The Story in Leadership

A version of this paper was presented to 12th ANZ Systems Society Conference, 2006

The Story in Leadership

© David J Green & Associates Pty Ltd, 2009

We shape our self

to fit this world

and by the world

are shaped again.

The visible

and the invisible

working together

in common cause,

to produce

the miraculous.

I am thinking of the way

the intangible air

passed at speed

round a shaped wing


holds our weight.

So may we, in this life


to those elements

we have yet to see

or imagine,

and look for the true

shape of our own self,

by forming it well

to the great

intangibles about us.

“Working Together” by David Whyte

We are our stories. As individuals, our narrative representations which we construct and rehearse and relate are both the mythology we enact and the process by which we make sense of ourselves in our worlds. And in organisations, and their sub-cultures and groups, there are analogous, though often disparate, narratives in formation and representation, which serve to create and render meaning in our worklives. In this setting, storytelling is very much alive, but generally disowned and discounted, associated with rumours, gossip, or ‘spin’. We often fail to see how integrally connected story and meaning-making are, and just how much we employ it to do just that for us. Ask experienced managers to tell a story to a purpose, and all too quickly they play-act teachers talking to children…or worse, tell a story, or analogy, then explain the point, just in case it wasn’t clear.

As Morgan pointed out twenty years ago, the dominant metaphor for our companies and governmental agencies is that of the machine. Even when managers refrain from phrases such as ‘well-oiled machine’ or ‘running like clockwork’, the implicit model for conceptualising their organisational systems is mechanical – or mechanistic. The only ‘knowing’ which can be trusted, or at least justified, is that based on numbers. Business books, with titles such as “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, or “How Full is Your Bucket?”, are in essence the technical manuals required by managers who see their job as identifying and solving problems and fixing things – linear, sequential, operational and exhortational. They offer the promise of simplification in an uncertain, uncontrollable and complex world. And they are the companions to the ‘tools’ required to diagnose and re-engineer the organisation – from pareto diagrams to decision analysis to accountability mapping.

It is hard, after all, as a senior manager, to be held accountable for leading a system which you can’t actually control, though the mantra of ‘shareholder value’ does offer the possibility of immediate, superficial change tied to short-term performance measures linked in turn to often excessive remuneration benefits – a kind of ‘chain letter’ passed from one CEO to the next. In a messy world, leading by analysis and decree offers the promise of control, or at least of some sense of order and momentary stability.

This inflation with rationality and analysis is, of course, rooted in traditional science thinking, the paradigm of technical, academic, and business fields; in organisational life, it has habitually become the paradigm for business management and leadership, and linked to a widely-endorsed managerial fantasy of control.

It should be no surprise to us, then, that whenever managers seek to better their organisations, they will approach the task within a mindset which has dominated their formal education, their technical and management development, their worklives, and the formal discourse of the workplace. As a consequence, their work is defined through analysis, planning, strategizing, process-driven design, frameworks, modelling, systems, measurement, technology, and processes. Performance management and tight meeting agendas at the team level; Six Sigma and Du Pont safety training at the corporate level.

Wheatley has highlighted how traditional science thinking understandably leads managers and consultants towards organisational development through foci centred on those aspects most easily accessed through rationality, analysis, objectivity, and measurable externalities. For me, these foci are slightly different from hers, and include structure, processes, and behaviour. Arguably, this is the focus and methodology of the ‘manager’, whose task is resource control through the exercise of informed and experienced judgement in these three domains. In this way, it ‘makes sense’ to use the traditional science paradigm in much of the business of technical, financial, strategic, administrative, and operational work. Customers, understandably, expect consistent high quality and reliability in products and services, and rationality, logic and measurement are essential contributors to that end.

Rationality, objectivity and business jargon is not, of course, reflected in the nature of the discourse whenever managers talk informally, where story and metaphor predominate. But this phenomenon only serves to reinforce the disowned place of the more human modes of communicating.

And it is also not reflected in the language of the business press, whenever it is not presenting numbers. Financial journalists draw extensively on the ‘undisciplined’ use of story and metaphor as the actual way of capturing and conveying their reportage. A quick examination of this press reveals phrases such as “Smorgon and OneSteel have…(a) pre-nuptial agreement…”, “we’re being quite bullish…”, and “…when the financial pressure on Australian families really hits around the kitchen table.”

The central dilemma of organisational leadership, however, is that companies and other organisations comprise people – they are human, or social, systems. As many writers have attested, they are best understood through a non-rational lens, as complexes of subjective realities, formed and expressed through patterns of personal and collective meaning-making and dissemination. Despite our best efforts to control our behaviour and thoughts, to make defensible decisions, and to make ourselves (or at least our staffs) predictable and orderly, human beings are in fact emotional, subjective, personal, and distinctly non-rational in how we engage with ourselves and each other. When Wheatley began to explore the concepts and metaphors of ‘new science’ for their application to human systems, she initiated a process of legitimizing a more fitting perspective for the understanding and engagement of human forces in organisations.

This mindset for leadership is characterised by an acceptance that meaning-making is central to being human, and is a process which is internal, emotionally integrated, personally and socially constructed, and essentially uncontrollable (that is, no-one can legislate for others what they will believe, what they will know, or who they will trust). When we add a systemic frame, and the effects of inter-relationship, the business of ‘leadership’, as opposed to ‘management’, may be seen as the capacity to work effectively with non-rational dynamics, at various system levels – intrapersonal through to organisational. Looked at from another perspective, leadership is the expression of Gardner’s interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. And, as Wheatley highlighted, the foci for leadership energy will be on those aspects which make the greatest difference to system effectiveness – relationship (or connectivity), identity (or the socially-constructed ideations that create coherence and cohesion), and information (or freely-available data and interpretation necessary for action).

Many related notions emerge from the carriage of leadership in these terms. Problem solving is replaced by identifying and modifying patterns (no cause and effect relationship is assumed); the modelling (in both senses – behaviour and mentally mapping) of desired patterns replaces the modelling of problems and dysfunctionality; we look for the patterns of the patterns (fractals); we accept that unconscious (ie out-of-awareness) process is at least as powerful a force as conscious behaviour; we accept and work with multiple realities, rather than seek to impose one reality; and the focus moves from feedback (or control) loops to amplification (or self-fulfilling) loops, as key dynamics.

The incessant efforts of managers to use the tools and methods of rationality, conscious design and control (unfortunately, organisational development practitioners often collude in this) to work with essentially non-rational, unconsciously patterned and uncontrollable dynamics, are doomed to mediocre results. The constant failure of the majority of acquisitions and mergers to realise the financial and market gains which seem so self-evident at the planning stage, are testimony to the relatively rare attention given to working with human dynamics, using ‘human’ means.

In these terms, then, what comprises the exercise of leadership? If it’s not about rationality, analysis, measurement or control, then what does it entail? For those of us involved in leadership development, what capacities might we aim to help build in client organisations, or with individuals?

When leadership is seen as embedded in a context of non-rational dynamics, and as an essentially human activity, we can see that effective – and ethical – leaders demonstrate several distinct capacities. They welcome the act of engagement with others and are skillful and open in doing so; they turn their face towards others, and use the opportunity to explore rather than debate, learn rather than judge, elicit rather than pronounce. In so doing, they create an imperative for openness. They show a capability for self-understanding, combined with a willingness for the discomfort of personal learning and exploration; they are comfortable to make mistakes, and are personally secure – when these aspects are manifest, they are experienced by others as congruent (which in turn increases trust).

Effective leaders demonstrate that they understand what it means to be a participant in the human system to which they belong; they know that they cannot not participate – that the leadership question is about the nature of that participation, not the fact of it; and in so doing, they draw others into the act of belonging, rather than fragmentation. They also show that they understand that the fact that no person can legislate, or control, another’s beliefs, relationships, or knowledge, far from making them impotent, helps them to understand the power of modelling the qualities and actions they espouse – otherwise, why would others follow them down any particular path? Rather than dictate behaviour, leaders ‘do it’; then, rather than command, they invite others to suspend their disbelief and test whether they, too, might take the risk of new directions, new behaviours, and new identities. They know that the higher the level of interpersonal safety and trust, the more likely it is that others will accept the invitation.

And rather than seeking to build shared experiences and shared realities through electronic media, powerpoint slideshows, corporate roadshows, and ‘events’ at five-star hotels – all of which reinforce disconnection, formality, fabricated order, and hierarchy – effective leaders engage with others by using human means to do a  human job. They are skillful in using, and co-constructing, symbols, symbolic actions, rituals, and metaphor and story.

Modern organisations, corporate or governmental, have lost their connection to the non-rational, essentially human nature of their own being. Thirty years of globalisation and agglomeration, of the corporatisation of discourse, of the justification of far-reaching decisions in notions such as ‘wealth creation’ and ‘shareholder value’, and galloping uncertainty and disorder – a fragmentation possibly greater than at any time for 500 years – has if anything intensified organisational desperation for order, control, and the reassurance of numbers. And yet, whether we harness its potential or not, story remains probably the most potent means of shaping and representing meaning in our direction, purpose, relationships, and engagement with our lives – including, particularly, our worklives. As individuals or collectives, our lives reflect the continuous iteration of our being and our narratives. Our identities are always in construction through this interaction between our experience and our sense-making. And, as we ‘make sense’ of our experiences, our stories become the myths which our lives express. In our organisations, our shared identity is constantly moderated and maintained in our shared stories.

‘Leadership’ may be seen as a term to describe a certain quality of relationship, in which, at that point in time, a particular person, or people, make both an offer and an invitation, with which others choose to engage. As such, the giving and receiving of leadership involves an exchange which is personal, emotional, subjective, value-laden, and, of course, rich in personal meaning. And while ‘management’ – the exercise of rational judgement for resource control is a complex which we might expect to be increasingly well exercised as managers progress through the hierarchy, it is clear that ‘leadership’ may be found – and increasingly needs to be found – at all levels in an organisation. The presence – or absence – of effective leadership at senior levels in organisations impacts the worklives of more people, however, than at levels further down the food chain.

Wherever leadership is brought to bear, though, story is an integral element in its effectiveness. This includes the ‘why’ of work – in the form of shared purpose and aspiration, which can only ever be captured and shared through metaphor. It also includes the ‘where’ – an organisation’s vision, direction, desired future or outcomes, best encapsulated in a form which enhances enduring commitment through connecting to emotion and creating clear mental images. There is the ‘how’ – in the form of shared values and of the ethics of engagement, both internally and externally; it is through examples and illustrations that we build a shared knowledge of what these abstractions might mean to each other, which are then brought to life by constantly challenging each others’, and our own, actions, against those espoused values. And there is the ‘what’ – the subjectively-laden content of our discourse, which, as Gargiullo has argued, sees knowledge and information constructed and shared primarily through story.

Leadership also works to create a shared sense of the ‘who’ – as a focus on identity, it is in part about the issues of vision, direction, purpose and values. But, in a human system, it is also socially conceived – we are defined by who we relate to, and the quality of those relationships. Thus, a ‘shared narrative’ is not an artefact of data collection but of relatedness unfolding, adjusting, over time. The important part about narrative is the process of its construction and maintenance between the story-holders. The shared story we tell and enact is embedded in our relationships, and is a living thing. Every time we have that story (or metaphor) printed or published, we risk the loss of its living character, by ossifying it in print. Stories with life must be told, re-told, personalised, and evolving. And, behind the shared stories, there is the dynamic, modelled by leaders, of the willingness to share our individual stories. It can be argued that relationships and trust are the product of perhaps just two things: the assurance of consistent and compassionate behaviour over time; and the disclosure and listening to each others’ stories – both from the narrative itself and the way in which it is told, both of which take us past stereotypes to a deeper knowing of the other.

A major challenge for leadership lies today in bringing about frequent successful change and transition processes in organisations, and this is an area in which ritual, symbollic behaviour, and story are vital. The preoccupation of managers for rational approaches leads them too often to the analysis and re-design of structure, processes, systems, and required behaviour, as if the human aspects can be folded in later – or perhaps during the ‘implementation’ phase. But also engaging with the transitional dynamics – the subjective, human dimension – is critical to success, or else the corporate culture, the non-rational dynamics, the power structure, the emotions, and the changing identity and relationship issues are all essentially ignored. If only the corporate culture could be simply dictated by senior managers! But, as in all significant relationships, the telling and re-telling of our personal accounts and responses are an essential part of real engagement as complete human beings; and the joint pursuit of the emerging shared story for the ‘new order’ can only be achieved through the face-to-face co-creation of the new narrative. This contrasts strongly with the corporate pronouncements, slogans, jargon, ‘spin’, and ‘corporatespeak’ which is dry and lifeless, and usually handed down by the ‘top team’, or worse, by communications consultants – outsiders.

The conventional patterns of organisational life lie in disconnection, so-called ‘objectivity’, and detachment, and it is in this manner that most of what passes for leadership is framed. In addition, emotion and the personal are put aside, along with a pervasive collusion to ‘keep things nice’. But David Whyte has argued over many years for the corporate engagement with the whole experience of organisational life – not just the light and the tangible, but that which is “the dark and invisible” side of that life, since it is the “very chasm from which our personal destiny emerges”. At no time previously in the history of the modern organisation has this been more important than now, at a time of immense uncertainty and global upheaval.

The common response to uncertainty by organisational managers is to do more of what already does not work, that is – whether characterised as fight, flight, or freeze – to seek more and more control. To put a name, a human face, a feeling, or a genuine ‘warts and all’ engagement into organisational life is to reveal to ourselves the frightening edge of chaos and conflict, and to have to confront that place where our practice is weighed against universal human values (or our espoused ones). This is the place in daily organisational life where we are truly accountable  to each other – seen every day in those areas we dare not name and face together, such as excessive and manipulated CEO remuneration levels, or the human realities of constant retrenchments (‘rationalisations’), or the falsifications of corporate language and ‘spin doctors’. And organisational development practitioners too often play their part in perpetuating rational and disconnected methodologies as the means to working with the uniquely human forces within our organisations, and in so doing, help to ensure that violence, aggression, power, and unjustness – as well as compassion, fairness, happiness, and grace – cannot be openly engaged, known and honoured.

The post-globalisation context for business, described by Saul and by Kelly, is truly a world of turmoil with multiple emerging forces competing to drive our global futures. Effective leadership in both society and in organisations will seek to chart a course which seeks the best for their people, while honouring their right to share in the responsibility. To share our true stories and work together to build a genuine shared narrative to represent and shape our destinies takes courage, but the leader within us has no better alternative for creating a coherent, relational and congruent course.


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