In a recent conversation at the table with my uncle we discussed the absence of leaders in Europe. I believe there is an absence of leaders able to push societies through change. We live in transformational times, where political institutions that had legitimacy are losing it rapidly, leaving a void, which is not filled by alternatives that could provide people with a possible future. Only capable leaders can provide the force that is needed to show us where change is happening and how we can face it to make our world better and not worse. In this void, bad elements thrive, filling it rapidly, like weed.
What is a leader? What makes a leader? Marshall Ganz has great insights about these questions in “Leading change: Leadership, Organization and Social Movements” (chapter in “Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice”, ed. Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana. Harvard Business School Press, 2010). He defines leadership as
accepting responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.
and he says that the need for leadership is
evident when encounters with the uncertain demand adaptive, heuristic, or innovative response: past practices are breached, new threats loom, a sudden opportunity appears, social conditions change, new technology changes the rules, and so on.
Change. All those changes that are happening right now, driven by technologies empowering the individual and non-state actors in front of traditional institutions, are creating a new environment where the weakness of “traditional” leadership institutions – e.g. national governments, political parties, capitalist entrepreneurs, mass media – is more evident than ever. They are losing the legitimacy they had to keep their influence on people’s behaviour.
What makes a leader? Ganz makes reference to the Walter Bruggemann’s “prophetic imagination” – “a combination of criticality (experience of the world’s pain) with hope (experience of the world’s possibility), avoiding being numbed by despair or deluded by optimism” – to explain leadership in social movements. He then mentions four core practices of this kind of leadership: relationships, story, strategy and action.
Let me focus on the story. The power of the story plays a very important role in influencing this imagination.
Learning how to tell that story, the craft of what I call public narrative, is a second important leadership practice.
The story needs to be both value-laden and emotional. It can’t be just “1+1=2”, for it needs to be emotionally appealing to the person receiving it. Ganz mentions Martha Nussbaum argument that “because we make choices based on values we experience via emotion, making moral choices without emotional information is futile.”
This moral and emotional story should affect the public narrative. It is a story of self, a story of us and a story of now. Like Obama told his story, linked it to the United States common destiny and the “yes, we can”, leaders need to connect themselves with the community, and both to action.
The power of story is important to communicate to people’s imagination where leaders come from, where we are, and where he/she wants to lead us. Yet, to do so, leaders need to build relationships, devise a good strategy and catalyse action. Ganz develops all these. It is a great starting point to analyse the leadership we live in. I must start from here.