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We need leaders, not managers

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It is hardly a surprising proposition that this country is in need of new leadership. Now, more than ever, we need people who can frame the issues and craft and communicate a truthful narrative that will move the country forward. In terms of crafting the story, both Republicans and Democrats are having a surprising amount of trouble with the task.

The Democratic and Republican narratives

For the moment, Democrats sit motionless in front of their word-processor. As John Brummett in the Arkansas News said in mid-May: "They have a title, 'Our Story, 2006.' They have a dandy opening sentence: 'We're not Republicans.' They have a strong second sentence: 'Iraq is a mess.' The third sentence isn't bad: "Our government failed New Orleans.' But the page is otherwise blank. The Democrats are blocked. A deadline looms." That was May 15, and there's not been much progress to report since then. Democrats know that it's not yet a winning essay. For one thing, it's short on substance. For another, it's too negative.

In a separate room, Republicans are somewhat further advanced in developing their bullet points, although the narrative thread still needs more work. As ABC's The Note points out, the essay comprises: "Mollify the base on trouble spots (line item veto, immigration); deflect attention from the budget deficit by votes on gay marriage/flag burning/abortion; pre-empt discussion of Iraq by incessant use of 'cut and run', 'surrender,' 'retreat,' 'white flags,' 'wimps' wherever possible; push the American Values Agenda; tout Roberts/Alito and hide Miers; wave the banner of lower taxes; claim credit for the economy, while minimizing high gas prices; emphasize unity versus division; strong versus weak." Again, the essay is short on substance and lacks a narrative thread. Although it worked in 2004, its shelf life seems to be expiring and it's too negative as a basis for a major campaign.

The difficulty that both sides are having in coming up with a winning narrative reflects the fact that regardless of the party, what both Republicans and Democrats need are leaders.

The nature of leadership

Leadership means:

(a) people who know who they are: There are many reasons why John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, lost the 2004 U.S. presidential election. One of the more important ones was Kerry's seeming inability to communicate who he is. His actions in Vietnam as a soldier and then afterwards as a war protester, his votes against the first Gulf war and then the for war in Iraq but against the funding for it - all these actions tended to pose questions in the minds of voters as to his real motivation - doubts which obviously the Republicans did their utmost to accentuate. Kerry seemed unable to come up with a succinct story that would communicate why he had conducted his life the way he had. Even ardent Democrats found his efforts to explain himself as "discouraging to behold." The Republicans presented him as someone who went with whichever political wind happened to blowing at the time. The absence of any compelling countervailing story from Kerry himself resulted in the Republican's being able to make stick a charge of " flip-flopping on the issues." As a result, even though he won the presidential debates, voters who disagreed with his opponent, President George W. Bush, on the issues and who felt that the country was heading in the wrong direction, were still reluctant to vote for Kerry.
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(b) people who believe what they say : it's hard to realize that Al Gore's stiff robotic school-teacherly performances of 2000-the highlight of late-night standup routines-have been transformed into the stuff of a hit movie, with people paying over $12 million just to listen to him talk. What's different? What has changed? Now Al Gore has shed his managers and handlers who told him what he could and could not say, in case he offended this or that focus group, and has started to say what he really believes and cares about. Surprise! People listen and want to hear more. In 2000, Gore was saying what he was permitted by managers to say. He sounded hollow and people could sense it. John Kerry had a similar problem in 2004. Now both Hillary Clinton and John McCain seem to be heading down the same path, with cautious weasel words on issues like Iraq being used to mask obvious truths. Leadership means having the courage to stand up and say what needs to be said, including on Iraq. If they don't do that, people will know that they are phonies.

(c) People who can communicate what they believe: Whatever John Kerry believed about the Iraq war in 2004, he was never able to communicate it. By contrast, George W. Bush always made his positions clear, even to those who disagreed with him. As Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker pointed out, "Bush campaigns with the eager self-delight of a natural ham. There's an appealing physicality about him. When he says he wants your vote, he does not just mouth the words but follows them through with his entire body, rising to his toes, tilting toward you yearningly. When he works his way along the edge of the stage, waving, shaking hands, he has the concentration of an athlete in the thrall of his game." Both Republicans and Democrats will need leaders who are willing to put their heart and soul into the task of communicating the new story.

The leadership story today

What's the story that the new leaders will need to communicate? In broad outline, we know what it will be, both for Democrats and Republicans, since as Robert Reich has explained, there are only four stories in American politics:

· The Triumphant Individual. This is the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor. Although the Democrats, given their alliance with labor, used to own this story, the Republicans took it over by offering lower taxes. After six years of profligate spending, that won't win this argument much longer. The winning narrative for both Republicans and Democrats must recognize that without resolving the crises in health and education, the economic future is bleak and there will be no triumphant individual.
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· The Benevolent Community: "I have a dream," said Martin Luther King Jr and JFK asked us what we could do for our country. Democrats used to own this issue until they became associated with failed poverty programs and handouts for the poor. Now Republicans are also in trouble as Katrina showed the unattractive reality of "compassionate conservatism" at home and the trashing of our allies has left America despised abroad. The winning narrative for both Democrats and Republicans here must obviously re-establish competence in coping with poverty and deprivation at home, while rekindling a spirit of internationalism abroad to solve global problems.

· The Mob at the Gates used to be the Nazis and then the Soviet evil empire. Now it's terrorists, against whom we must maintain vigilance, lest diabolical forces overwhelm us. In recent times, Republicans have owned this story, but as disillusion with Iraq deepens and broadens, both Republicans and Democrats will have to recognize that the war on terror has been a war in error, and will need to wind down the misguided adventure in Iraq, sooner rather than later, so that energies and resources can refocused on real enemies.

· The Rot at the Top: Since the other three stories are usually so similar for both parties, the "rot at the top" story is usually the pivotal one in leading to change. With Richard Nixon, it was political malfeasance. With George H.W. Bush, it was economic incompetence. With Clinton, it was personal immorality. Now Democrats have abundant evidence that Republicans embody a culture of incompetence and corruption, while Republicans try to paint Democrats as divided, effete, liberal, pro-gay and anti-marriage and opposed to God.

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)

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