Storytelling in leadership

An underlying assumption in my entire thread on storytelling, not to mention the book I’m writing, is that stories are the fundamental thought structures of the human mind.

Storytelling is inevitable, in other words. We do not make sense of the world except by telling stories about it.

So I was intrigued to see this piece in Foreign Policy by George Akerlof (left), an economist at Berkeley, and Robert Shiller (right) at Yale. (Thanks once again to Jag Bhalla for the link.)

The two argue that stories also influence the optimism and pessimism of, and toward, entire nations and economies.

They give the fascinating example of José López Portillo (left), a Mexican president of the 70s and 80s, who presented his country, Mexico, in the context of an ancient story about the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl (also the title of a novel López Portillo had once written). The god was expected to reappear at a special time to make Mexico great again.

As it happened, this was during the oil shocks of the 70s and oil was being discovered in Mexico. Perhaps Quetzalcóatl’s time was now? It did not go unnoticed that the presidential jets were named Quetzalcóatl and Quetzalcóatl II. The country and foreign investors liked the story, and Mexico’s economy surged.

Until it stopped surging, of course. That’s when a different story took over.

The point, as Akerlof and Shiller put it, is this:

Great leaders are first and foremost creators of stories…

Indeed, the power of stories is such that

We might model the spread of a story in terms of an epidemic. Stories are like viruses. Their spread by word of mouth involves a sort of contagion.


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12 thoughts on “Storytelling in leadership

  1. This is so true–post-modernists, uncomfortable with the idea of anything as prosaic as a ‘story,’ refer to the prevailing ‘discourse.’ But whatever you call it, this is the way the world works.

    Think about the different Tiger Woods ‘stories.’ Or how the story about smoking has changed in a relatively short period of time.

    What is both interesting and scary is the way technology has greatly compressed the time it takes for stories to propagate and alter thinking.

    • Good point, Thomas, about technology compressing the propagation time. Will have to have a wee think about this.

  2. Hi Andreas – firstly thanks for getting the etymology of idiot into the august pages of the Economist…. and in your excellent Hannibal blog born article no less (loved your phrase “speciousness of the speech”).

    Secondly since sending the link to the FP article, have read the book it was excerpted from and thought you might enjoy additional snippets/nuances from the relevant chapter.

    Social psychologists Schank & Abelson argue “peoples’ memories of essential facts are… indexed in the brain around stories”. Implying facts that don’t fit the dominant story are often not remembered. Hence such inconvenient truths become less factive. Put another way denial isn’t just an individual psychological mechanism and collective denial, in the form of dominant but distorting narratives, is why democracies need Socratic needling… and to borrow a phrase from your profession – why we must always be on guard against “narrative bias”.

    Schank and Abelson also say “human conversation tends to take the form of reciprocal story telling”. And that we take deep seated delight in telling stories that provoke a reaction. A motive I sense is strong in your blogging.

    Re ur-stories – Polti 1916 only 36 basic dramatic plots, Tobias 1993 only 20 fundamental stories

    Finally – re viral stories, sticky truths and in the words of one of our ages most successful story tellers (there has been no week when at least one book of his was not in the NYT bestseller list for the last decade) and himself noted for having altered the language and metaphor (=simple analogous story) we use to describe viral spread of memes….

    Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem
    There’s a danger in crafting ideas that are more compelling than accurate http://bit.ly/5y6qOp from Psychology Today

  3. Is your new book about leadership or storytelling (or neither)? Are you allowed to say? Did I miss something? I definitely recommend the Unforgiving Minute with respect to leadership.

    • Reading pile growing again.

      My book: Leadership and storytelling are secondary themes (I’ve never thought of it till now). the primary theme is the see-saw of sucess and failure in our lives (and, yes, how we narrate that roller coaster to ourselves)

  4. How, then, are we to view imagination and its apotheosis, human creativity?

    Do we accept from Sigmund Freud that our conscious lives are a subtle, but entire reshaping of the individual unconscious, a journey through a hall of mirrors where images may be discerned obliquely through dreams, free association and some errors? Do we, with Carl Jung, perceive our unconscious as a gradual recession from the conscious, to the individual unconscious and beyond to the collective unconscious and the world of myth and archetype?

    Either way, imagination is a force to be reckoned with, full of excitement and danger.

    Whilst the consequences of allowing the unconscious to flow into consciousness are extreme, reason and logic never created anything and if we are to pursue our innate curiosity, the risk must be taken. Hero-worship, leadership and storytelling are material raw from the unconscious, but should conscious reason set out to limit and control them?

    If there is no such limit and control, the gravest risk is that they will be treated as though they are reality or, worse, actually become reality. The manifestations are not hard to recognise. On the one hand scientific progress is achieved by the careful and consistent ordering and classification of experience; on the other hand rational diplomacy can descend into violent conflict when the primitive forces of impatience, vanity, quest for power and other instincts are allowed to prevail.

    So, should we have heroes and leaders, and tell stories? Well, they are facts of life and will remain. May we learn, however, how to handle them, recognise that they are primitive functions. May we consciously prevent them and other instincts from taking over. In other words, as they become dangerous, may we repress them. The coolness and kindness of reason are infinitely to be preferred to the chaos and wilderness of uncontrolled imagination and lead to peaceful wonderment in a world which is, notwithstanding, ultimately hostile to our existence.

    Modern man does not need to personify or practise that hostility. To do so is to blind himself to the unanswerable mystery of what lies beyond language and existence, and which reason is so well equipped to perceive: an insight so sweetly expressed in Kipling’s famous poem.

    • Richard, you may just have formed a theory of creativity:

      1) Imagination spits up wild stories.
      2) Reason then fact-checks those stories, hopefully to exclude the more egregious forms of madness.

      Or, as we said in another post once, 1) Mythos and 2) Logos.

    • Succinctly put, Andreas, which shows you have thought longer and more deeply than me. Consciousness is all-powerful – even over the laws of nature, as our every willed act demonstrates. May we always use that gift with reason and towards the protection of all.

  5. Rumours, another form of story, also spread like this and have an disproportional potency. There’s a whole strand of analysis of rumour in the Continental philosophers of the 20th century, which one day I’ll get around to looking up. Sgx

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