The Role of Stories and Narratives in Helping Us Manage Leadership Complexity

There is so much leadership literature which are narratives and stories. Walk into any WHSmith, airport book shop or have a scan through the top sellers on Amazon. The majority of these books are some form of a story. I want to share some thinking about why, I feel, so much of our leadership narrative is dominated by the story – why they can help and hinder, and what this pattern tells us about the challenges leaders’ face.  

I find most stories in leadership are a truth but written or edited in some form to make it easier for the reader to comprehend the main message. They remind me of the sort of screenplays which say they were “inspired by true events” or “based on a true story”. Such screenplays might remove  certain artefacts or parts of the story (See ”The Blind Side”), create composite characters or events which seek to represent the views of many or combine individual narratives (Such as in ”We Are Marshall’) or seek to make minor alterations the order of events (See ”Glory Road”). I call these stories hybrid stories – not fiction, but not fact either.

I often find many books on leadership take this hybrid approach. They sometimes appear as theory – such such a Kotter’s infamous change cycle, which abstracts change in a rational and linear 8 step model. Or books, usually titled ‘leadership’ outline how an individual (usually a sports personality, coach or entrepreneur) personally got from A to B chronologically, and identify key ‘principles’, ‘rules’, ‘steps’ which they secured from their experience. Often, such narratives are peppered with anecdotes or mini-case studies. Finally, you have ‘case studies’. These are often used for teaching – an event captured in time which individuals have tried their best to capture from their perspective, be it first hand or as an observer. Whether it is teaching materials, quick airport reads or attempts to distil ones’ practical knowledge, they are hybrid stories.

These leadership books and materials  are immensely popular. Any quick check on Amazon will confirm this for you. Often, they are critiqued for their accuracy or the contribution they can make to a leaders’ professional learning – can such narratives really be helpful to leaders??

But, from their popularity, I would argue the following; that such hybrid stories on leadership are serving a purpose. An unmet psychological need. And that need is to help us manage the complexity of a world in which leaders are expected to act and take responsibility for. Let me explain.

Are these stories the fullest capture of the entirety of events and situations and circumstances? No. Do they capture everything that they have ever learnt? No. Are they heavy and detailed blow by blow account from every possible perspective and angle? No. But that’s the point. In a hybrid, the editor or writer carefully adjusts the narrative to help keep to the main purpose of the story clear to an external person who has little to no experience of the individual, organisation or situation.

Is such ‘editing’ necessary? Do we need the composite characters? Do we really need the story simplifying? Absolutely. Because of real life is complex, and complexity is overwhelming. Complexity theory tells us that the world can be challenging. Cause and affect is hard to determine. We co-exist in a deeply meshed network, where new things changes the shape of a system in a relatively unpredictable way. Even describing the system can be hard – the act of describing said system changes the system! See here (reading, video) for more information on what complexity is.

And this system is overwhelming because of the research into adult development. Jane Loevinger’s Theory of Adult Ego Development (See here) shows us that adults require a lot of development to get to the sort of stage where handling these features of their environments – and its rare too. And as Kegan (1994) writes, being placed into circumstances and situations which we are not ready to fully  understand or cannot comprehend is a recipe for anxiety, fear, insecurity and inaction.

And yet, in life and leadership, we are expected to make sense of complexity and act accordingly and competently. This is most certainly the case in school leadership. Matthew Evans (@head_teach)  discusses this from a theory to practitioner perspective, and Hawkins and James (2018) paper on school complexity theory supports the notion that schools are complex. Because school leaders hold the responsibility for their organisation (Connolly, James and Fertig, 2017), they are likely to be at a high vantage point: from such positions, exposure to complexity is likely to be even more apparent. How leaders’ comprehend complexity is vital, as it is this comprehension which will drive the decisions they subsequently have to make. 

What have we said so far? That the world is complex and leadership responsibilities in schools force leaders into positions where they are expected to comprehend complexity so as to act.  However, most likely, leaders will struggle to fully comprehend the complexity they are exposed to in their organisations and indeed lead us to feel overwhelmed and unable to act. At the same time, we have an explosion of hybrid literature which shows how leaders, theorists and thinkers have observed or directly navigated organisations from similar vantage points. Is there a link?

Yes, I believe so. Why?

Here’s a question. What do we need when faced with a situation which our cognitive architecture struggles to overcome or comprehend? We need a scaffold – a structure for thinking that helps us to get from where we are to getting closer to the situation. 

Cue the role of the story. The hybrid story that can distil things we don’t understand – whether it is a social story to help a child to see how other people might be feeling. Whether it is in the teaching of a moral concept in philosophy or a counsellor using a story to help a client make sense of their circumstance. Or whether it is to navigate a seemingly overly-complex scenario. We reach for stories as they give us a way of navigating something which can overwhelm us into panic or inertia. 

It is for this reason that we see far more hybrid stories about leadership then we do about more technical vocations or applications of theory. Leadership narratives act as a necessary form of complexity management, helping individuals to cope in a role and set of responsibilities that demand individuals  to make sense of complexity so as  to take purposeful action. It is the scaffold, in the shape of these hybrid stories, that helps us to comprehend the complexity which we on ourselves will not only struggle to see, but act within. Stories serve a purpose – they meet a need, and based on sales figures alone, they might a very big and necessary need.

What is the risk of stories? Simple. Oversimplification. The very method used to help individuals to navigate complexity, taken too far, can lead to simplifying the structure of the problem where it becomes misleading. Taken too far, they allude that the structure of the problem is not complex, but simple. Akin to “Saving Mr Banks”, Walt never visits the authors house and subsequently creates a false impression of both his character but the structure of the problem underlying the authors disagreements. Stories can help people navigate, yes. But can also lead people down a path which, upon further engagement with the problem, might only delay confusion and not help people to confront it. 

Furthermore, we know that people only grow when they have to engage with complexity – if we go too far to simplify the context/problem, we also risk taking away the opportunity for growth.

So, stories can be powerful and almost necessary as a mechanism for leaders to handle and act in relation to complexity. But the same tool can also cause harm.  How do we reconcile these two factors?

We are responsible in writing them: Are we aware of the balance between producing narratives and accounts that capture the essence, not just of our action, but of the context in which they resided? Have we thought about how multiple perspectives took to the situation or timeline? Have we recognised the caveats and alternative models of reality that might have occurred? Have we portrayed ourselves as a ‘hero’, in so much that this story is about us and our individual course of action…without recognition of the complexity underneath our actions? Do we take the time to narrate how we thought, not just what we thought? Do we acknowledge the feelings or doubt, dread and isolation that often occur and our central, not peripheral, to our actions? Critically, do we recognise that organisations are complex and write about them in such a way that recognises that we are actively simplifying them into a form that we can comprehend and understand?

We write to support complexity, not to remove it. Do we write stories that help people see and comprehend and little more of the complexity of the real world, or do we seek to remove the complexity and paint an alternative picture? There is a fine line between the managed exposure to complexity, and complexity denial – are we managing the cracks in our limited understanding of the universe, or are we papering over them?

We use stories as a prompt for thinking. Do we invite those who listen to our story the chance to question and engage? To challenge, debate and reflect upon your model of reality – not as a sole account of truth, but as a model of reality that is open for challenge and debate? Do we write stories as a closed loop or as an open loop that models are flawed?

We guide people to which stories might, or might not, be useful for their stage of development. We would not give a 7 year old Paul Blooms “Against Empathy” as a way of understanding human emotion, just as much as we might not give a brand new leader one of Ralph Stacey tombs on Complexity at the get go.  What stories or cases are appropriate given the stage and challenges they face – to help overcome, but not oversimplify what is happening? Are we aware that some exposure will be important, this will be tough but at least asking the question will help.

In this blog post, I have talked about why stories are so common in leadership literature. They are meeting an unmet psychological need for us to manage our exposure to complexity – both cognitively and emotionally.  Whilst a necessary and important tool, such a tool can also be dangerous. We need to think about complexity when we write, engage and recommend stories of leadership.