Good leaders tell stories that make people trust them with power

Stories have the power to unite and divide.
Stories have the power to unite and divide.
Image: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
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We often assume that good looks and the advantages conferred by wealth fuel leaders’ rise to power. This was not the case with Abraham Lincoln. The man who would come to be known as one of the greatest US presidents came from a poor background and was known for his ill-fitting attire, lack of refinement, and gangly, 6’4” frame.

Working in Lincoln’s favor were his inspiring speeches and lofty rhetoric. But one might argue that the most important factor in his ascendancy to power was his knack for storytelling.

When Lincoln was growing up in a small home in Illinois, his father regularly hosted pioneers as they traveled west, exchanging lively stories of life on the prairie. In his legal practice, Lincoln built a grassroots network and strong reputation through the countless hours he spent touring small towns in Illinois, recounting stories of the latest courtroom proceedings to small gatherings of citizens. These experiences helped Lincoln develop strong storytelling skills, which proved to be a critical advantage that he enjoyed over wealthier and more established rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Once elected, his ability to shape moving narratives about the Civil War and the organizing principles of the United States was also crucial to navigating the fractious politics of his presidency.

For the past 20 years, I have studied how people rise and fall in power. What I have learned is that people rise in power through social practices that build strong ties and advance the interests of others—such as empathy, engaging with others, and Lincoln’s particular genius, storytelling.

But once people feel powerful, their attention shifts. They often stop prioritizing others’ interests and the greater good. They become concerned with gratifying their own desires, and they become vulnerable to a lack of empathy, impulsive behavior, and stories that divide and humiliate others.

This is the power paradox: The very skills that help us attain power vanish once we feel powerful or live a life of privilege. And the paradox is evident in the ways in which power is intertwined with storytelling.

Stories aren’t just the territory of films and novels. They punctuate our daily lives in jokes, friendly exchanges, accounts of the day at family dinners, and bedtime stories children eagerly anticipate at night. Our work lives also involve constant acts of storytelling, from teasing and gossip to the narratives of successes and failures we tell to illuminate and inspire one another.

People gain power through storytelling for many reasons. Good storytelling generates shared levity and joy, which, in my studies of informal social groups, build strong ties within social networks. Stories also offer us helpful perspectives on the conflicts that are inevitable to group life, situating rivalries and disagreements within a moment and place in time.

Narratives can help us handle stress better. In one line of relevant research (PDF) carried out by psychologist James Pennebaker for the past 25 years, participants going through stressful times–divorce, facing disease, or bereavement–fared better after narrating their most intense feelings related to the event. We also find purpose in our stories. Empirical studies by psychologist Daniel McAdams find that people who tell more coherent stories about their lives, with clear plot lines, characters, and themes and organizing passions, find greater purpose later in life.

Given these findings, it’s no surprise that great storytelling enables the rise to power. For example, I conducted one study (PDF) in which I brought an entire Wisconsin fraternity to my lab. The fraternity’s “brothers” came to my lab in groups of four. Two members, known as pledges, had just joined the fraternity. The other two were “actives”—longtime members who enjoyed greater power by virtue of their seniority.

My focus was on teasing, a form of storytelling by which people indirectly negotiate the conflicts of group life and express convictions about the values that hold their groups together. To get the four fraternity members to tease one another, I assigned each member of the foursome a randomly generated pair of initials—“A.D.” or “T.J.” or “H.F.” or “L.I.” I asked them to give each other a nickname, and tell a story–fact or fiction–that justified it.

My analysis focused on the degree to which each tease, often hilarious and profane, had the attributes of great storytelling (see table below). The best kind of teasing unites group members with elements of play (a light-hearted tone of voice, an impression); a focus on qualities in the target that are changeable (say, smelly clothes); references to values that unite the group (the ritual of going to football games together), and poking fun at those who hold power. By contrast, stories that divide lack these qualities and readily humiliate and demean others. Think back to how the seventh-grade bully tried to tell jokes about others, and you’ll quickly appreciate this kind of abusive storytelling.

Our study of fraternity teasing revealed how we gain power through storytelling. The young pledges who were already seen by their older “brothers” as leaders were great storytellers. Their teasing was playfully delivered, identified values that united the group, and often poked subtle fun at power-holders.

I have replicated this finding several times. Ten-year-olds at a basketball camp who enjoyed the respect of their peers were better at funny storytelling. Women in a sorority enjoyed greater power to the extent that they told engaging stories about other members of their sorority. Even US senators get more support for their bills to the extent that their speeches show evidence of great storytelling. To tell great stories is to inspire, unite, animate, and find opportunities for power.

My study of fraternity teasing, however, also offered a cautionary tale about the potential abuses of power in storytelling. Our high-power, active fraternity members told stories that were often lacking playful markers. They went after lower-status targets in blunt, humiliating, and isolating attacks. This result has been replicated in other studies as well. Studies of bullies (PDF) find that their jokes generate little laughter but instead humiliate. Sexual harassment, always perpetrated by the more powerful, often begins in stories and jokes that isolate, demean, and coerce.

More generally, power can lead to a demeaning form of storytelling I call narratives of exceptionalism. These are stories that people who hold entrenched power tell about how extraordinary those at the top are.

Narratives of exceptionalism have the attributes of stories that divide. They focus on rare “essence” of people rather than changeable behavior, and suggest that the unusual traits of a select few separate them from the hoi polloi.

Some 500 years ago, the British aristocracy regaled one another with stories about the heroism of young aristocratic men or their keen instincts in foxhunts—narratives that ossified their social hierarchies. During the Victorian Era, well-to-do Victorians embraced Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest, using social Darwinism to position their own culture as the most highly evolved and characterize others as “savages” or “primitives.” This form of storytelling was often the basis for colonialist expansion, and prior to that, slavery.

Today, narratives of exceptionalism do not typically center upon outdated references to savage cultures. But they can be heard in many modern tales about “superior” kinds of people and the lives they lead.

In my own research, I have asked people to offer explanations, or stories, about life events. Why would someone suffer a divorce? Win an award at work? Get laid off from a job? Suffer disease?

People with power—that is, those from upper-class backgrounds—attributed these fateful events to an individual’s talent, character, effort, and ability. In their minds, unique talents and strengths (and the lack thereof) determine the course that a person’s life takes—whether we succeed or fail, enjoy a healthy marriage or not, or get struck down by disease.

Narratives of exceptionalism matter. They are used to justify people’s positions of power, thus impeding social progress. They blind people to their own abuses of power. And they can deter deserving people from pursuing positions of power that would allow them to make valuable contributions to society. For example, people from historically low-power groups, such as women, are less likely to enter into academic disciplines such as philosophy in which narratives of exceptionalism prevail, reinforcing the idea that it takes a special, innate intellect to succeed.

Social change often begins in counter-narratives that undermine narratives of exceptionalism–stories about the strength of women that counter outdated narratives of their weakness, or narratives about the hard-working poor that counter stereotypes that they are lazy. We know that power dynamics often play out in the narratives that we tell. But enduring power, the kind that enables people to do their best work, hinges on the fine art of stories that unite rather than divide.