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Why Storytelling Matters for Emerging Leaders in Asian Politics

Effective political leaders have stories that inspire and move people to action.

The question is, are there leadership training programs that can train leaders to make speeches like Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech or U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask What You Can Do For Your Country” inaugural speech?

The real world recognizes that storytelling is necessary for effective leadership. It means being able to engage various stakeholders with diverse interests through passion, emotional intelligence, and honesty.

The challenge for emerging leaders is not the lack of noble ideals and worthy causes. Politics in Asia demands that leaders mobilize people and groups with sometimes conflicting interests to make progress towards a shared goal. In Southeast Asia, emerging leaders need to address thorny issues like political uncertainty, disaster risk management, racial tensions, and declining economic competitiveness.

For the more economically muscled East Asia, leadership strategies and skills are tested around issues like tax reform, a “demographic winter,” geopolitical conflicts, and sustaining economic growth. Clearly, leadership development programs and training courses for effective leadership is a must.

For many emerging leaders in Asian politics, the challenge is winning public support for often highly technical issues. Policy and lawmakers, for example, have to learn how to communicate the urgency of advocacies or particular pieces of legislation. It’s a daunting challenge for well-meaning politicians who aren’t naturally charismatic. Often, emerging leaders and public officials agonize over how to give inspiring, spirited speeches.

Persuasive leadership communication is often the missing ingredient in rallying constituents and interest groups around key issues. Moving various interest groups and stakeholders to look beyond party loyalties and political jockeying is not easy. But this is a function of effective leadership and strong statesmanship. Far from merely convincing an audience, emerging leaders and political actors should move people to action. Before this can happen, players in Asian politics need to articulate complex issues and realities. And this includes getting stakeholders to care enough to get involved.  

Emotions Across Cultures

Countless Western managers have benefited from leadership training like Dale Carnegie’s public speaking, strongly shaping the western leadership influence. Emerging leaders in Asian politics, on the other hand, need a different kind of storytelling framework for effective leadership. Key figures in the public sphere need to recognize emotional intelligence and vulnerability as compelling elements of the public narrative. This is especially true in a region where fluffy feelings are often viewed suspiciously or held at arm’s length. A 2010 study by Lewis, Kawakami, and Sullivan involving Japanese, white American, and African American children showed the marked emotional reticence of Japanese kids. The research results showed that Japanese children express less shame, pride, and sadness than their American counterparts. They, however, showed higher levels of embarrassment.

Meanwhile, Singaporeans aren’t just emotionally subdued. They simply experience the fewest emotions. A Gallup study identified residents of the smallest city-state in Southeast Asia as the least emotional in the world. A recent Harvard Business Review article also noted how in China, expressing too much enthusiasm, especially to someone in authority, is seen as negative. It could even be interpreted as showing off. On the other extreme, however, is the Philippines, which the same Gallup study tagged as the most emotional country in the world. Surveying 150 countries in the world, the study found that 60% of Filipinos experienced both positive and negative emotions on a daily basis.

Talking about emotional intelligence and awareness can be tricky. But researchers agree that feeling emotions is a universal experience. And regardless of their leadership styles, emerging leaders need to capitalize on this fuzzy yet powerful dimension of the human psyche. Evoking powerful emotions is an essential aspect of leadership communications. The highly personal and nuanced terrain of emotional intelligence has a palpable impact on politics in Asia. And this impact has yet to be explored in depth. Key figures in Asian politics need a leadership program that recognizes the significance of leadership communications in public discourse.

Political Storytelling

Storytelling in Asian politics is far from being a pastime for children. Storytelling can lower stakeholders’ defenses and get various interest groups on board. It also has the power to inspire courage, sacrifice, and a broader perspective. Emerging leaders should learn this skill that makes for effective leadership, particularly with regard to polarizing issues. Marshall Ganz’ Public Narrative: the story of self, us, and now is an effective framework for leaders in Asian politics. Ganz’ public narrative framework has been used by Western managers as well as riveting speakers like former U.S. president Barack Obama.

Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School discusses how the public narrative follows a simple plot. A challenge, a choice, and an outcome. And this content is fleshed out through three stories: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. People, regardless of their education level, intelligence, or political persuasion, are fascinated by triumph over adversity. Through stories, emerging leaders can help stakeholders take in the scale and gravity of an issue or problem. These stories also aim to frame the listeners’ choice and personal agency. It often moves them to act with urgency. Lastly, the public narrative paints a clear scenario of the impact of this choice. When people step up and make a choice, what happens? Effective leadership needs to communicate hope for an outcome that people instinctively long for. It could be advancement of the common good, a future of opportunity, justice, or freedom.

The Story of Self

To begin, politicians and public figures need to do the deep, reflective work of identifying their own “story of self.” Effective leadership is only possible by walking the arduous path of self-awareness. “We reveal the kind of person we are to the extent that we let others identify with us,” Ganz reminds us. This can only be accomplished when emerging leaders in Asian politics connect to themselves first and recognize the gritty route of their own personal history. The good and the bad in plain sight. Politics in Asia tends to looks at emotional intelligence as superfluous. It is on a lower rung in the hierarchy of political weaponry. Skills like critical thinking, political savviness or assets like social capital probably rank higher. The story of self requires a degree of vulnerability and honesty. But ultimately, it is revealing one’s personal call to leadership.

The Story of Us

Emerging leaders head even deeper into the realm of public persuasion with the story of us. There is no other way a leader communicates the spirit of inclusiveness and collaboration more effectively than with this narrative. Effective leadership communicates “we’re in this together.” And in a disarming way, the story of us persuades listeners to see shared values, dilemmas, and motivations. Ganz often compares stories with poetry. A story or poem is exquisite because it offers “an experience or moment through which we grasp the feeling that the poet communicates.” The more revealing it is, the more power it has to compel listeners.  

The Story of Now

Lastly, effective leaders conclude with the story of now. What urgent action needs to be done? What immediate step can everyone take? This finale orients the listeners to how they can concretely contribute to address the problem. The public narrative is leadership communications par excellence. And this is because it speaks to the heart through emotions by identifying the “why” of an issue. It satisfies the head as well through analysis and “critical reflection on experience.” This is the “how” of the discourse. Finally, the shared perspective of the story of us ultimately leads to action, the hands. This is how the cycle of persuasion is completed from heart to head to hands.

It’s not a question of whether emerging leaders in Asian politics need leadership development and training courses. The answer is quite obvious. An increasingly complex and uncertain political arena demands it. The question is how quickly effective leaders can grow in crucial leadership skills like political persuasion. Today, emerging leaders don’t have to rely on the wits of an extraordinarily clever ghost writer. Effective leadership, as seen through the public narrative, can be developed through the right leadership training programs and training courses. The milestones of ground-breaking political work could very well hinge on emotional intelligence. Emerging leaders can construct a compelling public narrative only when they tap into this wellspring of leadership communication. As it turns out, knowing oneself is the key to unity with others.

By Nirva’ana Ella Delacruz