To be a leader is to be able to tell a story of hope
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 6th June 2008
In the race to be Democratic candidate for the American presidency, a winner has emerged. And there’s a story here that has relevance to us in Britain also. I first came across the name Barack Obama almost by chance. Two years back I was surfing my favourite bookshop on the Internet when I came across a book called The Audacity of Hope. Years earlier, I’d written a book called The Politics of Hope, so as soon as I saw the title I recognised a kindred spirit, even though I’d never heard of the author before. And when I discovered he was a candidate for the presidency, I saw the chance to test a hypothesis.
It came from another American, Martin Seligman, inventor of something called ‘positive psychology’. Seligman’s idea was that psychology could be used not just to cure depression, but also to find positive ways to happiness. He called his way ‘learned optimism’. And among his experiments he did a fascinating thing. He developed a way of testing prose for its optimism or pessimism quotient. He then applied it to the key speeches of American presidential candidates going back several decades. He discovered that in nine cases out of ten, the most optimistic candidate won, regardless of any other factor. So without knowing anything else about Barack Obama, I guessed that someone who called his political vision The Audacity of Hope was in with a chance. And so it’s proved to be.
It’s interesting that it’s taken two figures outside the ‘norm’ of American presidential politics, one black, the other a woman, to recreate for the 21st century a narrative of hope. It’s something I relate to as a Jew. Because all too often in the past Jews were considered outsiders to the societies in which they lived. Yet Jews lived by the politics of hope, born 3300 years ago in the event whose anniversary we celebrate this Sunday night in the festival we call Shavuot. It was then in the days of Moses that our ancestors heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai and entered into a covenant of hope, that a nation of slaves could become a holy people.
Ever since, Jews kept hope alive – and hope kept the Jewish people alive. So, transcending the politics of American elections is what seems to me a spiritual truth: that to be a leader is to be able to tell a story of hope that gives us the courage to build a more just and generous world.