Roles of a Leader: Storyteller, Comforter, Protector, Comedian, Friend

In the age of transparency, one of the major secrets to success is having no secrets.

This is especially true in politics and extremely rare in Australia.

Ronald Reagan was one of the most popular and electorally successful Presidents in the history of the United States. Regardless of how the public viewed his policies and positions on issues they mostly saw him as a charismatic, transparent leader who put the interests of the Presidency and the nation over himself. The legendary pollster to Reagan, Dick Wirthlin concludes his brilliant book “The Greatest Communicator” by briefly outlining what made Reagan so popular with the American public. He became multiple roles that everyone resonated with on one level or another.

  • He became a storyteller
Politics now is largely about crafting entertaining, inspirational and understandable stories. Communicating in the language of processes becomes boring and predictable as that’s the way most people live their lives. They want and need an escape!

Without a consistent and connected story communicated in a way a 7 year old can understand, the public can’t find any direction to show them where the nation’s heading and all the trivial noise rises to the surface in the national debate. I’ve written about some of these themes in a previous post as they applied to the AWU non issue that became an issue.
  • He became a comforter

People’s lives are difficult these days. As Homer Simpson discovered when he ran to become Sanitation Commissioner of Springfield, we all secretly ask the question “can’t someone else do it?”

John Howard understood this role better than most when he responded to a series of questions about his vision for Australia on a Four Corners profile in 1995 by saying he wanted Australians to feel “comfortable and relaxed.” Many progressives get spooked by being a comforter to the public because they feel the role of government is to get things done. I think the key is balance and repetitive reassurance.

Big public policy changes are possible provided they’re done in an open, honest and transparent way. The government needs to take the public into it’s confidence in order for this to happen. Paul Keating’s warning that Australia was on the verge of becoming a “Banana Republic” in the mid 1980’s is another example of someone taking on the role of comforter (albeit in a very indirect way). It was aimed at the psychology of the public. It was a very nasty message and one many advisers would have advised against making but it resonated because there was a strong amount of honesty and transparency in it.

Had Keating said nothing it would have looked like the government weren’t in control of events, didn’t trust the public and the strains and hardship experienced during the deregulation and privatisation of the economy during that time would have been far worse than they were electorally for the Labor government.

  • He became a protector
We all have the right to feel safe. This slogan is used as early as Kindergarten and it permeates throughout life. Ronald Reagan became the protector of what the United States public valued from both the threats of communism and nuclear war.

When you look at the asylum seeker issue in Australia, the conservatives have framed it using language such as “peaceful invasion.” This sets up the narrative that Australia is an island of western values in a foreign part of the world (Asia) and in order to protect our identity, the boats (those who are not apart of the Australian community) must be stopped. Whenever the ALP have accepted this framing of the issue they’ve given authority to the idea the conservatives are the true protectors of the Australian identity, reciprocation and social licence aka the fair go.

Bob Katter, regardless of your opinion of his views, is another classic Australian example of someone who understands what it means to take on the role of the protector. He has attacked the National Party for caving into the Liberal Party on free trade and made himself the protector of the agricultural and farming sectors of the economy. He’s even incorporated large elements of the old Labor Party into his story including the founding of the party, the story of Red Ted Theodore and the founding of the Amalgamated Workers Association which later became the Australian Workers Union (a union of which he’s a member).

I spoke to someone recently who I saw reading Katter’s book “An Incredible Race of People” and I asked him what he drew him to Katter. His answer was “Labor Values.” I understood exactly where he was coming from. The electorate of Kennedy is his for as long as he wants it.
  •  He became a comedian
Humour is healthy. Everybody loves humour and a bit of wit and it’s a core requirement of any public figure. It doesn’t matter if it’s corny, all that matters is whether it’s relatable and it is consistent with the spirit of the occasion. Most public figures seem to understand the role of comedian on one level or another but I think the one politician who doesn’t get it in Australia is Tony Abbott. Whenever anyone tells a joke at his expense he’s always serious.

The best example of Abbott’s lack of humour was when Julia Gillard and he were at a Red Cross function and the Prime Minister introduced them both by saying “I’m red, he’s always cross.” Everyone in the audience regardless of their political persuasion laughed except for him and the cameras caught it all. This lack of light hearted self deprecation and his inability to get into the spirit of the occasion says all the wrong things and it’s one of many factors that contribute to the Australian public’s spectacular disapproval of Abbott as a leader.
  •  He became a friend
Wirthlin at the beginning of his book tells a story of a young boy who saved his brother after his family’s trailer burned down who Ronald Reagan talked to on the phone so he could congratulate him on his courage and heroism. At the end of the conversation the boy expressed his regret that he didn’t have his tape recorder on so he could record his conversation with the President. Reagan responded by saying “Well son, turn it on and let’s talk some more”

There’s little doubt the young boy would have remembered that conversation with Reagan for the rest of his life.

Many leaders would see the boy as an irritant who was preventing important work from getting done. Ronald Reagan saw the boy as the most important part of his work because he understood the role of friend.

This sort of personalisation and ability to relate to people is badly missing from politics today. Relatability is a quality that can’t be rushed, it must be developed over time. You can’t come up with it from focus group responses of opinion polling.

Regardless of what your opinion was of Ronald Reagan’s policies, his ability to emotionally connect with the US public and his electoral record is unprecedented. The joke often told at Republican Presidential candidates expense is they aren’t Ronald Reagan: the biggest weakness of every Republican Presidential candidate since 1989.

In summary, the roles of storyteller, comforter, protector, comedian and friend when combined create an emotionally magnetic feeling which can only be experienced in a positive way. I’ve focused on politics and political leaders in this post but these roles are transferable to any field where leadership is required and I think they are important in order to establish the groundwork for getting things done in today’s complex, emotionally starved, simplicity seeking world.

“Let’s talk some more”
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