The Power of Stories and the Problem of False Narratives
by David Castro for Forbes Nonprofit Council
Top nonprofit execs offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends.
Former CEO of Herman Miller, Max De Pree, once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
In my decades of training and coaching, I have helped many leaders harness storytelling to bring about success. In his observation that good leaders “define reality,” Max De Pree’s important insight is that reality does not define itself. Experienced leaders recognize that truths obvious to them may not be widely understood throughout their organizations. Reality requires interpretation, and narrative work animates that effort.
Every organizational culture contains diverse narratives that compete for dominance and credence in its stories. Our latest presidential election offers a dramatic illustration. The competing narratives on the right and left were not merely different, they were incommensurate, rejecting each other’s basic premises, straining shared meaning to the breaking point. Effective leaders develop consensus for stories that motivate and inspire while remaining grounded in reality. For your own story, or that of your organization, here’s what to keep in mind to keep it grounded in reality.
Use Your Narrative To Shape The Future
When you negotiate conflicting narratives, try to gain consensus for novel approaches and insights. Recognize that reality is a moving target, one highly susceptible to human influence as it advances unpredictably into the future. While stories begin with the past and present, more importantly, they communicate future desires. In this sense, your narrative should work to create reality.
Use your narrative to illustrate vision and mission. For example, my organization runs a large program that helps non-traditional students graduate from college. And since completing college has shown to improve income, employment, health, happiness, civic engagement and community leadership, one of our best practices has been to tell compelling stories about individual clients who illustrate these outcomes. These living examples animate abstract data while reinforcing a larger narrative: our mission works to improve lives and communities through higher education.
Avoid Narrative “Fallacy”
At its best, leadership is a constructive activity where people risk failure in pursuing progress. In ambitious projects, storytelling can backfire. Nothing guarantees that our stories will be self-fulfilling prophecies that lead to victory. Good leaders recognize that today’s confident projection may become tomorrow’s unfulfilled promise. In hindsight, a broken promise is easily characterized as a lie. Our narratives may fail and, if they do, the stories that once galvanized a team can sow distrust, crippling the leaders who espoused them.
For this reason, you must be vigilant about narrative fallacy. In his insightful book, Thinking Fast and Slow, behavioral economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explains that narrative fallacy arises from our efforts to make sense of the world. Our bias toward sensemaking leads us to weave isolated facts into explanatory patterns, jumping to conclusions and infusing experience with logic and causation that are often imaginary and unprovable. Narrative frameworks can become blinders, screening out information that does not fit nicely with our sensible stories.
Don’t design a false narrative to make yourself feel better. Remember Kodak. Even though a Kodak engineer invented the digital camera, the company embraced a false but comforting narrative that the market for film would stay robust — but failure followed.
Go Deeper — Search For Incongruences
If you want to avoid narrative fallacy, ground your stories in data and search for cases that don’t fit your narrative. Sit with the discomfort this process creates. Do not trivialize, ignore or “explain away” observations that don’t make sense. Instead, probe and learn more. The puzzle piece that doesn’t fit likely belongs to a different but important puzzle. A disgruntled client or funder offers you the gift of seeing your work from a different vantage point, leading to innovation. The inexplicable event showcases the limits of your knowledge and theories and opens the way for new learning. Einstein’s development of a new theory of gravity was prompted by a tiny anomaly: Mercury’s orbit differed from Newton’s theory by less than a millionth of a degree. My work exploring how leaders facilitate creativity — I call the process genership — grew from a counterintuitive observation: that full creative engagement of a team often emerges only when leaders step back.
Narratives have tremendous power. They can help us accomplish our goals but also can lead to epic failures. Good leaders approach stories with discernment, respecting the gap between narrative and reality. They are willing to reframe, reinterpret and even rewrite. When a leader believes that he or she knows the true, complete and final story, major problems usually begin to unfold. In my leadership development and coaching practice, I link narrative and storytelling to a more difficult but also more powerful leadership discipline: systems thinking. We are capable of both success and failure. That awareness should leave us with a sense of immediate risk, but also with profound optimism. And the courage to go deeper.
Read more from David Castro on his blog, genership.org.