by Michael Kull, PhD |
It has been said that the one thing all great leaders have in common, be they politicians, artists, educators or opinion-makers, is that they are good storytellers. Joseph Campbell once said that a culture’s storytellers are those individuals whose “ears are open to the song of the universe.” According to Campbell, whose work inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars and has influenced generations of authors and filmmakers, our cultural myths and histories permeate everything we do and create as human beings.
Why is storytelling becoming fashionable today? Much of the argument stems not from mythology or cultural anthropology, but from new understandings in the neurosciences. If the brain were merely a logical system, it seems there would be no need for stories. We would simply store information in memory and recall it at will when required, as if human beings were simply extensions of technology, not the other way around. This remains the prevailing notion of the purpose of information systems, for example. But the brain does not work like this. Research from the neurosciences supports the claim that the brain is an emotional system and the simulation of logic a kind of by-product of meaning-making through the emotions. To evaluate consequences of decisions means to place value on a future desired state. In other words, one cannot “value” a decision outcome without a visceral response. Just as the brain is less a logical system as it is an emotional one, so too organizations are less logical systems as emotional systems. That is, people do not form strategy or innovate business processes or hire and fire without evaluating these activities against a valued future state. Value, not logic, drives organizations. The power of stories exists in large part precisely because of their ability to embed value in context.
In the past, organizational storytelling practices and techniques were focused around sharing emotions and experiences to help break down communication barriers and build a sense of collaboration. Stories provide the context for meaning and action, and therefore, so the story goes, are essential for understanding the deeper why of organizing. Today, authors such as Steve Denning, “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling,” offer new ways of understanding how storytelling informs the practice of leadership, innovation, knowledge sharing and value creation.
Mythical archetypes of leadership have been offered in the field of organizational storytelling to explain why certain people rise to the top in an organization or profession. Every metaphor holds some value to explain culturally how and why certain people seem to be natural leaders and innovators. In organizations, understanding the cultural mythology of leadership has built community, released ingenuity, and tightened the threads of culture in organization after organization.
In the context of modern organizations, cultural storytellers are the chieftains, gurus and shaman of our professional communities. They are the tribal leaders who keynote at conferences – our professional tribal meeting grounds – and are able to relate the accrued wisdom of the ages in ways that resonate with their audiences. And while most professionals may never reach this level of storytelling, every person has a few good stories that have guided them in their work and which they share with others. In this way, our narratives are our knowledge, and the stories we take back to enact change in our organizations are the creative sparks that lead innovation and action.
Consider the guru. This is the person infused with collective wisdom. They are the leading experts in their field and the thought-leaders people turn to when seeking answers to impenetrable problems. Gurus do not just hold deep knowledge, they hold a profound understanding and the ability to see the greater value in a situation or scenario. Our gurus provide us answers, but more importantly they help us shift our thinking and ask better questions.
The chief is the bravest of us. He or she is the one who faces down the opposition, states the mission clearly and with conviction, and leads people down a tremulous path with courage. In a healthy organization, the chief has followed the hero’s journey from obscurity to triumph. In all of us, the chief is the leader within who fortifies the soul and speaks the truth against all odds and corrupt agencies.
Who is the shaman? This is the medicine-man, the magician, and the spiritual leader of the community. The shaman may not hold position power like the chief, or even the deep wisdom of the guru. But their purview is equally vital: they control invisible forces. In organizations, these are the creative types; those who seem to spin fine crystal from cotton candy, evoke genius where before there was confusion, and express ideas in ways that evoke passion in their listeners. They know how to get things done by influencing others through their magic and good medicine.
Organizational storytelling has come a long way since the early days. Indeed, “Story Management” is a one term that has emerged in the last few years to describe the trend in organizations to elicit and understand the cultural narratives we call myths and histories. To effectively make use of narrative, proponents argue, stories must have an emotional connection to the individuals who must act or re-enact the story. Individual accounts, for example, are stories that connect what is known with what is valuable, and then makes it personal. By drawing on personal stories, the leader connects with the mythical world of the organization and community. Ultimately, organizational storytelling as a field now helps to open the way for cultural leaders of all types to step forward and work their mystery.
In addition, lately some psychologists and scholars of narrative have shown that intelligent and reflective people engage continuously in “story negotiation.” That is, they create stories of their experiences and those of others, check their stories with credible people, and revise their stories according to the feeling they have of the possible consequences. We term this process “experience.” And how do we share experience? Through stories.
As a result of these convergent perspectives, storytelling in leadership and organization now has a solid grounding in neurology as well as cultural anthropology. This added credibility has allowed our highly analytical society to reconnect with the narrative universe that since the Enlightenment has been seen as a refuge of the unscientific mind.
In the end, stories are not the only tools of leadership, but they are perhaps the most compelling for helping others to see the value inherent in a good idea. As leaders, we must connect with the chiefs, gurus and shaman within to become better storytellers and better leaders.
© 2011 Intervista Inc.
<back to eLounge main page
To bring this course to your organization call Intervista at 1-800-397-9744.
For outside North America, call
Michael Kull is an Intervista Institute faculty member and leading expert in Knowledge Management and Organizational Storytelling.
Learn more about our faculty