By Kevin Orr and Mike Bennett
We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals, change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different. – Neil Gaiman, lecture presented for The Reading Agency, October 2013
Storytelling is one way in which leaders can fulfill the obligation to harness the power of imagination in pursuit of public good.
Organizations are spaces constantly abuzz with stories—such organizations as local governments and their elected officials, especially so. Who is up, who is down? Who is in, who is out? How are we doing? Did you hear about what just happened? Stories have great currency in our day-to-day work.
Managing and leading a local government organization is an important undertaking, done in conditions of great complexity. Here leadership has to be accomplished amidst the chop and churn of organizational life and conducted in full political glare and public scrutiny. This is an arena in which managers engage with dilemmas where the right answer can be contested and ambiguous. Policy and service development is done at a time of diminishing resources. And where patterns of need and the scale of problems (trust, engaging communities, health, our environment) being tackled by local governments are becoming more wicked rather than more benign.
What we learned through our academic study of local government managers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom is that one way in which managers provide leadership and build engagement in this context is through storytelling. It emerged as a vital part of how effective leaders achieve change, mentor and motivate colleagues, and support good governance.
During the Learning Lab at the 2017 ICMA Annual Conference in San Antonio, we will discuss lessons from this research. We will explore how local government managers in different settings use stories to:
- Invite an emotional connection with public service and mission.
- Make sense of organizational realities.
- Provoke reflections on practices and assumptions.
- Mentor and nurture staff.
- Manage effective relations with elected politicians.
We will discuss how storytelling can be a part of a person's leadership practice. Attendees will have a chance to share stories and to discuss the impact and limits of storytelling for managers.
As our understanding of the importance of storytelling grows, it raises some important questions for this community of practitioners to consider.
This perspective moves us away from a traditional understanding of management as being founded on "command and control". Instead of picturing engineering-based images of managers pulling the levers of bureaucracy in more efficient and carefully-calibrated ways, it offers a different idea about what it means to be an effective leader. It draws us closer to an understanding of leadership that is post-heroic and invites us to appreciate leadership as a relational and collective endeavor. In other words, the job of a manager is done with other people. It involves sharing and communicating ideas, practices, and perspectives. It also relies upon engaging the hearts, minds, and imaginations of others.
An understanding of leadership--leaders as storytellers--has implications for how we think about our own leadership practices. It shifts stories from being seen as an inferior form of data. It propels us to regard them as important sources of knowledge, learning, and sensemaking as we navigate complexity and achieve public good.
It also challenges the way in which we approach leadership development in the sector. The "soft" skills of stories and narrative work—telling the policy story, helping politicians develop a progressive narrative, motivating staff about their power to make a difference—take on greater importance. Relational leadership involves embracing the importance of communication and cooperation and emerges as a key guiding principle in developing the next generation of leaders.
Finally, the idea of leadership as storytelling also raises ethical dilemmas. In an era of fake news and debates about facts and truths, what is the status of our stories? What responsibilities do we carry as tellers of stories and how can we best approach these?
Join us for the discussion in the learning lab. We will frame key questions, share stories and perspectives, and think about next steps for our organizations, our own practices, and for the ICMA community. As Neil Gaiman reminds us, change starts through imagining that things can be different.
The study was conducted by Professor Kevin Orr, University of St Andrews & University of California, Berkeley, and Mike Bennett of Public Intelligence, UK, with research support from ICMA, Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA), and Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (SOLACE), UK. Kevin Orr is a professor of management and Fulbright Scholar. Mike Bennett is director of public intelligence, UK.
The Learning Lab session "Storytelling and Leadership in Local Government Management" takes place Tuesday, October 24, from 4:10 to 4:40 p.m.
Additional ICMA Resource: "Use Storytelling to Make a Point"