Candidates for PM carefully shape their 'better sides'

Researcher finds that stories people tell themselves about what they could achieve give them power to attain their goals.

Livni happy 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
Livni happy 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
Is Tzipi Livni really "different," as she claims? How much of a "leader" is Ehud Barak? Is Binyamin Netanyahu as mysterious as he seems? How can Israelis know what's true behind the branding efforts the country's prime ministerial candidates are proffering ahead of elections? And do the leaders themselves believe the stories they're selling to the public? During her studies at the Mandel Leadership Institute, Dr. Sarit Barzilai developed an empowerment program called SEMEL, a Hebrew acronym for "Stories Breed Success." She has also written a book, The Secret of the Winner's Story, in which she tells of 100 people who overcame difficult childhoods or other serious setbacks and placed themselves on the road to success. Barzilai found that the stories people told themselves about what they could achieve helped bring out the better side of their personality and gave them power to attain their goals. "This perception constitutes a revolution in traditional psychological treatment," she explained. It is called the "narrative revolution" and is based on the assumption that each us develops a life story from the moment we learn how to speak. Although each of us is "driven by biographical events," she said that a person can cause a significant change in his life through the story he tells himself. "When I was examining the success stories of these 100 people, I didn't check only what they did in order to succeed, but also the story they told themselves in order to get where they are today," she explained. To some extent, she added, Israel's would-be prime ministers are similarly shaping their own sense of self, and the public's perception of them, in the hope of boosting their electability. It certainly worked, she said, for President-elect Barack Obama. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, written at the age of 33, "Obama builds his own story and finds the strengths that he will use to shape his social-economic policy as a future leader." He described two dimensions: being the product of a poor family and the son of a white mother and a black father, and being a young man who criticizes the patterns of racial thinking in American society. "Instead of being discouraged, he develops an uncompromising belief in human beings and in the power to change. "His successful slogan, 'Yes, we can,' is dual," she said. "It says 'yes we can' do everything if we want to, but it is also a protest slogan. The comma after the 'yes' expresses criticism. It says yes - despite the gaps and the ongoing discrimination - we can overcome everything." Barzilai also cited Dudi Zilbershlag, the founder of the Meir Panim network of soup kitchens and now one of Israel's largest charities, saying he knew something about challenges, having lost two of his four sons to a genetic illness. (Meir Panim is named for one of them.) "Many people don't find the power to get back to a normal life after such a tragedy," she said, "but Dudi Zilbershlag told himself that he was going to get stronger and more powerful the moment the seven days of the shiva were over. By the eighth day he established Meir Panim, which today feeds tens of thousands of children." There is also the remarkable story of retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, who came here from Turkey at 10 with her mother, younger brother and a father who had cancer. Two weeks after they arrived, Dorner's father died and the family sank into poverty and dysfunction, with Dalia and her little brother being sent to an orphanage, where she looked after her younger sibling. Four years later, after her mother had lost what little money she had, Dorner returned home to support the family. By age 20, she was able to buy her mother a home. "When I interviewed her she said she couldn't remember a thing from the first 10 years of her life," Barzilai said. "She simply erased all the good memories she had. Her mother, who failed to rehabilitate her own life, couldn't forget the good life she had. [She] never decided to forget and to start over." How does any of this relate to the forthcoming elections? According to Barzilai, Kadima leader Livni is constructing a story about being different from certain people both within and outside the party. "Livni says, 'I am not corrupt and I don't give in to pressure' in the context of the failure of the coalition negotiations with Shas, and she even says that she is different from the former leader of her party, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert," Barzilai said. "She is trying to build a different narrative to her story." In the case of Labor's Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Barzilai said the gap between his story and the way the public views him has weakened his image. "Barak's campaign describes him as not sympathetic, not a buddy, and not nice - but a leader. This message repeats the image he used to have as prime minister, a type of Napoleon, a person who makes decisions by himself. It comes from the assumption that a leader needs to be authoritative," she said. "But in reality it tries to cover up what he is missing - authority and charisma that faded away. This is why his campaign is being used by his rivals to criticize him," she said. Regarding Netanyahu, Barzilai said that he no longer presents himself to the public as the idealist he once was. "This idealism has changed, and his economic doctrine hasn't proved itself," she said. "The image that fits him the most right now and can serve him is of a flexible person. Even the pathos that characterized his tone of speech has gone, and now he is more vague, probably because he thinks that this fog will serve him better in future negotiations to form a coalition." Barzilai's SEMEL programs are being implemented in high schools throughout the country, particularly among failing students who come from tough socio-economic backgrounds. She said she uses the method on her own three children, helping them build a positive life story by focusing on their abilities and on the things they do well.