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Obama Speaks The Language of Leadership

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Message Steve Denning

Obama Speaks The Language of Leadership

Is Barack Obama a cult, as suggested by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post? How else could a young African-American US senator have suddenly become the likely Democratic nominee for president? Why else would people start to imagine that with Obama as president, their lives will be changed forever, possibly even leading “to thin thighs”? How does he reduce audiences into such an infantile state? Is he deviously playing on people’s emotions, causing them to set aside common sense and think of entrusting the country to someone so relatively inexperienced? Why aren’t his platitudes about change seen for what they are? What is the mysterious magic that Obama is deploying to achieve such extraordinary results?

In reality, there’s nothing mysterious or devious or platitudinous or cult-like about what Obama is doing at all: he is using well-known principles of the language of leadership to reach people’s hearts and change people’s minds through the skillful use of narrative.

His mastery of storytelling was on display at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond, Virginia on February 9, where he wove four basic narratives into a speech that inspired widespread enthusiasm, and led to a decisive victory in the primary the following Tuesday.

He began with the story of who he is, telling the story of the disadvantages he faced as a presidential candidate, turning handicaps into badges of honor. 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.

Meanwhile Hillary’s speech at the same dinner made abstract arguments about her “experience.” They were factual, methodical, abstract and ultimately boring.

Obama’s narrative style has four distinctive characteristics.

First is the seamless flow between the basic stories. The story of “who I am” merges seamlessly with “who we are” and then on to “who we are going to be.” The implication is: this is not about me—it’s about us.

And the stories told are tightly aligned with Obama’s own conduct. There is no gap between words and action, no jarring contradiction or inconsistency. The story that Obama tells is the story that he is living. The passion with which he delivers the speech leaves no doubt that he means it. Touches of self-deprecating humor, such as his disappointment in finding himself related to someone as uncool as Dick Cheney, add to the convincing picture of the calm assertiveness of leadership.

What’s more, he explicitly acknowledges the objections to his candidacy—“lack of experience”, “hope mongering”, mere “pretty speeches”, “words not solutions”—and uses simple narratives to show why these attacks are unfounded. Experience in Washington is a problem, not a solution: for instance, it "caused the wheels to come off John McCain’s Straight Talk Express."

But most important, his version of the story of who we are going to be is incompatible with Hillary Clinton or John McCain being president. Hillary, he says, has been, and will remain, his friend, but sadly she is a creature of yesterday's divisive politics. As he paints an inspiring picture of tomorrow that becomes more and more alluring, it becomes clearer and clearer that such a future can only happen if we all join together, get beyond politics as usual, and elect Obama as president. The other candidates are “the past”. We are “the future.”

It’s true, other factors have played a role in Obama’s success in overcoming the massive advantages that Clinton enjoyed as a candidate: better organization on the ground, stronger fundraising, and superior handling of YouTube and the web, along with her blunder in largely ignoring the caucuses.

But now even Clinton concedes that Obama’s success has much to do with what he says. He speaks the language of leadership. She doesn’t.

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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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