Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Is Obama's Storytelling a New Model for Business Leadership??

Obama’s Leadership Style:
Storyteller or Dream Catcher, or both?
Alternative title: Is Obama’s Storytelling
a New Model for Business Leadership?

Draft 9.2 Jan 13 09 © Paschal Baute, 2009, spell ck 1/12

President Barack Obama has taken the oath of office as President of the United states after a remarkable campaign. Less than two years ago, at least one half of the population had not heard of him. Now, almost incredibly, we have a young Black President leading us and hopefully, also the world. Here is offered the conjecture that his storytelling skill and art are a significant reason for his advancement and success.

It is worth noting that storytelling as a leadership skill is experiencing a renaissance in human resource management., The Financial Times rated Steve Denning’s The Secret Language of Leadership (Storytelling) as one of the best business books of 2007. Annette Simmons Whoever Tells the Best Story wins explains how owning one’s own story leads to endorsement and empowerment.

We raise these questions. 1. What are Obama’s skills? 2, What are the sources of Obama’s storytelling skills? 3 How important is listening to his skill and his own story? 4. Is this a new emerging model of leadership? 5 What are the characteristics of this leadership style? 6 Is he a storyteller or dream catcher? Cautions noted.


Let me suggest Obama’s skills are five fold: First, he has a unique background and educational diversity that lends itself to story; Secondly, Obama listens well to how others live their lives, their hopes and dreams. Thirdly , Obama intuits the c0ommon ground where people feel stuck; Fourthly, he weaves others stories with his own masterfully; and Fifthly, he raises our sights to the possibilities of something better. He evokes not only where we have been as a people but where we are summoned to be.

The seamlessness of this flow of skills marks Obama’s success. Stephen Denning describes Obama’s skill at the recent Jackson - Jefferson dinner in Richmond, Virginia. (February 9, 2008)/ Denning’s words are difference, but I suggest he says the same:

[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 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 him. It is about us.

Obama’s stories are tightly aligned with his own conduct, Denning proposes. He tells the story he is still actively walking. “My candidacy is improbable.” His delivery is authentic and thoughtful leaving no doubt that he means what he says. When asked a question, his first words are often haltering as he searches for the right way to say what he has in mind. The result is believable narrative.

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 are going to be cannot be realized by the other candidates. Only his campaign, in his narrative, has this imagination and “our” future. The other candidates are “the past,” We are “the future.”

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...”

An active 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 as 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 politics up to ten years ago, but also in writing his autobiography Dreams of my Father.

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

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.


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. . . 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.

“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 in his book, The Secret Language of Leadership, 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 listeners are 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. Obama has become masterful in obtaining a buy in to his ideas of changing to a different America. His margin of victory in November was the largest in presidential elections in 37 years


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 Obama valuable life lessons. In retrospect, Obama the Harvard law graduate going to work in South Chicago may have chosen the best post graduate training for future political leadership even at the highest level.

One of his skills in collecting stories and “catching dreams” seems to be 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)

To 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, should and must 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 a 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 according to 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”.

With the majority he achieved in November, Obama engaging the electorate in ways we have seldom seen. He summoned us to 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 praised Obama’s personal qualities aside from speaking skills as role models for leaders.

6. Obama as a Dream Catcher.

Barack Obama is a story catcher and story weaver who connects his own story with the aspirations of others. In Springfield, Illinois, in declaring his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, he said:

“Running for the presidency is a profound decision. I certainly didn't expect to find myself in this position a year ago. I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics. We can build a hopeful America...We have to come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans. (-Associated Press)

In his Democratic nomination acceptance speech in Minneapolis, he said:

“Because of you I can stand here and say I will be the Democratic candidate for the President of the United States of America. I have unlimited confidence in the American people... It is time for us to change America. This is our moment to reclaim the American dream.” (convention speech) ”

In his Chicago speech accepting the voters election of him as President Elect, he said:

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer...But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to - it belongs to you....I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements...And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand...

. ... This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”


Rob Kall, Executive Producer of Huffington Post, a progressive web site and promoter of three national conferences on story and storytelling, suggests one reason that Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination is that she neve3r shared her heart’s story. Even when given the chance, for instance, with the February 21 Democratic debate question, "Describe the moment in your life when you were tested the most?” Instead of using the question to show her inner strength, her character under fire, she told a story about her having been honored at a ceremony. She missed a critical opportunity to tell something compelling about her own story.

There were numerous other factors in the general election. Most significant was the financial collapse in mid-September and the differing responses of McCain and Obama. In the end, Obama’s own story seemed more compelling to more Americans than even that also compelling story of the genuine war Hero, McCain.

Obama was no paragon in choosing and telling stories from the heart, but those he did share were designed to be archetypical of the American experience, overcoming odds, believing in the American dream and striving to overcome limitations of background, birth and even color. What he seemed masterful at was identifying his own story with that of the American people. All things are possible. Yes we can.

Obama is certainly an eloquent and charismatic dream catcher. Charismatic talent itself does not lead to human progress, as we know from the Reverent Jim Jones of Jonestown, Adolf Hitler and other charismatic leaders. We await, with anticipation, hope and prayer that our new President is able to lead this country through more turmoil and danger than we have seen in a long time. END


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