Leadership Language – The Growth Leadership Series Part III


Since the time of hunter/gatherers, story has been the primary way to share information, pass along history, and generate shared culture.  As humans, we are hardwired for narrative – it is quite literally how our brains process information. The stories we hear, and the stories we tell ourselves, have great influence and impact over our beliefs and actions. As Marshall Ganz noted in his seminal work, What is Public Narrative?, “[Narrative] is the discursive process through which individuals, communities, and nations make choices, construct identity, and inspire action.”  In order to understand how narrative influences our leadership, let’s first unpack what narrative is.

Two broad types of Narrative

There are complex versions of what stories are, and there are simpler versions. Simply speaking, a story consists of a main character (who the story is about), a beginning (context), middle (action), and end (outcome). With this as a framework, here are two broad story contexts: 1) Past stories detail events that have taken place and serve the role of uncovering and providing context for moral. Past stories inform the listener what the speaker believes to be true about a past event, convey meaning, and add context to a historical event.  2) Future stories, on the other hand, project those values and morals into a future context – here’s where we are, here’s where we’re going, and here’s how we get there.  These stories are used to inspire and to motivate toward action or new understanding.

What’s your narrative? Paying attention to the stories you speak and hear

In our families, in our organizations, in our friend groups – and in our heads -, there are narratives and stories that shape our understanding and influence how we make choices and understand the world around us. In order to understand the narratives, we need to first listen to the stories that we and others tell. If you think about the language that is used in your context(s), what does it sound like?

What are the stories you hear? Are they positive (we’re great!), defeating (this sucks), destructive (I suck), motivating (we can do this!)? When you listen to yourself or others share stories around an event, what is it telling you? Are the past stories highlighting positive morals and values, or are they demeaning someone, highlighting what’s broken and not working? Do the future stories motivate you? Do the past stories and futures stories line up? Listening intently to the narratives that surround us, and becoming aware of the tone, moral, and influence of those stories, increases the likelihood that we can shift the narratives to create a better culture or drive action.

To positively influence your environment, change the stories you tell

As a leader, actively (and intentionally) creating the narrative can greatly influence our ability to generate a shared identity, influence others, and drive action. If you exist in an environment with overly negative stories and narratives of how much “my life sucks,” – can you also identify and tell stories about what’s working and how great life can be?

Offering the alternative to a negative story (one that is true and not made up), opens up the possibility that things can change and broadens the understanding of the situation. Utilizing past stories to inform and drive moral understanding (often used to convey and provide examples of company values, as an example) can open the door for future stories that drive action to live out those morals more fully. In this sense, past stories provide evidence that the future story is possible.

Becoming aware of the narratives you tell and hear can greatly influence how you see yourself as a leader and how you engage others. So, I’ll end with this – what’s your story?

Reference: Ganz, M. (2008). What is public narrative? Retrieved from https://changemakerspodcast.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Ganz-WhatIsPublicNarrative08.pdf on May 16, 2018.


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Dave Newell is director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development.

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