“Life, you’ll notice, is a story ” (Eldredge, 2004, p. 2). This brief statement by John Eldredge, in the short book Epic, seems to have captured in six words the realization for me that my life is a story. This was not always my perspective or viewpoint. In fact, when I entered my journey in my doctoral leadership program, I believe I was quite strongly a “concrete sequential” thinker with a quantitative view of data and life. Somewhere along the way, a series of circumstances, events, and reflective moments drew me to connect with the concept of “story,” and led me to much more of a qualitative understanding of life. My personal growth had changed me to the point that I would now describe my perspective much like Eldredge did when he followed that six-word statement by saying, “Life doesn’t come to us like a math problem. It comes to us the way that a story does, scene by scene. You wake up. What will happen next? You don’t get to know – you have to enter in, take the journey as it comes. The sun might be shining. There might be a tornado outside. Your friends might call and invite you to go sailing. You might lose your job. Life unfolds like a drama. Doesn’t it? Each day has a beginning and an end. There are all sorts of characters, all sorts of settings. A year goes by like a chapter from a novel. Sometimes it seems like a tragedy. Sometimes like a comedy. Most of it feels like a soap opera. Whatever happens, it’s a story through and through.” (pp. 2-3)
A natural outgrowth of recognizing the emergence of my own personal story was the understanding that “everyone has a story,” and so I transitioned from a recognizing the importance of my story to a recognizing the importance of story in others, and in leadership in general. I see this now in the simple way that I will often ask questions of people I meet to draw out their stories, and look for connections between their stories and mine in order to build relationship in a way that will benefit and enhance the effectiveness of my leadership. This importance of understanding each person’s story is, for me, reflected in the research methodology of narrative inquiry. I have learned from Clandinin and Connelly, in the book Narrative Inquiry (2000), that story, or narrative inquiry, is a very important component of research because it provides the context and history of a circumstance and an environment, which provides meaning to them. Merriam (1998) describes it as “the meaning people have constructed, that is, how they make sense of their world and the experiences they have in the world” (p. 6).
Over time, I have come to see leadership as a process that occurs within a context. It seems that many approaches to leadership focus on the attributes of the leader or the relationship between the leader and the followers, but I believe that it is also very necessary to take into account the context of that process. This includes knowledge of the context/environment in which the leader and followers currently exist (present); knowledge of the organizational history (past); and organizational vision (future). With this knowledge, the leader engages in the process that is a continuing cycle of analyzing past, present, and future in order to move people and organizations toward a desired growth, change, or direction. In other words, the leader understands that the story of the organization and the stories of its people are necessary to understanding how to shape the organization, which means that story is critical for a leader to be effective as a change agent. Therefore, in order for me to effectively make change within an organization, I must first understand its history, and to understand its history, I must hear stories. I need to ask questions about the way things are done and why they are done in that way, build relationships with those around me, allowing me to best empower and encourage them. I need to share the example of my own story, and listen to their stories.
So then the “plot” of my story, so to speak, is that I have learned the importance of story for leadership. I have learned that knowing my own story is vital to understanding how I lead and why I lead the way I do. I have learned the importance of knowing the story of the organization which I lead, which leads me to ask questions and listen before acting, in order to better understand and manage that organization. I have learned the value of using story as a tool to effectively teach, mentor, motivate, and bring about change. I have learned that everyone has a story, and each person’s story in turn impacts how that person constructs meaning from life, and therefore – in order for me to influence and develop my followers – I need to understand each person’s story. As a leader, a teacher/mentor, and a change agent: story matters!
Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Eldredge, J. (2004). Epic: The Story God is Telling. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.