Friday 25 May, 2018. Ireland votes 66.4% in favour of repealing the Eight Amendment of its Constitution, inserted in 1983, which guaranteed the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother. Effectively most forms of abortions were banned. Not anymore.
People’s arguments were not new. They have been on the table for a long time. On one side, a rights issue: right to decide, right to own the body. On the other side the same inverse rights issue: no right to destroy an embryo, right to life. On one side a moral issue: the suffering of the women with no possibilities of abortion within the borders of the country, the shame inflicted by others, the need to travel abroad, mostly the UK. On the other side, a moral issue as well, the immorality of any abortion, the concept of sacred life.
At some point in the pre-referendum process, there was a picture, and a story, that got a lot of air time in the media. About 20 or so young women walking in the street, one after another, dragging a piece of rolling luggage each, walking tall, looking determined, it seemed with a mission. The caption explained that there were Irishwomen living abroad returning to Ireland to vote. As many in fact did. They symbolized the firm desire to vote for the end of a long, unjust system. Except that it wasn’t. The picture was taking years before in London by an agency trying to highlight the traveling abroad of those young women to have a termination of their pregnancy. It did not matter. People saw what they wanted to see. Women coming in, not out. A story of injustice and struggle in which the direction of the rolling luggage was a minor detail.
The pro-choice was the dominant narrative. There was a competing one of women who had a termination and then regretted. But this narrative was tiny and felt patronising. It had no chance. The Irish storytelling on the side of ‘pro-choice’ competed asymmetrically with storytelling on the side of ‘pro-life’. Expressed like that, it may offend many who may see this as a way of trivializing the struggle. But my point is, whatever moral, legal of religious discourse, there was an overriding power in storytelling. Thar was the battleground.
Strictly speaking, the competing worlds were not even religious. The numbers don’t work. As Fintan O’Toole, a well-known Irish writer elegantly put it, ‘The people at the polling booths on Friday and the people at the vigil in St Brigid’s (church) on Monday are not two tribes. They are the same people. Even more importantly, it is most likely that very few of them saw any contradiction in their behaviour over those four days’.
Storytelling managed the unthinkable in Ireland: to unbundle faith (private), religion (communal), and citizenship (public). Storytelling was a magnet that seemed to host many different motivations, including competing ones. Storytelling won.
Storytelling won the Irish referendum. Storytelling won Brexit. Storytelling brought and kept Trump.
If you are brave enough, and willing, keep the moral, legal, religious or political discourse aside for a minute, just a minute, and reflect on that power. Most of big wars seem to be won by storytelling. It’s about time that leadership in organizations understand this power. It can be used for the good of the company. Yet, it’s more complex than simple messaging.
‘What is our Story?’ should be the highest reflective task of leadership. Not what is our mission, vision or business plan. People rally around stories, not the bullet points of the Strategic Plan.
Great statesmen (as mentioned yesterday) were/are great storytellers. Great leaders of business and non-business organizations should seriously pause and find ‘The Story’. No Story, no social movement. And leading an organization is leading a social movement, inside the tent, maybe outside as well, or it isn’t.