This blog comes from writer, storyteller, educator and “Education for the Soul” Conference 2018 keynote speaker, Geoff Mead.
Narratives that veer toward generalities, explanations, and abstractions, or which insist on telling us their moral or meaning, have abandoned storytelling in favour of propositional knowing and advocacy, and thereby lose their extraordinary ability to stimulate both the feelings and imagination of teller and audience.
Wise leaders know this. Martin Luther King, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in front of 200,000 civil rights supporters, in Washington on August 28, 1963, probably knew it. His friend, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who urged him from the crowd “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” certainly knew it. Responding to her encouragement, King broke off from his prepared speech and told the story of a future nation in which there would be racial justice and equality.
Over 50 years later, we still remember that story barely 300 words – though we might be hard put to recall the rest of his 1,600 word speech. It was a story so powerful that even the story of telling the story has become iconic. Stories touch us in ways that other forms of communication do not. A good story, well told, can slip past the defences of the rational mind, pluck at our hearts, and stir our souls.
Visionary leaders are both far-seeing and far-shaping: their grasp of imaginative possibilities is more clearly aligned than most with the unfolding future and therefore enables them to influence it more strongly. They are able, at least to some extent, to create an empowering new story.
Martin Luther King was an exceptional orator but we too can draw on the power of stories to make (and remake) our worlds. Stories and storytelling are ubiquitous. There have been human societies and civilizations that have flourished without benefit of the wheel but none has existed without stories. As recent studies in anthropology, philosophy, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience consistently tell us, we are storytelling animals; to be human is to tell stories.
The shortest distance between two people is a story
An enemy is one whose story we have not heard. Human relationships necessitate the sharing of stories, it is how we come to know (or more accurately, imagine) the other. In healthy relationships there is room for each of us to share our stories: we are curious about and accepting of each other’s stories.
At first we may be quite selective in what we say about ourselves; we may choose our stories carefully to present ourselves in a particular light. Soon, though, if the relationship is to deepen, we must open up and let ourselves be seen “warts and all.” It is another of the paradoxes of storytelling that we get closer to each other by sharing our differences and thereby discovering what we have in common.
Recall a time in your life when you made a new friend or fell in love with someone; remember how hungry you were to find out about each other, how you shared your life stories and were eager to hear theirs.
Think about how, as your relationship developed, it became defined by the shared stories of your life together. This phenomenon is equally true for organisations, groups, and whole societies. As with so many basic human needs, our understanding and way of talking about relationships tend to become abstracted and jargonised in organisations. “Inclusion” and “engagement” are currently fashionable terms (and matters of concern) for organisational leaders trying to make sense of the disenchantment and alienation of co-workers and colleagues particularly those working at the front line.
Organizations spend vast amounts of time and money administering and analysing staff surveys looking for ways to increase employee loyalty and satisfaction. But unless they are also asking “Whose stories are most valued? Whose stories don’t get heard? How can we create opportunities to share and listen to each other’s stories?” they are largely wasting their time because few things exclude and disengage people quicker than ignoring or discounting their stories.
We can see how this works by looking at some major social and political divisions in recent history. For example, we have only to think of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland in the late twentieth century to see what happens when groups within a community (in this case Protestant and Catholic extremists) no longer give credence or legitimacy to the stories of other groups.
It was not so much that the stories of each group were disagreed with, it was that they fell completely outside the discourse of the other group: they literally held no meaning or significance for each other. Conversely, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa was for all its difficulties – a conscious exercise in storytelling across boundaries. Healing divisions requires that we can once again tell our stories to each other and be heard.
Indeed, the stories we tell are fateful: our ability to change ourselves, our organisations, and our world depends on our capacity to re-imagine them. However, this 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.
So this week, I’d implore you to consider what stories do you tell yourself and others about the way the world works? Which stories do you question and which leave unquestioned? Particularly, if you’re a leader looking to shape the future as well as make the most of the present, I believe this should be a vital concern for you.
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Over the last decade or so, we have worked with hundreds of Senior School Leaders to help them maintain a clear focus on both their professional and professional visions.
In that time, we’ve discovered seven habits of effectively School Leaders that can help School Leaders lead effectively, keep their hope alive and keep hold of their vision for both themselves and their pupils.
This is particularly for those School Leaders who want to find out more about the steps that they can take to enable them to fulfil their ‘heroic project’ of “setting minds of fire”, but without sacrificing their own wellbeing.
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