Leadership and storytelling

I went to a workshop on ‘leadership in collectives’ last week organised by a local community group, The Field at New Cross Gate. Jacob Stringer, a local writer,  led us very effectively and inclusively through an exploration of leadership using story telling.

It was a very atmospheric space to work in. The Field have been working for some months to renovate their space, bringing the small building they are using back from a state of unloved and unused ruin. It’s very simple but beautiful – bare brick walls and stripped wooden window frames. The large table was turned into a smaller one by the simple means of taking a big board of the trestles, nudging them together, and putting a smaller board on top. It was also in the evening, and the room was lit only by a desk lamp, so I was lulled into taking off the usual professional masks I wear during the day and I probably opened up to the discussion much more than I would have done in a more conventional training room.  Leadership is such a slippery, protean topic and so personal, so storytelling was a better way to think about it for me than trying to read what some survey of 10 or 1000 leaders have in common.  Should a leader tell a story,  listen to a story, co-author a story?  Telling stories in the dark can’t nail the jellyfish of leadership to the wall, but it might have helped me dance with the jellyfish and have some fun with the idea.

I took away several ideas that I am still chewing on. The workshop made me realise how much my image of leadership is shaped by my work in international NGOs.  If done badly, NGO work can lead to serious risks and dangers, either to ourselves, or to the people we are trying to help. In an emergency, you need a chain of command which generates a specific kind of leadership, which is difficult to shake off back in the London office. Even outside an emergency there are standards that are non-negotiable in so many areas – child safeguarding, project delivery to donor rules, financial accountability, keeping the teams safe.   Getting the details of design right so that you don’t forget to send people the food they need to survive for a month.  So while you might make as much space as you can for entrepreneurship and creativity, part of the leader’s job is also to hold the boundaries and keep discipline.

The first part of the discussion centred around different types of leadership, including functional or task leadership. It struck me that this is the kind of leadership being exercised in the group project on sustainable fisheries that I am involved with. No-one person is the expert or has any externally awarded authority, so different people take on responsibility for different areas.  I deliberately held back from the project management role as I’ve done that so often and I wanted to see what new roles I could embrace.   I can’t let go of my project management training too much as that’s what earns me my income, and I’m certainly experiencing some cognitive dissonance about the group project,  but I’m trying to be more meditative about it and notice my responses to different situations and the different leadership responses that the group try out. And, I frequently remind myself, this is not NGO work. If we get this wrong, even if we get it 100% disastrously wrong, nobody will die. I am trying to relax more. I am bad at relaxing.

Earning the right to lead:

In the workshop, people talked about what had inspired them about the best leaders they had ever seen. I realised that one of the things that has inspired me most until now is bravery – either the physical bravery of our humanitarian team leaders whom we can deploy into an earthquake or a conflict zone and trust them to know what to do to save lives, or the bravery of people like LGBT campaigners in many parts of the world who risk stigma, imprisonment and violence to speak the truth about sexuality. I realised that this is part of my problem with my vision of leadership, because not all leadership involves confronting such visceral risks, and also because leaders should be allowed to have a personal life (which trauma or overwork can destroy), so it was incumbent on me to reimagine my vision of leadership.  And playing with synonyms can be helpful in translating the concept to more ordinary life in the UK.  The first thing I ever thought about the man who became my husband was ‘uh huh, bold…’   Bold is a good thing about leaders.

One of the other people at the workshop talked about being comfortable with a boss once, because he knew that they were working harder than everyone else in the team. I find that interesting because the boss who is working very long hours (visibly so, at their desk) is not necessarily a boss who I think is on top of their job and I would find a martyr-boss off-putting.   But maybe hard work is a form of bravery, or at least of the combination of resilience and self-sacrifice that you could unpack bravery as being made up of.   That train of thought led me to resilience and self-sacrifice as being more applicable than my first image of the brave leader as a hero in literally dangerous times. I toyed with the term ‘servant leadership’ but then decided it did not work for me, and neither did self-sacrifice. I have a family and I have ambitions other than work. And I want to be able to spend an afternoon in the garden without feeling guilty, watch cat videos and House of Cards and see my friends. I don’t want to take on a form of leadership that involves throwing away all the good things that make my own life worth living.

So that left me whittled down to resilience.

Then someone else talked about a person who had inspired them in the environmental movement. She described someone who had taken a negative message (the environment is being ruined and it’s all awful) to something positive (we can do transition towns). The energy and interest in her voice as she described that leaders’ ideas, and the sense that this leader was shaping a positive story about how we can reimagine our way out of the climate crisis, was a joy to hear. Futerra talk about this trait in a brilliant, charming, funny paper called ‘Sell the Sizzle.’ It resonated with the things we talked about in advocacy at international NGOs – we need to keep reminding people about the success stories like vaccines, we need to keep making the case that aid works. Positivity, encouragement, hope, saying ‘good job’ and ‘thank you’, listening, helping other people shape their story, making people feel recognised and valued.   It’s the bit that it’s too easy to let go of under racking pressure, but this woman’s story reminded me that positivity is at least as important as resilience.

Another person at the workshop talked about the ‘gift of listening’ – that sometimes it’s lovely to give someone the gift of just listening to them really intensely.   Which brought me back to my idea of the leader as someone who hears (or sees) – really hears, or really sees, each member of the group.  (I put ‘sees’ as well as hears because I’m quite an aural learner but some people I know I visual.  Tactile leaders must find it difficult not to touch and pat but they probably need to hold back.   I think we can all agree that leaders should probably not lick or sniff their team-mates).  Something I picked up at my Lean In circle a few weeks ago:  in leadership, you ask simple, powerful questions.   A leader asks questions and listens.

So there I go, my three takeaways from the workshop. My vision of what leadership looks like is a leader who is resilient and positive and who really hears/sees the members of the team. There’s quite a lot more to unpack there but it’s a start. As always, it brings me back to the words about work that I turn to often when I’m unsure:

“Work is love made visible.”  Khalil Gibran.

I can’t love every day at work, but there is always something I find I can love in the big picture of my work. And what better source for resilience and positivity and the desire to really listen and see, than love?


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