I was going to include a chapter on Leadership in the book, but realised I did not have enough material, or enough ideas, yet. So this blogpost is very much a starting point. As ever, I welcome comment and discussion.
There has been a lot written about the stories leaders tell to galvanise the troops (See for example, Bob McKee ‘Storytelling that Moves People,’ HBR June 2003; Stephen Denning, ‘Telling Tales’, HBR May 2004, and ‘The Leaders’ Guide to Storytelling,’ 2005). I want to come at this the other way round: how leaders work with the stories of others.
My starting point is this: one of the key leadership activities is articulating the vision for the future; the compelling story of what we are striving for.
The effectiveness of visions, when well crafted, is widely acknowledged, but there is also a cynicism, and at times simply a weariness, that accompanies the notion.
However, stories abound to illustrate the impact of the good vision. There is one, which may be apocryphal, of JFK touring the NASA headquarters and meeting a cleaner. He asked him about his job, and the cleaner replied: Mr President, I am helping to put a man on the moon! If people can see the connections between the everyday tasks they have to undertake and some bold and worthwhile outcome to which they contribute, it seems likely that will have a positive impact both on their self-esteem and on their commitment to the work at hand.
A similar story is told of two people laying blocks of stone out in a field. When quizzed about their work, the first says, wearily, ‘Well, I’ve got to get all these blocks mortered, level, in a straight line, and then another layer on top of them, and then...’ The second says, with a sparkle in his eyes: ‘I’m building a cathedral!’
And yet, and yet... so many organisations have suffered the indignity of the top team returning from an awayday or weekend retreat, and handing down the new vision. Posters appear in the reception area, everyone is given a balloon, a mouse mat, a button badge or a plastic credit card type of thing with the new vision (and in many cases, the new values) proudly printed on them. And the whole organisation feels vaguely nauseous - and wonders quite how trivial their leaders must be if they take so much time out of the office to produce a statement of the utmost banality.
So how could it be different?
Here is what Colin Riordan, VC at Cardiff University, told me about shaping the organisational narrative: Leadership is about constructing narratives that a sufficient percentage can believe in, and in which they can recognise themselves, as characters in that story.
That cannot be done just out of the leader’s head: clearly, he is working with stories that are already out there; like many leaders, he steps into a context where the stories pre-exist, and he can’t simply impose his own narrative on top of them regardless. That is where so many attempts at creating an organisational vision fail.
That is not to say that creating a vision is futile: but where it is done successfully, it is more about eliciting the positive narratives that already exist, articulating them simply, clearly, and credibly, and building on them.
Sometimes, that can be quite gritty. Another academic leader recalls a time when he was appointed to lead a struggling university department. It was a divided department: and he listened and worked out what had to be the story ‘that helped people to see what they had to do, including leave - quite happily... as the story was right for the department, but not right for them.’
This approach is predicated above all on curiosity and conversations. The leadership role is to set those conversations going, and to encourage that curiosity. It is also to listen, and to provide the framework in which useful conversations take place. Then it is to make sense of them and shape them into an organisational preferred story which sufficient people recognise and commit to.
One of the challenges is that most of us are working in organisations which already exist; they have a sense of purpose, they have a history, they have myths and folklores. Declaring a new vision that is fully aligned with these risks being a ‘so what’ experience. Proposing a vision that is a radical break from them, whether deliberately or accidentally, is likely to cause major dissonance, followed quickly by disbelief and cynicism. Here’s more from Colin Riordan, talking about his attempts to instil a new sense of purpose and introduce a change of direction when he was appointed VC at Essex:
‘I set to work constructing the narrative around the 50th anniversary - including the difficult bits about student militancy and riots - acknowledging that that is part of our history - that we were known for that - and now we’re not. More recently an SWP demo that disrupted lectures was followed by a much bigger silent counter-demo of those who thought education should not be disrupted in that way: great counter-evidence to strengthen the new Essex narrative. So our students are engaged in all kinds of causes, but they don’t necessarily express it in the same way they did 40 years ago. And that’s who we are and that’s the way the world works at Essex now.’
Thus, founded on the existing stories about Essex, he set about loosening the grip of the old story of militancy and disruption, and consolidating the newer one, about institutional maturity and student maturity. Both these stories existed, and the VC saw part of his role as being to lay the unhelpful story to rest; and to ensure that the more helpful story became the dominant narrative for the organisation. He also sees that as a continuing process:
'I do a monthly email to all staff, which is always telling a story - and I get a lot of reaction to that, not because of anything specific I say, but sometimes it will be: ‘Oh you never say anything about the support staff,’ or ‘it’s all about the money, never anything in there about academic endeavour or ideas’, and I can generally refute that, but it shows people genuinely pay attention to that, it’s an ongoing narrative about where we are and where we’re going.'
This continuing work on the organisation’s story about itself is an important part of the leader’s role: though as ever, the real challenge is to make it more than a story, but to bring it about in reality. As another leader once told me: ‘We don’t always manage to walk the talk, but we at least try to stumble the mumble…’
As I remarked at the beginning of this post, I am still developing my ideas about a ManyStory Approach and leadership, so will be particularly interested in your views, experiences and comments.