Storytellers rule OK

What did Thatcher, Einstein and Stalin have in common? They all told a good yarn, with themselves as the hero, says a new book on leadership. Peter Popham explains
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The Independent Online
Y itzhak Rabin was assassinated and promptly sainted. The formerly saintly Lech Walesa was humiliated at the polls. The petty shoguns of Yugoslavia chewed the bitter dust of peace thanks to a rare act of decisive world leadership from the Americans. And Princess Diana floated the notion of becoming "the queen of people's hearts" in a direct challenge to the monarchy and the Establishment.

It has been a fascinating month for students of leaders and leadership. We feel that we are suffering a shortfall compared with earlier generations. Why do have we so little of it these days when in the 1930s and Forties there seemed to be so much of it? How can we get more? How can one man (Rabin, say) have it in abundance, while our own leaders in this country, actual and aspiring, resound as hollowly as the idols of Baal?

The obvious answer is that it is to do with power, with policies, with popular support, perhaps with something slippery called charisma. But none of these seem to get to the root of it: all seem to beg the crucial question - what does it take to be a great leader?

Now, in a book entitled Leading Minds, to be published by HarperCollins in January, a leading (appropriately) American psychologist, Howard Gardner, presents what he believes to be the bottom line. Successful leaders, Gardner argues, are captivating storytellers. Followers are captivated listeners. What we, as the members of a nation, a racial group, an army, church or industrial corporation share is what Gardner calls "the unschooled mind", the mind of the five-year-old child, convinced that the world divides clearly into heroes and villains. What sways us most is a new story, better than the ones we have heard before, which tells us afresh who we are, where we are going, and why.

But the leader must be more than a storyteller, surrounded by five-year- olds with eyes like saucers. If we are not merely to be enthralled by the story but also to go out and act on it - if only to cast a vote - we must see the narrator equally as hero, as the embodiment of the story he or she is telling. It was not enough (to take Gardner's favourite example) for Margaret Thatcher to declare that Britain had lost its way due to socialism, and that with courage, conviction and correct accounting it could rise again to greatness; Thatcher herself had to embody the story in her own life and behaviour, in her courage, conviction and correct accounting, in her rise from modest beginnings to greatness. She had to be believed.

At the heart of Gardner's thesis is a simple but unfamiliar idea, which forms the epigraph to one of the chapters: "All leadership takes place through the communication of ideas to the minds of others." Gardner is heir to the tradition of cognitive psychology, which concerns itself not with psychoanalysis or behaviourism, but with studying the ways in which people express knowledge, and the effect these expressions have on others. Telling stories is one way - the key way, Gardner believes - of expressing knowledge that will affect the feelings, thought and behaviour of those who hear the story.

This transaction between narrator and listener, Gardner argues, is common to all spheres of human activity. All successful leaders - political, military, religious, academic, industrial - are successful to the extent that they tell, and embody, persuasive stories about where the institutions they lead should be going and how they will get there.

Armed with this idea of leadership Gardner is able to bring together leaders from very different fields, such disparate figures as Churchill, Einstein, the anthropologist Margaret Mead and Pope John XXIII. Yet, according to Gardner, when viewed through the lens of the cognitive psychologist, they are all doing the same thing: all are telling, and embodying, stories.

The chief difference between such diverse figures is the level at which the stories have to be pitched to command their audience. J Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, one of Gardner's examples, was the brilliant leader of the team of scientists responsible for building the atomic bomb: the sophistication of his constituency, and the fact that they already held him in high regard as a scientist, meant that he was able to address them as one adult to another. The story he told his team was that as scientists they could make a decisive difference to the war effort and that they had to bury their differences in pursuit of that end. After the war, Oppenheimer extended his influence to a wider audience, but was brought down in the McCarthy witch-hunts. His story about the pivotal role of science in society proved too complex to touch the minds of the mass of the population.

By contrast, this century's charismatic dictators have told and embodied stories that enthrall the unschooled mind for which the world is a stark and simple place. Their immense power stems directly from the courage with which they embody their simple stories. Gardner quotes the example of a Russian woman all of whose family perished in the Second World War. "Stalin was all that she had left," he says. "Like all her generation, she knew in her bones ... that without Stalin and his system they would never have survived the German attack. Stalin personified the Great Patriotic War."

There is nothing like war to put a leader's sincerity to the test, and this applies equally to the leaders of democracies. This explains why Churchill and Thatcher thrived on adversity, and why Rabin's "soldier's death" has transformed his status within Israel.

Among the most intriguing of the leaders Gardner examines are those who are able to operate on different planes at the same time: who can fire up their simple-minded mass support with garish visions of blood and glory, while maintaining such a thorough grasp of the political issues that they are equally able to enthrall and manipulate their Sir Humphreys.

As Gardner says of Thatcher, "For those who did not wish to probe too deeply, it was sufficient simply to praise Britain and its glorious past ... But Thatcher and her colleagues were prepared to provide further texture ... Her story could be embraced at different levels of sophistication." Thatcher combined the vehemence and simplicity of the populist with the intellectual sophistication of a quite different type of leader. "With a skill seldom encountered in the political realm," Gardner says, "Thatcher was able to separate her expertise from her political instincts, invoking each when needed, but seldom confusing them with each other."

Her limitation, as if we needed to be told, stemmed from her one-of-us, five-year-old child mentality that made her so convincing a populist, but in the long run so profoundly divisive.

Gardner's highest praise is reserved for leaders whose story is simple and gripping enough to conquer the "unschooled minds" of their audience, but who do not leave it at that; whose diligent effort through long years is to drag their entire population up through mental primary school; to make them receptive to a story which does justice to the complexity of the world, to the necessity of cohabiting with one's enemies. Gardner's examples of this rarest of types are Gandhi, who taught his people to resist colonial rule non-violently and Jean Monnet, architect of France's alliance with Germany which paved the way for the Common Market.

To descend from the world of these men to our present state is like coming down from an exhilarating mountain top to a stagnant hollow. Gripping stories seem in short supply in a country where the most challenging tasks, we are told, are cutting social security spending and reducing income tax.

But perhaps it is in the nature of the best stories that they appear out of nowhere, without warning. "When the leader arrives, people are full of panic, uncertain what to do and defeatist about the future," Gardner quotes William Rees-Mogg. "When the authentic leader has spoken, they have been given back their courage."

But to what effect, in our present plight, should the leader speak? What story do we need to hear? Gardner says that, while most "ordinary" leaders - such as John Major - perform a "maintenance" function, extraordinary leaders "seek to transform the sense of identity of the population." The root of our sense of identity, not seriously questioned in more than three centuries, is that we are the subjects of a monarch: Diana Spencer for President, anyone?