Connoisseurs of complexity: Leadership and storytelling

Over the next few months I will be posting some extracts from, or links to, a number of new articles and a book chapter that my friend and colleague Kevin Orr and I have co-authored. Kevin and I used to work together at the Scottish Local Authorities Management Centre at the University of Strathclyde. He is now professor of public sector management at Hull Business School and founder and co-director of the Centre for Organisational Futures. In recent years we have been working together on various research projects and also writing on the politics of co-production in research. The articles on the politics have been the more recent part of our work and will be posted as they are published. The first in this series is based on an article that was included in a joint Improvement and Development Agency/Local Government Leadership Centre publication, entitled Local Government Leadership: Creating Political Value. Originally published in 2008, the piece is a resumé of our research findings into leadership and storytelling among local government chief executives.

This essay outlines some of our headline findings and argues that storytelling should be recognised as central to the ways in which local authority chief executives act as leaders. We confined our findings to three main areas: The ways in which chief executives use stories to:

  • persuade and to construct meaning for others;
  • establish credentials and join the group;
  • build relationships and learn from others in the group.

Storytelling, 장승업 (張承業 1843~1897), Jang Seungeop, or Owon (Jang’s pen name)

——————

Connoisseurs of complexity: Leadership and storytelling, by Mike Bennett and Kevin Orr (2008)

Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Who can listen without cynicism to economists, sociologists, politicians? Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of the story.” Robert McKee, screenwriter

Storytelling is not one of the classic features of managerial leadership in local government, yet it will soon form part of a new orthodoxy. As the quote above from Robert McKee, the screenwriter’s screenwriter, suggests, while many traditional forms of authority are declining, the story retains its power. Managing a local authority is a messy business. Robert Chia talks of the ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ of managerial life but in local authorities this is conducted in direct political glare. In the centre of this heat, noise and motion council chiefs are expected to plan services and ration resources, implement policy and manage performance. One way that they do so is by telling stories.

Over the last year we have spoken to wide range of chief executives and senior managers about the role of storytelling in their day to day activities. We found that storytelling forms an important part of the way in which they lead, learn, persuade, establish credibility, network and form relationships. Yet while political organisations have always been a rich fund of colourful stories (who’s up, who’s down, who’s in and who’s out) and powerful visions (I have a dream …) this is excluded from the traditional account of managerial leadership. Our research highlights the distinctive ways in which storytelling serves strategic purposes for chief executives’ leadership behaviour. This short article outlines some of our headline findings and argues that storytelling should be recognised as central to the ways in which local authority chief executives act as leaders. We confine our findings to three main areas: The ways in which chief executives use stories to:

  • persuade and to construct meaning for others;
  • establish credentials and join the group;
  • build relationships and learn from others in the group.

Leadership and persuasion

Leaders are sometimes described as those who can make sense of complexity for others. A powerful means of achieving this goal is through a story that changes the way that others understand their environment. Leaders often use stories to construct a narrative that draws out apparent contradictions and conflicts into an engaging sense of purpose. This art is widely recognised in the world of politics where stories are aimed at changing the state of mind of voters. As the Democrat political psychologist Drew Westen writes, political parties’ big picture narratives must be “clear, coherent, and emotionally alive” to define “the overarching message of its framers, its leaders, and those who identify with it” (p151). In politics, he argues because it is positive emotions that motivate “voters to rally to the polls” (p310) that “successful campaigns compete in a marketplace of emotions and not primarily in the marketplace of ideas” (p305). This point is supported by Republican strategist Frank Luntz when he argues that “words not only explain but also motivate … They trigger emotion as well as understanding” (xiv).

Some of our chief executives described this to us in terms of trying to win the heart as well as the head. They identified that the social roles – better local environments, better health outcomes, improved life opportunities – played by councils give them more opportunity to create powerful or emotive images and ideas than their private sector counterparts. However, they also expressed a sense that this cuts against the grain of some local government traditions. Local authorities are complex organisations founded on principles of corporate governance which enshrine the importance of reason, rules and regulations – and of hard facts, based on evidence. Effective organisation and good governance promise to create order in a chaotic world and make the job of serving the competing publics manageable. Bureaucracy’s potential to produce fairness and equity means that it remains the dominant organisational form, but it is also one which generates jargon and darkness – languages and methods of communication which are exclusive and fragmenting, deadening rather than enlivening and muddy rather than transparent. The chief executives we spoke to stressed the power of stories to articulate purpose, or social mission, in ways which can resonate across different professional or technical groups. Stories transcend the traditional communication methods of council papers laden with facts and figures. As one of our interviewees told us “it’s difficult because our profession, you know, says that professionalism requires one to be detached and factual and rational and all those things … but in reality to lead a group of people and get them engaged in something, you need to be a bit more than that.”

A dual challenge for chief executives becomes how to interpret a bewildering world for an organisational constituency that is itself characterised by enormous complexity. Storytelling is, therefore, one way in which chief executives make sense of their complex and often contradictory environments for staff, partners and for the wider community. As Barry Quirk has posed it, how do you turn a mass of critical people into a critical mass of people? Stories allow leaders to create a narrative about the challenges the organisation is facing and what it needs to do to overcome them. As one interviewee said, “chief executives construct realities for other people and the way they marshal resources of information, of experiences from other places so they have a successful narrative for their management teams.”

As this suggests, stories are not morally neutral and can spring from different motives. A number of chiefs we spoke to raised an ethical concern about the ways that stories can be used to manipulate audiences. Stories can operate in a grey area between the desire to show leadership and the temptation to manufacture consent. As with other forms of managerial authority its use requires an ethical mindset.

A different image for the managerial leader therefore emerges. Rather than heroic decision-maker in full control of the levers of power in their organisation, a picture emerges of the need to be a “connoisseur of complexity and paradoxes” (Czarniawska-Joerges and de Monthoux, p13), who is able to read and operate in a dynamic inter-organisational, social and political context.

Establishing credentials

Anyone who has been to a SOLACE conference will have observed chief executives telling stories to each other as a means of establishing their credentials and building relationships. Occasionally this will even happen over a drink at the conference bar.

Chief executives in local government come from many different backgrounds and, in a UK context, rarely meet outside of their local or personal networks. We found that stories play a role in enabling chief executives to communicate directly about issues of common interest. Stories can be seen as capital to trade by way of displaying competency and experience; establishing licence to practice. Chief executives we spoke to volunteered examples which often contained the added frisson of competition. One chief described the practice as follows:

A little bit of preening, a little bit of one-upmanship, a little bit of establishing your credentials, a little bit of the unspoken ‘I’m fit to be in this company because I’ve also got a story I can trade.’”

Like most people in work, chief executives also trade stories about the people they work for. As one chief executive told us, “if you tell a Councillor Bloggs story when you’re sitting at the SOLACE conference you can bet somebody is going to try and trump it! Because their Councillor Bloggs is more of a lunatic than your Councillor Bloggs for sure! I mean the tale will get told in the best way but what we’re doing when we do that is we’re either letting off steam or we’re just trying to demonstrate that, you know, I’ve got a hard job back at the office because I’ve got these characters to live with just as much as you do.”

A former chief offered this interpretation: “These things often have mixed motives … it is a bit of a display, you have to hold your own, and if you’re in a peer group and you’re not talking about your situation in ways which are interesting and indicate you’re at the cutting edge, you know, people sort of … it’s a dramaturgical kind of situation and you either have to be in crisis or you have to be fighting the enemy or you have to be doing interesting things.”

Focusing on stories highlights the performative aspects of chief executives networking behaviour, and can give glimpses of the sociological dynamics of these groups. We found that stories offered a compelling way for chief executives to project and to reflect upon issues of common professional concern. Stories provide a means to access collective experience and to establish their right to group membership.

Storytelling and learning

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that chief executives peer to peer behaviour is simply competitive. Anyone who has been to a SOLACE conference will have observed chief executives telling stories to each other as a means of learning, support and mutual reassurance. Occasionally this too might happen over a drink at the conference bar…

Stories enable busy people to cut to the chase, to share common issues and to both learn and gain reassurance. This process is important both for highly experienced chief executives and for those still finding their feet. “I remember, I think it was just before I became a chief executive hearing from a well known figure about one thing in particular he’d done, and I did it when I took the new job… and it bought me months of credit. It wouldn’t have worked if he had just expressed it conceptually, rather than as a story… it wouldn’t have stuck, or had an impact.” Stories, therefore, play an important part in ‘becoming’ a manager.

Exchanging stories is also an informal – if routine – means of sense-checking their experience against others. Stories provide resources for reflection. “When you share tales the biggest thing I notice is how recognisable the things that are troubling me are vis a vis the things that are troubling other people. I mean if I ever went to a conference and came away feeling they’re all talking about something completely different from me, I mean, then I’d start to worry. And that’s quite important because where else do you get that point of reference?”

Chief executives often speak about the isolation that they experience in their roles. It is among peers that they experience a safe environment in which they no longer feel the need to show leadership that they can expose cock ups, near misses and darkest fears. Stories also enable them to experience the intimacy they need from peers while expressing the distance they feel from others not in that group.

As one county chief said “you’re not in competition, not directly anyway with those people and you’re not seen as being responsible for them or leading them. It’s a much more relaxed dynamic”

Conclusion

The role of chief executive is a purposeful one and the stories they tell are expressions of purpose. Storytelling emerges as a well established culture within this context, but one that cuts against orthodox accounts of managerial and professional traditions in local government. It also suggests a different image of the chief executive. Stories reveal the human and emotional dynamics of leadership with effective chief executives acting as connoisseurs of context, not organisational engineers. Stories also offer resources for learning and reflection which can help leaders develop. Exchanging stories is part of how intimacy and closeness can develop between chiefs who can otherwise feel distant from others. Yet they can also be used in competitive ways, establishing pecking orders, acting as currency and to gain group membership. Our work suggests that while other forms of authority decline, the power of the story is alive.

Czarniawska-Joerges, B. & de Monthoux, P. G. (1994) Good novels and better management: reading organizational realities, Routledge, London

Luntz, F. (2007) Wordsthat work: it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear, Hyperion, New York

McKee, R. (1998) Story: substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting, Methuen, London

Westen, D. (2007) The political brain: the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation,Public Affairs, New York


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Co-production, Projects, Research
Events
The Public Intelligence seminar series
Find out more >
Twitter