“Simple: nothing else works.”
That was the rudimentary answer that I gave to cynical left-brained managers back in the 1990s and early 2000s when I was introducing them to the power of leadership storytelling. Slides leave listeners dazed. Prose remains unread. Reasons don’t change behavior. When it comes to inspiring people to embrace some strange new change in behavior, storytelling isn’t just better than the other tools. It’s the only thing that works.
A more scientific answer can be found in Brian Boyd’s wonderful book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, (Harvard UniversityPress, 2009)
This elegantly written book assembles a mass of scientific evidence, drawing on evolutionary theory, ethology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, game theory, anthropology, economics, neurophysiology, analytic and experimental philosophy, epistemology and psychology, and shows--scientifically--why storytelling is so important.
The eclipse of storytelling in the 20th Century
Anthropologists always knew that storytelling is a universal feature of every country and every culture, even if, for most of the 20th Century, storytelling got very little respect. As so-called scientific approaches to life became dominant, mechanistic, machine-like thinking was everywhere triumphant. Analysis was king. Narrative was seen as either infantile or trivial.
The phenomenon didn’t just affect storytelling. In retrospect, the 20thCentury can be seen as a giant experiment by the human race to find out what could be accomplished if organizations treated people as things and communicated to them in abstractions, numbers and analysis, rather than through people-friendly communications such as stories.
Employees became “human resources” to be mined, rather than people to be minded. Customers became “demand”, or “consumers” or “eyeballs”, to be manipulated, rather than living, feeling human beings to be delighted. Storytelling was only one of many elements that suffered “collateral damage.”
The whole experiment can be seen as a success to the extent that the material standard of living of a proportion of the world’s population for a time improved. But the experiment was an abysmal failure in most other respects. It made human beings people miserable. And organizations steadily became less and less productive, as the need for innovation grew.
In any event, the effort to suppress storytelling was unsuccessful: storytelling, though despised, lived on in the cracks and crevices of society—in the cafeterias, the corridors, around water-coolers, in bars and restaurants, living rooms and bedrooms. Throughout the 20th Century, storytelling got little respect, but it could not be suppressed. It turned out to be central characteristic of being human.
It also turned out that storytelling was a central component of leadership. Want to understand why Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama became national leaders? A big part of it lay in their ability to tell effective leadership stories.
Now, the ongoing reinvention of management to transform workplaces from the boring, sterile, dispiriting cubicles of the 20th Century into the lively centers of inspiration and creativity that are needed for the Creative Economy of the 21st Century has storytelling at its core.
Why stories are so powerful
Boyd explains what is it about the apparently frivolous activity of storytelling that makes it so powerful. He helps us see why storytelling is central to innovation, the critical performance dimension of 21st Century organizations: stories are a kind of cognitive play, a stimulus and training for a lively mind.
Although it is not always obvious from what goes on in Washington DC, Boyd argues that “humans are hyper-intelligent and hyper-social animals.” By lining up key elements of intelligence, cooperation, pattern-seeking, alliance-making, and the understanding that other beings have beliefs and knowledge of their own, stories make us stronger and more effective as a species.
For Boyd, story is “a thing that does” rather than “a thing that is”. It is a tool with measurable utility rather than an object for aesthetic admiration. Attention is the reward that listeners bestow on the storyteller.
Boyd analyzes successful stories to prove his point. The second part of the books zeros in on two famous stories: two works of fiction: Homer's Odysseyand Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who!
Boyd mines The Odyssey not so much for its beauty or its meaning but for its sophisticated treatments of survival and reproductive success, particularly issues of cooperation within social groups. The instinct for justice compels listeners to attend to the horrible punishment of Penelope’s freeloading suitors. For Boyd, The Odyssey is about the acceleration of intelligence in the interests of preserving the social order. Odysseus is deceitful yet honorable because his cause is just.
Boyd’s book is engrossing and deftly reasoned. It assembles the scientific evidence which explains why some stories speak to audiences across cultures and generations. The most successful storytellers apply themselves to the listeners’ dilemmas—not just to amuse, but to make them fitter to triumph in the contests of life.
As Laura Dietz points out in her review, Boyd welcomes contradictions, expecting and even celebrating conflicting agendas within a given work. Just as reshaping the human pelvis for walking on two legs made it less able to cope with childbirth, so new forms of story generate their own new sets of problems, which require yet more solutions. Boyd looks at stories as a naturalist looks at a leaf or shell, not criticizing improvisations but marveling at their inventive beauty, as a refreshing experience.
By assembling the science that underlies effective storytelling, Boyd helps restore storytelling to the intellectually respectable and organizationally useful role that it merits.
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