became Obama's calling card, his political rationale and his basic sale. Every American politician has this wrangle he has to pull off, reshaping his life story to fit into Abe Lincoln's log cabin.

(“ Barack Obama and the case for charisma,” Christian Science Monitor, Warren Bennis and Andy Selleke, February 28, 2008)

I suggest that when one accepts the uniqueness and giftedness of one’s own story, having framed personal setbacks as stepping stones, challenges and blessings, then one is more truly able to hear both the unique diversity and the common themes of others’ stories. One is more able to be fully present without assumptions and preoccupations.

True listening, says Simmons, is a way of being present to others where they are, even in their discomfort and alienation that has the risk of disconfirming our own views. This kind of listening is not easy, in fact, it is dangerous. Because it may challenge our own comfort frames. I get far more than I give in the previous program, because the stretching to embrace the challenge repeat addictive offenders face also stretches me. Regularly

“People crave confirmation of a self-image that makes them feel important, accepted, desirable and good. Ultimately all humans want the attention of other humans in a way that makes us feel important, desirable, powerful and alive. “(Simmons, p. 4)

In his campaigning travels across America, Obama collects personal anecdotes that serve to illustrate his ideas and then weaves them into his own personal narrative of “the Audacity of Hope.” As John McCormick notes, these narratives bring his speeches alive and serve to remind voters that he remains connected to their own hardships. (“The Storyteller,” Chicago Tribune, March 25, 2008). McCormick is talking here about the heart connection and buy in just described.


Creating desire Step number two for Steve Denning (The Secret Language of Leadership0 is “Eliciting Desire for a Different Future.” Leaders need to reach the heart as well as the mind and the heart actually comes first. “The audience has to want to change. To be effective, the leader needs to establish an emotional connection and stimulate desire for a different future.” Demming says that without the emotional connection, nothing happens and stimulating desire is the key. The insight here is that if the listener is going to change, they must own (buy in) the change idea. That is, they have to discover it for themselves (P. 33, 34) This, I believe is part of the secret power of Jesus’ parables, and also what Obama has learned to do. He has become masterful in obtaining a buy in to his ideas of changed to a different America.


What is remarkable to me is his ability to speak to the human heart. Look, he says, we share a common humanity with common dreams. When we get beyond our differences, we can begin to build a different and better future, by working together. Obama persuades his listeners that they are part of a bigger cause, something that makes us all better.

Obviously his experience as a community organizer taught him valuable life lessons. .In retrospect, Obama the law graduate in South Chicago may have had the best post graduate training possible as a community organizer. He listened to the problems of the people and then was able...

One of his skills in collecting stories and “catching dreams” is his ability to synthesize information in order to help connect these themes with his own story. Lawrence Tribe, the renowned constitutional scholar, considers Obama as one of the two best students he ever had at Harvard in his very powerful ability to synthesize diverse sources of information (quoted in “Destiny’s Child,” by Ben Wallace Wells, Rolling Stones, February 22, 2007)


In this ability, John Gapper (Financial Times. “Obama Still Has Some Lessons for Business, January 9, 2008 ), suggests that Obama is a role model fo business leaders who must themselves convince shareholders, managers and employees that their companies can an should change. Gapper says that even with voters disposed to be suspicious of politicians rhetoric, Obama showed in white Iowa that “voters can be rallied by a leader who makes them feel they are part of noble cause that is ]bigger than any individual.” Gapper reminds us that even in business, most people are eager to do something more than earn money and fill in time at work.

John Gapper’s excellent article in the Financial Times talks of the lessons that Barack Obama can teach business leaders.

Among these is that storytelling is crucial to business. “Many CEOs stand or fall by their ability to frame a story” says Gapper, “not only for investors or analysts about how they are turning a business around but for employees to engage them in making it happen”.

Clearly Senator Obama is a great storyteller, engaging the electorate in a compelling vision of a new America, and a noble cause that is bigger than any individual. In business too, as John Gapper says, most people are eager to do something more than earn money and fill in time at work. We believe that by sharing a compelling vision and engaging people in it, discretionary effort will be unleashed and sparkling performance will result. This is what makes good companies great. Paul Honeywell, web. 10 Jan 08

Already, his storytelling skills are recognized as a model for CEOs to move employees and organizations. In Financial Times, John Gapper states: “[For]... business leaders who must themselves convince shareholders, managers and employees that their companies can and should change. Mr Obama, of all the presidential candidates, is the one from whom chief executives can draw the clearest lessons about leadership.” Gapper praises Obama’s personal qualities aside from speaking skills as role models for leaders.


Obama’s knack for storytelling resemble that of the nation’s best politician in several ways. He has already been compared to Ronald Reagan. His art has strong similarities to Ronald Reagan's, according to a biographer of the 40th president. In many ways, Obama is the Great Communicator in Training.

And like Reagan, whose embellishments were well documented, Obama sometimes blurs the line slightly between fact and fiction (see sidebar). As any good storyteller knows, compressing all the details, while building drama, tension or emotion, is what hooks the listener or reader.

Like Reagan also, Obama practices and shapes his anecdotes. Reagan was known to practice a story as soon as he heard it. It takes considerable practice to so shape one’s own story to know how to relate it to the audience at hand.

In his first and unsuccessful run for public office, Illinois state incumbent, Obama did not use story. He assumed that his resume and background were sufficient. The next time he ran for office it was different. He had practiced and learned ways to tell stories and that of his own.

7 C0NCLUDNG REMARKS. Dream catcher.

Barack Obama is a story catcher and story weaver who listens well then connects these with his own story, inviting people to dare hope and dream with him. A skinny guy with a funny name, biracial background and funny face has millions believing in his candidacy for the highest office in this country. Talk about the power of story!

His storytelling has another aspect. Native American tradition held the dreamcatcher as a sacred object with healing effects. Here is one story.

"If you believe in the great spirit, the web will catch your good ideas -- and the bad ones will go through the hole." The Lakota elder passed on his vision to his people and now the Sioux Indians use the dream catcher as the web of their life. It is hung above their beds or in their home to sift their dreams and visions.

The good in their dreams are captured in the web of life and carried with them...but the evil in their dreams escapes through the hole in the center of the web and are no longer a part of them. They believe that the dream catcher holds the destiny of their future.(from The Gathering Place and the Navajo Co-op store

The role of the ancient shaman was also to be a”dram-catcher,” through story and ritual help others access a greater power. Power animals were one source. But essentially the shaman called on the imagination and the belief system to inspire and heal. Just as a placebo has power to heal, so does the shamanic storyteller use dreams and beliefs to change human systems.

Barack Obama is not only a storyteller but, we suggest, a “Dream - Catcher of the American Spirit, offering a different vision, “the audacity of hope” to realize a greater American destiny. This inspiration has caught the minds and hearts of millions of Americans. He invites us to participate in making this happen, to believe: “Yes, we can!” Whether or not he has the skills to so lead remains to be seen. He faces daunting challenges, not only in the race this fall, but more so, if he is elected.


Comment and feedback invited.
Paschal Baute
tel (859( 293 - 5302