John Boehner, Speaker of the House, said about Nelson Mandela last week: ““Scarcely a week or day goes by without us pointing to Mandela as an example. An example of standing on principle, of loving your neighbour, and of extending the reach of freedom. All these ideals we cherish, and he has lived the closest to them.” It’s a lovely comment, one that ironically points a finger at the ways the US Government has lost track of these ideals, leading us rather into an unneighborly paralysis that threatens American freedom and prosperity.
Although post-Apartheid South Africa, and Nelson Mandela’s remarkable career, is clearly praiseworthy, Boehner’s choice to point to the idealized rhetoric of freedom and neighborliness is an interesting anti-mirror to the House strategies that have strangled reform and stalled economic recovery. The “standing on principle” he praises in Mandela, along with the empty rhetoric of his other praise, marks the ways he uses the Mandela birthday celebration to try to justify his own leadership.
This is a common way of using stories to reflect our leadership identities, and a good example about how our idealized stories sometimes demonstrate how far we fall short of our hopes.
Stories are more than rhetoric — they’re the frameworks that create our leadership identities. We weave them around our choices and they become the self we present to the world, the source of our authenticity.
As a progressive American, I see Boehner as a failed leader, someone who claims to stand up for our rights, but instead hobbles the national debate. Others see him differently. But whatever our outside opinion of the man, this quote shows his inner ideals, or at least the values he thinks are most important as talking points.
And that’s one tool that helps us measure his leadership. In a world where the stories we live too often become the prisons we curse, leadership stories are very powerful.
The power of story is that our values become our brands, and if we’re brand-loyal, we almost always like what we hear. So the power of stories goes both ways, not just lived by the leaders themselves, but also projected onto our leaders by followers.
If you like Boehner’s leadership practices, you’ll see this quote as a testimony to the speaker’s success, not just Mandela’s triumph. If you don’t, you’ll hear the inconsistencies. Inconsistencies, perceived or real, make a leader’s story-brand weak, and create controversy around his identity, not just his actions and decisions.
The story we tell about ourselves matters, because it reflects our values, our hopes, our fears and our persona. As it shapes our actions, it shapes our self-perception and our public reception.
Mandela has lived his full, complicated life, and been a leader, flawed and brilliant and successful, in his now democratic, integrated country. The stories about him are mainly in retrospect, so they’ve firmed up. He’s a hero. He changed the world for the better.