Beyond "Boxers or Briefs"
In a television interview with then-candidate Obama, a reporter riding with the Senator through his Chicago neighborhood mentioned that some critics were saying Obama wasn't "black enough." Rather than launch into some meandering philosophical discussion of race, Obama simply said, "They should be with me when I'm trying to get a cab at night." He painted a very specific and effective picture to dismiss a tiresome argument, and in the process showed us that he's human.
People want to see their leaders as three-dimensional human beings, albeit ones who are smarter, perhaps better looking, and certainly less prone to mistakes. I already know that my leader is, at least in part, a product of his or her background and experiences--every human being is. Sharing a bit about that personal story clues me in on how the leader thinks.
Certainly the portrait can be overdone, overwrought or just TMI--too much information--as when Bill Clinton offered to take questions from an audience of teenagers and a young woman asked, "Boxers or briefs?" He responded (boxers, I think), probably to be a good sport, but it seemed a bit undignified for the office.
Richard Nixon suffered some backlash for his artless "Checkers" speech in September 1952. Accused of dipping into funds provided by supporters, Nixon countered by baring his family's financial soul on television. Nixon had nothing to lose and a great deal to gain, but the speech quickly became maudlin with details of Pat Nixon's coat--not mink, but a "perfectly respectable Republican cloth coat," and his kids' dog Checkers, also a gift, which the family would keep because "the kids love that dog."
Certainly there were plenty of people who, in the last election cycle, were sick of hearing about Obama's family and background. There is always the lurking danger of over-doing it, of over-exposure. The leader who shares personal history is engaging in a balancing act, but all of leadership is a balancing--some would say juggling--act. The best leaders are good communicators, and the best communicators use stories to help others see and share a vision of the future. Ideally, those stories also help the leader make a personal, human connection and give me some insight into what makes this leader tick.
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