In these days of social media likes, fake news and alternative facts, it’s easy to see that influence and how to wield it is top of mind for most leaders. For this reason, I see storytelling as one of the key leadership capacities — being able to tell a compelling story about an organisation’s mission, about your community’s potential, or about your own vocation, is key to creating a more potent future or even having one! There are two ways story can power your leadership edge.
Next on the list for leaders, however, needs to be StoryWork. Using stories to make collective sense and meaning builds a foundation for common ground. To get to higher ground, however, a leader must be able to shape the stories in the field to be more generative or make a new story to take people in a new direction. The ability to recognise and also work with the stories already alive in your organisation, group or team, speaks to the leader’s role as StoryShaper or StoryMaker (I defined these in a paper in 2009).
Let’s take a look at the final two perspectives:
Everyone knows how music can set the tone. Pop music can make you want to sing along. African drum music can make you want to dance. The municipality of Copenhagen even used classical music playing outside the back entrance of the main train station as a way of keeping young people from loitering. How tastes change over the centuries! The important thing to remember about music is that the more you hear it, the more you resonate with it. You literally attune to the tune you are hearing.
Stories also carry a resonance. Stories of challenges overcome can make us feel uplifted. Stories of violence and abuse can make us go into fear. Stories of injustice can ignite a fire in us for change. That’s not surprising, considering that neuroscientistshave tracked the brain patterning of story listeners and storytellers. When we are listening to a story that compels us, our brains light up in the same way the storyteller’s brain lights up. We are literally — both from a mental and physical perspective — experiencing the story at the same time as the teller and the other listeners. This is called mirroring.
Neural coupling is the name for the way the brain can be stimulated to take on the ideas and experience within the story as its own. Scientists have also told us that one of the reasons stories are more impactful than facts is that they activate many more parts of the brain, including the motor, sensory and frontal cortexes.
The bad news about this, from a leadership perspective, is that when negative stories continue to circulate, they begin to create a negative resonance that spirals out. The good news is, positive stories, as we learned previously release the very hormones that create a sense of community and intimacy. Good stories we share together make us want to be part of community. They make us want to share more.
Stories speak to our experiences, but also to our longings. Like this Post It note from a woman in the circle at the start of a challenging merger process in the charity Habitat for Humanity: I hope for us to come home together, they are placeholders for our fears, wishes and dreams. For this reason, they act like a tuning fork, vibrating us into the resonance of the story we are in. Story acts as a resonance tuner by
You might say a story is the quickest link between two people. We have only to look around us in a political sense to see that the stories that continue to be shared set the tone, whether they are true or not.
People continue to look to leaders (and by this I mean leaders at every level and capacity) to see how to navigate the system they are in. What you say is equally as important as what you do. When these two align, it is called integrity. Some also call it authenticity.
In the same way, stories can also be used to shift the resonance or recalibrate the system. To their chagrin, many leaders have found out that facts cannot trump a compelling story — only a story can trump another story. If you want to change the course of the system you are leading or living in, you need to find the compelling story that will help you gain traction to shift the system.
The Corrymeela Peace Centre in Northern Ireland delivers some fantastic training on how to work with longterm conflict situations. Their iceberg model shows how conflict escalates and also what the stages of de-escalation are. And like any iceberg, nine-tenths of the challenge is under the waterline. What’s under the waterline in conflicts is narrative. Long after the direct actors in a conflict have come to resolution, the conflict can still continue because the vicarious actors — all those people attached to those directly involved — keep telling the same old story.
And just like a good piece of music is rich and engaging, stories can be used to create harmonics in the system — to spotlight or pinpoint something you want to value or enhance in the moment it is happening or needed. When I’m working with groups, I call that “speaking to the thought bubble” and I imagine myself telling the story I’m sharing directly to the invisible thought or question hovering over people’s heads in that moment. Leaders have the platform to tend to system harmonics.
Storytelling is what makes us uniquely human and it seems we can’t function without them. Throughout our human history we’ve used them to share knowledge, to capture our learning and experience, to make sense and meaning of the world and to test our ideas about what it means to be a good human and a valuable member of society. I call stories “the library of humanity”.
Everything we have ever known still lives on in our stories — and much that we’ve forgotten. I remember reading in an old copy of National Geographic about a scientist studying volcanos in Hawaii, who’d hit a dead end. He finally asked elders there about their old stories and found precisely the missing piece in a legend about the fire goddess Pele.
Seeing story in this perspective begs the question about what part of the library we’re focusing on at the moment. Perhaps we’ve been playing on the fear shelf or in the competition section for too long. Perhaps we’ve gotten lost in the consumer periodicals or we’ve been rereading the scarcity manual too many times. Maybe it’s time to focus on other stories.
As our societies face increasing complexity, they are also facing a growing wave of social isolation. The workplace is still a major meeting point for humanity and most people spend more time at work than they do with their own families. That makes a sense of connection, belonging and purpose at work increasingly important. Employee engagement depends on it.
What does it mean to be human these days? Story is — at its very nature — about the art and practice of being human. It supports our awakening humanity by:
Stories and storytelling are a fundamental building block for creating shared understanding. We use them all the time with colleagues, especially in the process of acculturation of a new staff person. The anecdotes we share help us to navigate the workplace and make sense of the codes of behaviour that lurk beneath the surface. Just as a traveller needs translation help in a new country with a new language, employees support each other to learn about local working customs by sharing stories.
Stories can be the bridge builder across the divides, and a way for welcoming and engaging diversity. Especially in global organisations with diverse ethnicities, races and languages, storytelling can help to create better teamwork by creating more tolerance and acceptance around different ways of engaging with the same issues. It can also highlight and make useful unique ways of dealing with challenges or creating innovation.
Remember that there are multiple definitions of “culture” operating in the workplace. Each person arrives with their own unique story lens on the world, which is impacted by the culture they were raised in and operate in now. Each organisation also has its own unique cultural mix, the “how we do it around here” that makes it recognisable. On the way to embedding storytelling in the workplace as part of the culture it needs to be used intentionally and with supportive, well-hosted process so that there is “safe enough” space for sharing and so that good listening and sense making is encouraged.
In these times of complexity and on-going change, creating resilient community in the workplace is a top priority. As those of us who have lived in the earthquake zone can attest (and this is my experience after 30 years in New Zealand!), a resilient community is not the community with more resources, but the more connected community. Creating spaces for people to meet and share their stories — of work, of learning, of life — is an important ingredient in strengthened relationships and community that lasts. It is creating and tending the connected community.
In my early 20s I had a three-month internship at IBM’s International Education Centre in La Hulpe, Belgium. I was curious to find out what it was like inside of this renowned organisation. I remember many of the people there told me they valued their collegial community and the stories they shared above all else, even more than the many resources and opportunities of such a .global enterprise. Some had even left only to return again, saying: “I just couldn’t find the kind of conversations I have here anywhere else!”
Stories also create what Open Space founder Harrison Owen calls “a bigger now”. They create an extended present moment, where time stops. An opportunity to take a look at a snapshot of life in the midst of the ever-flowing river and make sense of it A little momentary pause in proceedings in which to rest and reflect. Organisationally, this is a great gift. To be able to consult our collegial and human experience in story form makes it possible to alter the focus, gain new, fresh perspectives, be in this moment, rather than in the past or future.
As human beings, we tell ourselves stories continually. Some of stories remain consistent – even stuck,–while others get reedited. If we let them – and sometimes in the light of someone else’s listening, stories can help us to claim – maybe even reclaim — our understanding of an experience. Perhaps the truth of our experience, which might be quite different from someone else’s experience of the same moment, or a deeper truth that only reveals itself over time. The longer we live with and work with a particular story, the more nuanced it can become and the more it sheds like into the past and offers a new perspective on the future.
As Christina Baldwin said at the recent Story the Future Online Summit: “As you change the story you’re living in the now, you change your expectations of your own capacity in the future. Ask yourself: Are we telling the version of this that is foundational for where we want to go? The next level is the social field of story – first we take our experience and make meaning out of it, then we take our social experience to make connection.”
And finally, sharing stories help us to meet in our humanity and inquire into what it is to be human. All of us have challenges. All of us have coping strategies. All of us have hopes and dreams, fears and frailties. Listening to others helps us to make sense of the wonderful or frightening mess we find ourselves in. Hearing how others cope encourages self-responsibility and action. And this, in turn, helps us to work well together.
Both of these last two perspectives of story — Story as a resonance tuner and Story as part of the art of practicing humanity are part of the last wave.After influence and collective sense and meaning making, what is the next level of the future story of Story? The third wave of story lies in healing and wholing.
Winston Churchill famously said: “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.” After more than 20 years of working with groups, and after supporting hundreds of institutions, large and small, I’ve become aware of the fragmentation, stress and even trauma that institutional and societal structures can impose on those who live and work in them.
When I moved to New Zealand in my mid-twenties I worked in the same team as Andrew Stevens, one of the last people who had spent their entire career at the New Zealand Wool Board. During that time he’d had many different roles, and many different managers, but always a Wool Board family to come back to. Those were still the days where you could smoke in the office and have a cheap, hot meal in the staff cafeteria at lunchtime. I was there when Andrew retired, but I’d moved on before the Wool Board itself became a thing of the past.
I found that same sense of “family” network at the New Zealand Tourism Department when I arrived there. The New Zealand Tourism Department was one of the oldest national tourism functions in the world. Many colleagues who had joined the Department as cadets at aged 17 were now in their fifties and still at work there. But even then things were becoming much more unpredictable. There were no longer secure career paths into foreign service and life-long rising through the ranks. When sudden and continual restructuring became the norm, trauma was the result. Change fatigue became a constant organisational companion.
In the case of regional, multi-national or global organisations – like aid agencies or the European institutions, trauma is multiplied by the fractal nature of the StoryField. People carry their own individual and family traumas, of course, but if in their role they also represent their country (and thereby their national traumas), or the trauma of a specific group, then this also needs to be managed while dealing with a variety of cultural divides and at the same time working inside a structure that can create traumatising impacts to individuals through their very size and bureaucracy.
The trauma inflicted by our structures is exacerbated by the idea that people at work should focus on the work and leave their emotions and private lives — essentially the identity that makes them human — at home. This is a concept that, in itself, leads to fragmentation. What suffers is the potential to be a whole person operating within a context that encourages wholeness and holistic or systemic thinking.
At the micro level, I’ve noticed that when any group meets, first healing is needed. This need may be expressed overtly — as in “Now I need you to listen to me!” — or covertly — the group is uncomfortable, there is something unspoken in the room, people feel stuck or trapped. Either way, the need is like a threshold the group must step over in order to do good work together, and to stay together long enough to do it. Storytelling can take a group over the threshold, enabling them create enough understanding to form the basis of a new conversation, and from there, wiser action. The understanding and community feeling that arises from storytelling can build the foundation for a future.
With so much fragmentation in our societies and organisations, coming back together again — wholing— is what we now need to explore. If we truly want to galvanise the potential in our organisations, if we want more energy and commitment in our teams, if we want to share resources and have more vibrancy in our communities, then we need ways to bring the pieces together again or introduce them in the first place!
This third wave of the future story of Story — working with storytelling as a medium for healing and wholing — is not an end in itself, but it is necessary. It takes us back around the cycle again, this time to influencing with integrity and on again to making new sense and meaning together that will take us to the next level of wholeness. It is time for the new paradigm leader — the Story Activist, the one who uses storytelling and storywork to help create a more flourishing future — to get to work.
SUMMARY: The third wave of how we work with stories focuses on healing and wholing. This is the most hidden power of story and storytelling, the ability to transmute the conflict, pain or trauma of the past into strength for the future. The two perspectives that fall under this third wave are story as a resonance tuner and story as part of the art of practicing humanity.With the ever increasing complexity and conflict in human society, it makes sense to pay attention to how we can clear the way for more generative co-working on our most challenging issues.
Story is a key component in organisational life – and in human life within organisations! — so it makes sense to become proficient at working with it, good at spotting it in action and wise in its application. The benefits to the wise use of story are more effective, connected and cohesive individuals, groups and full systems. Story is one of the major “attractor factors” in the working world, whether it is packaged as vision, mission, values, ways of working or culture. It is alive and well, and every organisational system is a mirror of its impact.
It might be said that every story takes you on a journey. Whether that is a complete hero’s journey into life’s biggest challenges and beyond or a small step towards another individual or into personal understanding. To go beyond merely surviving, to thriving, and even further to flourishing, means taking hold of your story, challenging your perspectives, and riding the waves.
The Three Waves and Six Perspectives of Story:
First Story Wave: INFLUENCE
Second Story Wave: COLLECTIVE SENSE & MEANING MAKING
Third Story Wave: HEALING & WHOLING