When leaders set out to conquer the word

From Gandhi to Thatcher, great leaders have the ability to tell a convi ncing story, argues Howard Gardner
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In Two Words, a wonderfully evocative short story, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende relates the tale of Belisa Crepusculario, a beautiful young woman from a desperately poor background who made a living selling words. She sold memorised verses fo r fivecentavos, wrote love letters for nine centavos and, for 12 centavos, invented insults that could be directed toward mortal enemies.

Belisa Crepusculario's life changes dramatically when she is seized by the Colonel. After his men almost kill her, the Colonel explains the reasons for this wanton treatment. "I want to be President," he declares. "To do that I have to talk like a candidate. Can you sell me the words for a speech?" Belisa agrees to create the requested tapestry of words. The illiterate Colonel memorises and delivers the speech; the audience is "dazzled by the clarity of the Colonel's proposals and the poetic lucidity ofhis arguments"; he wins the election; and, since this is a love story, the two protagonists live happily ever after.

Art anticipates life and, sometimes, even social science. From my perspective as a psychologist, Isabel Allende has touched on the most essential feature of effective leadership: the capacity of a leader to create a story that affects the thoughts, feelings, and/or actions of other individuals. The Colonel may well have good ideas and be an appealing personality but unless he can somehow capture the ideas in a coherent narrative, that makes sense to people and that spurs them to think and to act differe ntly, his leadership cannot bring about significant change. Without the power that persuades people to behave in a certain way, he is at most a mere manager.

Leadership has been investigated by many scholars, of course, and their conclusions can be presented in alliterative terms. Various scholars have focused on the importance of power (leadership is about the attainment and deployment of power); policy (leadership features the pursuit and implementation of a certain set of policies); the role of the public (leadership must generate a rapport with audience); and personality (leaders have the need to dominate, often to compensate for felt personal deficienci es).

Each of these perspectives has validity but they all neglect a crucial component: leadership occurs in the human mind - it is essentially a cognitive phenomenon. Leaders either devise their own stories or use stories that already exist in the culture, developing or revising them in some way. If leaders are to be effective, they must embody the story in their own lives. Leaders tell stories on many topics but their most essential story is one that (re)defines the identity of the audience members.

If a leader simply had to enunciate a story to an empty mind, he or she would have an easy assignment. In fact, however, all normal human beings (leaders no less than followers) have minds that are fully stocked with stories, drawn from history, the culture, their immediate family environment. Any new story, indeed any old story, must compete with the stories (and counter-stories) that are already well-entrenched. It is a singular achievement when leaders succeed in conveying a new story, in having it u nderstood as such, and in thereby redirecting the thoughts and behaviour of their audiences.

Recent British and American history provide vivid examples of leaders who were effective story-tellers. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan told approximately the same stories, with approximately equal success. According to Thatcher's narrative of identity, Britain, a once proud and grand nation, had lost its way. Socialism, the power of the unions, runaway inflation, and timidity in foreign affairs were all symptoms of a philosophy that was irremediably wrong.

Thatcher called for the re-embracing of an older story, "our story", the story of a great people, living in a market economy, where hard work and achievement were rewarded, where the government stopped interfering in people's lives, and where, in times of crisis (like the Falklands war), bold steps were taken. Reagan reflected the same themes, featuring many of the same heroes and villains, and when no Falklands war presented itself, he manufactured Grenada.

Even more, though, recent history provides ample evidence of what happens when leaders do not have a good story that they can convey effectively. George Bush and John Major are widely seen as less credible versions of their charismatic predecessors. BillClinton, himself a good story-teller, has far too many stories to tell, and often they are not consistent with one another. Moreover, unlike Thatcher and Reagan, he appears not to embody the stories in his own life. When a new, effective story-teller, like the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, appears on the scene, and refurbishes an old moralistically-tinged story, he readily prevails over his political opponent.

Interestingly, Gingrich appears in many ways not to embody the stories that he tells. For example, he praises family life but comes from a broken home and had an ugly divorce. He calls for term limits and smaller staffs but does not apply these strictures to his own nascent empire. Whether he will soon be seen as a hypocrite, or whether he will be forgiven this lack of embodiment, remains to be seen.

One problem for today's leaders is that, not least because of the ending of the Cold War, the unexpected resurgence of nationalism and even tribalism, and rapid developments in technology, the world is more complex and unpredictable than it was a decade ago.

The challenge this poses for leaders has been described vividly by Ross Perot. As a presidential candidate he fully understood what his audiences needed from him: "We owe it to the American people to explain to them in plain language where we are, where we are going, and what we have to do. Then we need to build a consensus to do it." But while Perot expressed the dilemma, he failed to create an answer that struck a personal chord with listeners. The fate of John Major or Tony Blair may well rest on their respective skills at weaving a compelling tale about the future direction of Britain.

A cognitive approach to leadership provides insight into the similarities and differences between individuals in the creative realms (art and science) and individuals in the political realm (institutional and national leaders). Both groups of individualsexert influence on others and are, therefore, leaders. However, creative leaders operate indirectly by fashioning some kind of symbolic object (a poem, an opera, a philosophical position) that affects future practice in a domain. Political fi gures leaddirectly by the stories that they communicate to their followers. Some individuals, like Charles de Gaulle and the anthropologist Margaret Mead, manage to lead both directly and indirectly, but most eventually favour one mode or the other.

Creative leaders spend most of their time working in isolation, with occasional forays into the wider world to note the effects of what they have wrought. Political leaders must spend the bulk of their time in the fray, but if they do not retire to reflect from time to time, they are likely to lose their perspective. One criticism of President Clinton is that he reserves too little time for solitary reflection and therefore is too much at the mercy of the most recent individuals to whom he happens to have spoken.

Whether leaders begin from pre-eminence in an expert domain or from more conventional political backgrounds, in the end they all face a similar problem. Once a leader attempts to address a heterogeneous audience she must assume that she is dealing with an "unschooled mind". This is not the mind of the expert but embodies much from an individual's pre-school era.

The unschooled mind is impatient with subtlety, ambiguity, paradox, or relativism. Some leaders, and I would include both Reagan and Thatcher in this category, are quite content to present such a simple message: indeed this was the idea behind the well-nicknamed "Star Wars Program", which was admired by both individuals. (In fairness, their eventual efforts to achieve a rapprochement with Gorbachev's Soviet Union required a more sophisticated narrative).

Margaret Thatcher was unusually successful in handling the problem of how to communicate effectively both with mass audiences and with experts. She often surprised both friends and opponents by her detailed knowledge, shrewd questioning and her capacity to mobilise information in debate. In more than one field she qualified as an expert.

One of her rare skills was that she was able to separate out her expertise from her political instincts, invoking each when needed, but seldom confusing them with one another. While it might be preferable for a political leader to be able to synthesise expertise with messages of simplicity and clarity, Thatcher illustrated how these two strands can co-exist productively within the same person.

If a leader wants to educate an unschooled audience, she must be prepared to counter simpler stories that are already entrenched in the mind. This was the formidable task faced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, when they attempted to persuade their constituents that they could engage in confrontation and even conflict without becoming violent; such leaders can achieve success only if they directly address the formidable "counter-stories" and do so with single-mindedness over a long period of time. Moreover, in a time of crisis, members of the audience prove all too prone to revert to the simplest, unschooled stories.

To my surprise, I have found during the course of my research that most leaders - except those who became academics - were not particularly good students. They were outstanding in two areas: understanding other people's goals and motivations; and in their ability to express themselves in words - oral expression being more important than written expression. Allende's Colonel knew just what leadership skill he lacked.

When a leader works in an established institution, his power is already acknowledged and he has already inherited a generic story on which to build. Indeed, if the leader does not want to be particularly innovative, he can simply embody his story in his daily actions, as the American general George Marshall did with marked success. It is instructive to study those leaders who lacked such an organisation. Individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, or the visionary Europeanist Jean Monnet, must invent their story almost from scratch, find an audience for it, adjust versions that are not effective and, if they want to achieve longer-term effects, create an institution with some longevity.

Perhaps the biggest issue for today's leaders, though, is how to cope with the power of the unschooled mind. How can leaders persuade such audiences, living in uncertain and unpredictable times, to abandon unschooled thinking and to become anchored at a more sophisticated level of analysis? Unless leaders recognise the power of the simple stories which populate the minds of most people - and that are, alas, reinforced by the "soundbite" media - it is more than likely that the simple stories will prevail. The elaboration and "selling" of a more complex story is essentially an educational task, and one that necessarily must take place over a considerable period of time. This is a sobering conclusion for those of us who seek effective leadership in a rapidly changing world.

The author is Research Professor of Education at Harvard University. His books include `Frames of Mind' and `The Unschooled Mind'. His book on leadership, `Leading Minds', will be published in the summer.