It is often considered controversial to draw any links between the worlds of leadership, management and organizational behaviour and that of the church. This month sees the publication of Leading by Story by Vaughan S. Roberts and David Sims. The book argues that there is plenty of common ground to be found between the two apparently disparate areas, in particular with the role of story and stories.
The Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam called the book “informative, subtle, insightful and wise”, whilst Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church said it was ” a real gem – a book of treasures that will gestate within us as we ponder the ways in which stories lead our thinking and action.”
Here’s an extract in which the authors begin to explain how storytelling might inform leadership.
Talking about how people work together always involves using a metaphor for the human person. Older work on leadership views people in ways such as the economic (making ‘rational’ self-orientated decisions), the social (making decisions that maximize their membership in the groups around them), or the self-actualizing (seeking to develop themselves according to their own potential); it may even view people as sheep. The different metaphors carry their own implications: for example, the rational economic metaphor implies that people are not altruistic, and also that they are capable of complex calculations about what is best for themselves. (See Alvesson and Spicer (2011) for other ways in which leadership metaphors shape organizational sensemaking, and Roberts (2000) and (2008) for the use of metaphors in church ministry.)
We believe that we can gain more light on church and leadership by considering the person as homo narrans narratur, that is, both a storyteller and a story (Christie and Orton, 1988; Weick, 1995). We tell stories and at the same time we ourselves are a story. We are continuously constructing the next part of the story that is ourselves. We work out our plotlines, introduce new characters into our story, lose the plot, do things to liven up our own stories as we go along. As Hardy (1968) put it:
We dream in narrative, we daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, we hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, review, criticize, build, learn, hate and love by narrative.
This chapter opens up a theme that will continue throughout this book about the value of a storytelling view of leadership in churches. One of the things we know about ourselves as a species is that we tell stories, we develop our own stories, and we enthusiastically consume stories told by others. In church, we hear stories from the Bible and are invited in sermons to think about our own story, who we are in relationship with God and with others. We are challenged to consider the totality of our story, to death and beyond. Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as having frequently told stories, using parables and talking to people about their stories and how they saw those developing in the future. A narrative approach to leadership would seem to be the natural approach for his followers to take, and has been explored in biblical studies (for example Wright, 1992) and theology (for example Loughlin, 1996; Smith, 2009, 2013).
When leadership happens, people are writing themselves into others’ stories (Edwards, 2000). If you enable something to happen you must be making at least a guest appearance in the stories of the other people involved. We all take some of our sense of effectiveness and personhood from believing that we have had some part in other people’s stories, and this is one of the motivations for leading.
In everyday conversation there are several different ways in which the word ‘story’ is used. For example, there is the sense of ‘just a story’, in contrast to ‘the truth’. The implication is either that a good story is a way of blinding people to the truth or that storytelling is a kind of second-order activity, inferior to other ‘rational’ forms of discourse as a way of conveying what we want to say. Of course, storytelling is always selective. If someone asks you to tell them what sort of day you have had you will tell a story. It is impossible to tell them everything that has happened; there is not enough time and they will not attend for long enough. In order to keep their attention and to help them reach the conclusions about you and your day that you would like them to reach, you make choices about what to include and exclude. Similarly, when a colleague enquires of another minister or a bishop asks a priest about how things are going in the church, the answer can only be a story, and it can only be the story as understood by the teller. It will usually be their truth; there is no reason to suppose that people deliberately mislead any more when they are telling stories than when they are giving supposedly objective answers to census returns.
Even when data are given in statistical form, any attempt to read them or to talk about them will immediately turn them into narrative form. The role of the church treasurer includes responsibility for telling a story about tables of figures which other members may find boring or incomprehensible – to take the accounts and to use them to tell a story. This story will give them a meaning, and that meaning is chosen by the treasurer. Steve Denning illustrates this process of choice with the example of the Titanic. It would have been possible, he points out, for the newspaper headline the day after the sinking to have said ‘700 people safely reach New York’ (Denning, 2011a), but that was not the choice of meaning made by the press. When conflict occurs in the Middle East, it is quite common to see almost exactly the same story (coming from the same newsfeeds) in different newspapers, but with headlines that blame different parties. We frame data according to what we think others should pay attention to. Sometimes this may be for our own benefit, but more commonly we will see it as our way of helping the other person to see through to the core points of what we are talking about. Boje (2012) uses the word ‘antenarrative’ for the resources that are available for storytelling (as in the example of the accounts) and ‘narrative’ for the story that gets created from them.
When data are presented statistically, this may be not an alternative to storytelling but a part of the storytelling. As Gearóid O’Crualaoich (2002) has commented, an important part of telling any story is the warranting of its reliability. In his case, working with Irish folk stories, a frequent warranting phrase is, ‘It was a priest who told me . . . ’. In current western culture our fashionable way of warranting a story is to give some statistics that we claim support it. The link between the statistics and the story being warranted may be distant, the logic may not bear close scrutiny, but it is expected that we should have some statistics as part of the narrative (for a careful use of this approach, see Woodhead, 2013). This can be part of an evidence-based approach to whatever we are doing; the statistics can be used to confirm that we are actually achieving what we are trying to achieve.
One of the characteristics of storytelling is that it handles complexity and ambiguity better than many other forms of discourse. Stories are usually told with a certain amount of redundancy, points that may not be relevant but may be interesting, the possibility of more than one outcome, some ambiguity about what are the central plot lines of the story and the essential actors. In addition, they are told with decorative flourishes, but part of the art of storytelling is to leave it unclear whether a particular statement is decorative or a load-bearing part of the narrative structure. It is typical of good storytelling that ‘the dog that did not bark in the night’ (Conan Doyle, 1893) could have been irrelevant until late in the story, when it emerges that it is doing part of the narrative work. Similarly, a joke may be introduced into a story to gauge the audience reaction to it, to test out their attitudes. If they react badly to it, the teller dismisses it as ‘just a joke’. If they react well, it may be an area of further development later.
Also, discussion may take place through stories. In one church the minister was frequently surprised that when he laid out a series of options to the management committee the response was not a discussion of the merits and demerits of the choices but a series of stories adjacent to the proposals. His initial frustration was gradually replaced by a realization that this was how that community dealt with proposals for change, and also possibly how they held conversations. Storytelling was the form of discourse through which decisions were made.
The most memorable and influential stories invite the listener to participate by leaving some open questions as to what they mean and how they might be interpreted. Barthes (1974) speaks of ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts, where readerly means that you cast the other person into a relatively passive role where they read what you are saying, and writerly means that they are seen as active co-authors of the script. Both are possible when we are writing ourselves into others’ stories. If our storytelling is readerly, they are less likely to get us wrong, because their interpretive contribution will be less, but they are also less likely to be led anywhere by us. If our leadership storytelling is writerly we may be misinterpreted and people may well not do what we want, but they are much more likely to do something as a result, because it will be their something; they have felt invited to participate in writing the story. Once again, the managerial desire to control is likely to make a church more predictable, if that is what you think a church should be! It is also likely to make it less active.
For example, in most cases, the parables of Jesus are reported without instructions on how they should be interpreted. Such a relaxation of control by the teller invites the listeners to become involved in what is being said, to think themselves into the story being told and to empathize with a character within it, thus making their own meaning out of what is being said. This is much more likely to produce learning that changes the learner than if the meaning of the parable were more tightly controlled by the teller. Storied communications are often an important part of effective leadership. Part of leading is to create a story around your organization. What kind of church is yours? Why would people want to be part of it? If they become part of this church, what can they expect to find themselves part of in a few years’ time? What kind of story have they joined? How are they going to be invited to develop and grow if they join this story? If I become part of this church, what contribution can I make? Am I needed here? Finding a story that people can contribute to, in which they can find characters to become, and where they can help in making that story real, is one of the most inspiring ways to be led.
Parry and Hansen (2007) have argued that we all follow organizational stories as much as we follow people. ‘People join with the narrative, rather than follow the leader.’ In other words, one way of leading is to create and tell a story that people will wish to follow, or involve themselves with. Thinking about leading by story is important not because it is a new way of leading, but because it is what is happening anyhow, but its narrative quality has not been understood. Weick (1995) says that stories can be prophecies because they help people to make sense of what is going on, and people then act in accordance with that sense. So a believable story about how openness to different sexualities might threaten the doctrinal purity of a church can be enough to produce a fear-driven reaction, and the tightening of purity codes. If you do not tell the story of your church it will not remain untold. Someone else will do it for you. But you will have abrogated responsibility for the story, unless you support someone else to become the storyteller. Unconsidered, stories have a way of becoming the reality, as Weick argues. They will not remain untold, but may be told in a much less constructive way if you leave them to take their chances. Bennis and Nanus (2004) say that leaders are purveyors of hope. If the story is purveying hope, then the story is providing leadership (Parry, 2008).
Powerful stories do not get told and then forgotten. Stories get told and retold, sometimes through successive people but quite often by the same group of people, in the same way as families retell old stories about their family at gatherings (‘Do you remember when Grandpa took his bicycle to pieces . . .?’). Parry (2008) argues that stories go on being told so long as each person has an understanding of the story that gives them hope for a better existence. Even if this role is a relatively minor one, this still gives a role from which they can act and from which they can try to make a contribution. Parry uses the example of the alternative stories that were provided by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X for the role of black people in the United States. At the time the two stories seemed to be equally powerful, but in hindsight Martin Luther King’s story gave grounds for hope and roles for all participants, and it has survived and still influences American culture, whereas Malcolm X’s more conflictual, less inclusive story of black power was less attractive and has disappeared (Parry, 2008). Perhaps we can look forward to a similar dissolving of the narratives of church decline that are so popular with some Christians.
Rev Dr Vaughan S. Roberts writes and speak widely on organisational theory, leadership and the church and is the author of “Personal Jesus: How popular music shapes our souls” (2012) with Professor Clive Marsh of the University of Leicester and a contributor to “The Bloomsbury Handbook of Religion and Popular Music”.
David Sims is Emeritus Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Cass Business School. His research has been centred on narrative understandings of working life, and the implications of this for leadership.
Leading by Story is published on 30th September, but you can preorder a copy now at a special discount price. Don’t miss out!