There are some encouraging signs that storytelling in organisations is an idea whose time has come. Clients in the world of organisational and leadership development have begun to sit up and take notice. Consultants and coaches are signing up for storytelling courses in increasing numbers to develop their understanding and skills. Researchers are turning more readily to storytelling methodologies and narrative inquiry to engage with the complexity of organisations.
It is an exciting and formative time to be involved with storytelling in organisations: a time when it is possible to influence developments in an emerging field of practice – just the kind of time I love. But such times also have a tendency to bring out a desire to regulate and control new forms of practice and systematise new knowledge. I have witnessed this seemingly inevitable human tendency manifest itself in two areas in which I was deeply involved (Gestalt psychology and personal coaching) in the 1990’s and I have no desire to see storytelling (whether inside or outside of organisations) follow the same route.
This concern was brought into sharp relief early in 2007 when I saw storyteller Hugh Lupton and musician Chris Wood give an extraordinary performance of a new work, On Common Ground based on the life of the nineteenth century “peasant poet”, John Clare. Born the son of “commoners” and sharing his early life with them, close to the soil in an open landscape without hedges and fences, Clare was driven mad by the privatisation and parcelling up of the countryside that followed the Enclosure Acts and spent the last twenty seven years of his life in asylums for the insane. As I listened to this poignant story unfold, it struck me how the same pernicious tendency to enclose and claim ownership of public property has extended into so many aspects of our lives in the twenty-first century – especially the exploitation of so-called “intellectual property”. I had no qualms about people legitimately enjoying the fruits of their labour but I did have a horror of Storytelling ™ and I decided that I wanted to put my energy into working collaboratively with colleagues to invest in the storytelling commons.
In the days and weeks that followed, I began to think about what sort of contribution I could make to develop the field of storytelling in organisations in a healthy way. In the end it dawned on me that a collaborative approach meant finding other people working with story in organisations – storytellers, leaders, researchers, consultants and developers – who would be interested in coming together to explore the possibility of creating some kind of community of practice.
My first port of call was my dear friend Sue Hollingsworth, once my teacher at the School for Storytelling and by then a close colleague. Her eyes lit up at once; “It’s a great idea. I’d love to be part of something like that.” With her backing I then approached another friend, Margaret Bishop who was much newer to the world of storytelling and who I knew would offer a different and complementary perspective. She too readily agreed to help and we three began to meet to talk and hatch a plot.
Our first meeting was in London at a café near St Paul’s Cathedral. It was easy to agree that we needed some sort of event to bring people together and we decided that we would convene a gathering that coming December, still many months away, to give ourselves time to plan and prepare. We talked about storytelling and why we thought that it mattered so much, about how we came to be involved with storytelling and about our hopes for the gathering.
“I want to create something together that will make a mark in this field. I want to bring some good people together and take a stand for a responsible and generous approach to storytelling,” I said.
“Its all about relationships,” said Sue. “We know lots of good people between us that we can invite. I’m really happy to help you get this off the ground but it is your baby, Geoff. You are the one who has to own whatever it is that we create and take it forward.”
“I’m very excited and pleased that you asked me to be involved,” said Margaret. “I love stories and I’m curious to see what comes of this but I’m not sure what else I can bring to the party.”
‘What we need to bring us together and to breathe some life into what we are planning is a story,” said Sue. “I’ve been thinking about this and I’m pretty sure I’ve got one. It’s very short. Would you like to hear it?”
We didn’t need to be asked twice. Margaret and I sat back in our chairs, coffee in hand, as Sue told us Water on the Rock, the story that was to give its name to our first gathering.
A group of Bushmen once led some anthropologists to see some rock paintings in the Kalahari Desert. When they arrived the anthropologists could see nothing. Laughing, the Bushmen threw water from their gourds onto the sun bleached surface of the rock and the images burst into life.
“That’s it,” Margaret and I said, almost as one.
“It’s perfect, Sue,” I continued. “I love the image of the rock – I want to create something that’s durable and substantial, something that lasts.”
“And I’m more of an anthropologist, exploring something that is very old but new to me,” said Margaret.
Sue laughed. “That’s funny, I like to think of myself as the water splashing on the rock and bringing the paintings to life. We seem to be well-matched, don’t we?”
We three continued to meet throughout the year, from frosty mornings in Surrey to rainy afternoons in London and sunlit days walking on the beach in Dorset, gradually clarifying and articulating our intentions and piecing together a design for our inaugural gathering that reflected them. By September we were ready to sound the call to action and we sent out thirty personal invitations together with the following explanation of what we had come to call “Narrative Leadership”.
On the surface, the rationale for developing the capacity for narrative leadership in organisations is quite straightforward. If, as leaders, managers or change agents we want to get our point of view across effectively, engage people’s energy and commitment, inspire others and open their minds to new possibilities, we need to be able to tell a convincing story. As leaders we have to earn the right to ask for people’s commitment by standing up and speaking out for what we believe in. Narrative Leadership demands authentic stories told with skill, integrity and vulnerability. It also requires us to develop a deeper understanding of how stories work – to learn to see more clearly the sea of stories in which we swim.
There is also a deeper rationale for working with narrative leadership. We live in a world bombarded by oppressive narratives, subliminal images, disguised messages, and political slogans. It is crucial for our future – especially at this time of urgent environmental, social and ecological challenges – that we develop skill and discernment in telling and listening to leadership narratives. We must learn how to differentiate between narratives that are self-interested and self-serving (and thereby diminishing of others) and those that come from a place of greater mutuality and genuine engagement (and thereby potentially life enhancing).
Our dream is to bring together a group of people – storytellers, academic researchers, organisational and other leaders, and leadership development consultants and practitioners – to co-create a Centre for Narrative Leadership in order to develop the praxis of narrative leadership: to build our understanding of how story can support worthwhile work in the world; to grow and share our expertise; to generate and disseminate useful knowledge; to become a community of inquiry as well as a community of practice; and to establish our presence as leaders in this emerging field.
In the end, twenty four people answered the call and gathered at Charney Manor in Oxfordshire in December 2007 for two extraordinary days of sharing stories, passionate discussions, open space sessions and talking about the kind of Centre that we wanted to create. There was enormous goodwill for the enterprise and a warmly fierce challenge from participants encouraging me to step into a clear leadership role to take things forward coupled with a longing for more such gatherings where, as practitioners from many different disciplines and backgrounds across the field, we could periodically meet and ‘re-source’ ourselves.
In the course of those two days, the form of Centre for Narrative Leadership began to emerge. It became clear that we were more interested in building relationships than in creating formal structures; that we wanted to grow organically and by extending personal invitations rather than by formal membership; that we wanted to follow a communitarian path in our association rather than one that was competitive; that we were seeking to build a sustainable community driven by values rather than an organisation driven by profit.
In a quiet way, the Centre has taken root and flourished since that first meeting. We held two more gatherings in 2008 (Sowing the Seed in July and Cathedrals in the Heart in December) at which participants shared their practice freely with each other in self-organised workshops and more gatherings are planned for 2009. Some fifty people have now taken part in one or more of these events with another fifty or so who have expressed interest in coming along in future.
Our fledgling community, with people from across the storytelling spectrum, recognises that in addition to oral storytelling there are many other ways of working with story including written, digital, embodied, and visual methods. All are welcome and potentially valuable and relevant to the work of the Centre and we anticipate finding and developing powerful new connections and synergies with these and other approaches.
These days I am proud to say that my business card reads, Director of the Centre for Narrative Leadership. The story of the Centre is very much a work in progress and its continuing success is very close to my heart. We seem to have found a good balance between building a community of practice and making a mark on the emerging field of storytelling in organisations without seeking to claim the territory for ourselves. If John Clare were alive today, I hope he would approve.