Leadership – Controlling the Narrative

The leader who controls the narrative controls the country – or the company, or community, or the context or the culture. What is exactly is the narrative? In this case it’s the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Of course, being it’s a story it can change. Over time stories change. Over time stories change because we change them. More precisely, they get changed by leaders – or, sometimes, followers – with the power and/or influence to rewrite history.

We study history on the assumption it is written in stone, based on facts impossible to refute. But not only is a lot of history based not on facts but on fictions, a lot of history is vulnerable to being reframed, or reshaped. Reframed or reshaped sometimes to achieve greater accuracy – and sometime to achieve greater control.

In the last year the American narrative was twice over heavily pressured to change. First, former president Donald Trump has tried repeatedly to persuade the American people that what happened in the 2020 election is not that he lost, and Biden won, but that he won, and Biden lost. All Trump is doing is trying to control the narrative – which in this case would require rejecting the facts, denying the truth.

Second, is the recent but already impactful “1619 Project,” which demands the American people reframe history, so it starts not at the usual, traditional time, the year 1776, but instead in the year 1619. Since 1619 is when the first enslaved Africans landed in the English colony of Virginia, beginning the historical narrative then as opposed to 150 years later means weaving the consequences of slavery, and racism throughout the entirety of American history, of the American story.

The importance of controlling the narrative is not usually lost on clever leaders, especially not if they are persuaded that to control the present, they must control the past. Russia’s Vladimir Putin falls into this category. Just this week it became even clearer than before that his longing for the good old days, the days when Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist, has turned into a hunger. Apparently the Russian government is determined permanently to shut down the country’s most prominent human rights organization, Memorial International. Notably, the Memorial is specifically dedicated to preserving the archives of, the memories of, those who were persecuted by, tortured by, and liquidated by the totalitarian regime that ruled the Soviet Union from the late 1920s to the early 1950s.   

One could reasonably argue that in the long run the truth will emerge – or emerge again. But leaders hellbent on completely controlling the narrative don’t give a damn about the long run. It’s short run they care about – their time at the top, the longer the better.

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