The Blog

What happens when a leader’s story becomes stale?

I live in Toronto (Canada) and we are gearing up for what promises to be a thrilling municipal election this October. And that’s not something you can say very often about city politics.

For those of you who don’t watch Jimmy Kimmel or other late-night show hosts, our present mayor, Rob Ford, has been a comedian’s dream. He has bounced from one calamity to another and despite a plethora of scandals, is now polling, unbelievably, in second place.

The mayoral candidates – and there are many –  have all tried to position themselves differently, by informing voters about who they are, why are they here, and what they are building. It’s a fascinating display of the power of the story for a would-be leader. Let’s examine the stories of the front-runners.

John Tory, currently leading in the polls, has a terrific resume (businessman, former provincial member of Parliament, active volunteer) but I haven’t heard a story from him yet, just a list of accomplishments. He probably looks great on LinkedIn and his Wiki entry is lengthy, but a bullet-point list does not a compelling story make.

Rob Ford is “everyman’s mayor”. His story is a simple one. He downplays his family’s wealth, instead preferring to stress the more humble beginnings of his family, his commitment to football coaching, and his penny-pinching approach to spending. He doggedly repeats his catch-phrases and never deviates from the script. It’s a story that goes down very well with his voter base.

Olivia Chow stumbled at the beginning of her campaign when, in response to a question of what makes her different, answered, “I’m not male. Not white.” Ouch! Her flippancy may have alienated many voters. Also, her insistence on her immigrant beginnings does not resonate in a city comprised of, overwhelmingly, immigrants. I wasn’t born in Canada either. So what?

Finally, we come to the underdog, David Soknacki. Soknacki has struggled to have his story heard above the baying of his more PR-conscious opponents. He has chosen less expensive media (Twitter, indie newspapers) to broadcast his message. When I mention his name to friends, the inevitable response is, “He sounds good. I like him, he makes sense.” But his story has not reached a sufficiently large population to make a difference to his polling numbers.

I often coach senior executives on how to develop their stories; many are hesitant in sharing personal experiences. But the value of these stories is incredibly powerful. Transparency leads to trust, which will eventually translate into greater commitment, and ultimately, extraordinary results.

A stale story, or one that is long on facts but short on emotion, will get these leaders nowhere. It’s a lesson that we see in politics, as well as in the boardroom.

Nick Forrest

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