Narrative Leadership

David Kantor (1999) says that if you claim to understand a phenomenon you need to demonstrate that you have viable and congruent theories of the thing itself, of what causes it to change and of the practices that enable and influence that change.  I will touch on all of these and introduce a further dimension which is that the power of stories and of storytelling is evident in three interrelated domains – self, community and the wider world (i.e. the first person ‘I’; the second person ‘we’; and the third person ‘they’).  It might be clearer if I express this in the form of separate propositions. 

So I am asserting here that stories are:

1.      The primary way we make sense of our experience, giving meaning and significance to our lives and creating (and re-creating) our sense of self

2.      A vital means of building relationships, bringing groups and communities together (discounting others’ stories can cause conflict and divisions)

3.      A powerful force in the world, acting on our imaginations to shape, constrain and free our sense of what is desirable and possible. 

I am not going to try and prove the first proposition here beyond inviting you to consider how you respond to the question ‘Who are you?’  Behind whatever response you give lay the constitutive stories of your experiences that lead you to identify yourself in a particular way.  It is impossible to reflect on that apparently simple question without touching the stories of what made us who we are. Go on, try! 

To exemplify the second proposition we only have to think of the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the late twentieth century to see what happens when groups within a community no longer give credence or legitimacy to the stories of other groups. It is not so much that the stories of one group were disagreed with, it is that they fell completely outside the discourse of another group: they literally held no meaning or significance for each other.  Conversely, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa has been – for all its difficulties – a conscious exercise in storytelling across boundaries.  Healing bitter divisions requires that we can once again tell our stories to each other and be heard. 

The third proposition is even grander, claiming that our perception of the wider world is shaped and constrained by the limits of our imagination. A key to any social or political movement seeking democratic change, for example, is to influence our belief in what is possible and desirable.  At the time of writing, Barack Obama is about to be inaugurated as the President of the United States: the whole electoral process can be seen as a battle between competing stories.  Obama defeated his opponent because his optimistic story of how things could be (encapsulated in the phrase ‘Yes – we can’) caught the imagination of a sufficient number of voters to ensure victory.  The validity of the ‘big stories’ (so-called meta-narratives), within which we consciously and unconsciously live our lives, may be taken for granted by those who benefit most from the status quo, but may be contested by those who come to see themselves as oppressed. 

From here we can move swiftly to a series of parallel propositions about how change occurs in each of these domains and from there to the practices that constitute Narrative Leadership.  These propositions (or provocations if you prefer) are presented starkly without modifications and qualifiers for the sake of clarity.

1.      Our sense of identity – who we are – only changes when we change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves

2.      Organisations, groups and communities only change when the stories, and storytelling dynamics (i.e. the processes by which stories are told and made sense of) between people, change

3.      Our view and experience of the world only changes as we question the prevailing meta-narratives and imagine new possibilities 

Of course, stories change reciprocally with changing circumstances in the external world.  Our storytelling always occurs in a context, so narrative leadership is not about dreaming something up from ungrounded fantasy. Nor is the practice of narrative leadership about claiming the exclusive truth of any single story, or about imposing a story on others  – those ways lead to fundamentalism and oppression respectively.  Story can equally be used for both malign as well as for benign purposes, and its very power demands that we pay careful attention to what stories we have earned the right to tell, our intentions in telling them and how we tell them.  Narrative Leadership demands courage, integrity and authenticity – the antithesis of ‘spin doctoring’.  

These propositions about change lead directly to a consideration of the dimensions that constitute the practice of Narrative Leadership.  I emphasise that it is a practice – by which I mean something that is done rather than a quality, attribute or position.  It occurs whenever someone (at any level) takes responsibility for making meaning – with and for others – about the past, present or future through the conscious use of stories.  Doing that well is a whole-person process which can be learnt, if not taught. Developing that capacity requires that attention be paid to all three domains – ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘they’.

1.      Knowing one’s life stories without being their prisoner – letting go of degenerative and dysfunctional stories and finding positive ones

2.      Building relationships and communities by creating and sustaining a healthy flow of stories between diverse people and groups

3.      Developing and telling authentic, compelling ‘leadership stories’ that are grounded in reality and that help people connect with worthwhile purposes    

Since the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves shape us so strongly, it behoves us to get to know them. What are our iconic stories? What do they say about what really matters to us or what we are in service of? When stories that we hold closely no longer serve us we need to re-story ourselves and to reinforce new self-stories by acting into our intentions, living congruently with the new stories as well as telling them:  As well as auto-biographical stories we can also draw on the wisdom of traditional tales and archetypal myths. If we tell our stories and engage with them creatively and imaginatively then we can gain new perspectives about ourselves and what drives us, and open up new possibilities. There are many opportunities for working with our self-stories; in the context of a coaching relationship, for example; with a biographical counsellor; at a storytelling workshop. However you choose to approach it the imperative is the same – know thyself!

Turning out from oneself, the second strand of inquiry is to pay attention to what stories are being told and by whom.  Systems of all kinds (families, groups, orgnisations, communities, nations) are replete with stories for those willing to listen.  But some stories are ‘louder’ than others: stories of the powerful may be given more credence than those of the weak.  For example; discounting the stories of indigenous peoples’ lives was for many years both a symptom and a cause of their marginalisation from so-called “mainstream society”. Consider whose stories are not being heard in the systems that you are a part of – whose voices are muted or ignored? Often their stories are of particular importance so be sure to elicit and encourage a wide range of stories in your organisation or community and listen respectfully. Storytelling is always relational. If you are interested in change then look for images, themes and patterns in the stories you hear. What do they imply or suggest? If the stories are stuck or unhelpful, consider what moves or gestures you can make to help them change.  Build on positive stories and give space for new stories to emerge and be told: remember that stories have a viral effect for good or ill.  The watchwords when attempting to build relationships and a sense of community through a healthy flow of stories is – only connect!

 If the ‘leadership stories’ you tell are genuinely going to engage or even inspire listeners, instead of being received with justifiable scepticism, then there are some very important things to remember. Be clear about the ground you are standing on when you claim that something matters: the truth is that if it doesn’t really matter to you then, however facile or skilled a storyteller you are, it won’t matter to anyone else either.  The story needs to be authentic and compelling but you do not need to be flashy or particularly charismatic. It is much more important to find genuine points of congruence between who you are and what you are saying: how are you personally involved in the bigger story you are telling?  In what ways is your life touched by what you are asking people to do?  The story you tell needs to breathe.  It is best shared with others in a way that is open and inclusive, that has room for their stories too so they can see themselves in it. Finally, remember that ‘victory narratives’ are dull and not very credible.  People are much more interested and inclined to believe stories that are rooted in reality, and that acknowledge difficulties and struggles whilst also offering something better.  Ultimately it is the qualities of the teller that count more than the quality of the story, and those qualities shine through when you know what you stand for and… when you stand for something!