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Narrative as a Critical Tool for Transformational Leaders

     A story is a fundamental way that humans organize and store information.Jane Friedman (Friedman)

Indigenous people the world over have long recognized the power of story to give their lives coherence and purpose. Across geography and cultures, rich story captures history, cultural mores, and identity. Steve Denning, who has done a great deal of research into story and leadership describes story this way: A narrative or story in its broadest sense is anything told or recounted; more narrowly, and more usually, something told or recounted in the form of a causally-linked set of events. (Denning, http://www.stevedenning.com/Business-Narrative/definitions-of-story-and-narrative.asp) While we sometimes use the two terms interchangeably, one useful distinction is that story has an arc, a beginning, middle and ending that develops a plot. Narrative, on the other hand, can remain quite open ended, although it uses the elements of story to create meaning. Both, however, serve leaders as they attempt to influence the culture in an organization, tapping into the human brain in ways simple facts cannot. Story triggers emotions and connections that are seldom accessed in other kinds of language.

Companies including Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, NASA, and the World Bank have begun to draw upon this power to support their innovation processes.(Schwabel)  In today’s school environment, however, story has been given little significance. Schools today are flooded with information, plans, data—all the language of logic; narrative is considered soft, emotional, perhaps even manipulative because it moves people without facts and numbers. Yet Stephen Denning in his book The Leader’s Guide to Story Telling, suggests that story telling is critical to a leader’s success in introducing change in an organization. In fact, he implies it is much more than just another communication tool, but a way of leading, one that focuses on interaction and shared meaning rather than top down demands. (Denning, xi)

Denning’s idea that story actually supports a different kind of leading fits well with our understandings of the relationship between language and transformational leadership. In truth, every school has an overarching narrative that reinforces ways of thinking and doing, evolving most usually by default and articulated only in bits and pieces. These narratives shape perspectives and possibilities. The transformational leader, however, sees narrative as a stream of energy that can motivate people and propel change. The transactional leader most often doesn’t even notice its existence.

Research supports the idea that linking change to a narrative can be transformative. In 2002 the McKinsey Quarterly published a research study that explored the success of forty companies making major change in the approach to their work. The study evaluated twelve different factors that were used to support the change. Sadly, over half of the companies were not successful in making the changes they had put forward. But of the 42 precent who were successful, most used story telling as an important part of their strategy. (LaClair, 41) These companies discovered that an appropriate told story does what analysis cannot—touch people’s minds and hearts. And as Noel Tichy says so well, “The best way to get humans to venture into unknown territory is to make that terrain familiar and desirable by taking them there first in their imaginations. (Tichy, 208)

In an interview with Daniel Goleman, Howard Gardner also suggests that the narrative around the introduction of something new is imperative. He comments, “I’m absolutely certain that a very important part of any new invention whether it’s mechanical or literary or artistic, is a narrative vehicle which helps people relate to it. This helps them understand the ways in which it is complementary to, or consistent with, or directly clashing with, what they did before.” (Goleman, 2012)

While increasingly cutting edge business and industry leaders are helping their leaders learn to tell their own stories and the stories of their companies, schools shy away from all of this. So what is the difference between offering an analysis and offering a story? Story speaks to both the conscious and the unconscious parts of our brains. It is a form of mental imprint that assists people to organize their thinking and make sense of things. In this way, story provides a schema that connects our work to important senses and emotions. Narrative can help people rise above frustrations because it appeals to the humanity in all of us—the universal need to connect and understand what we do as important and worthwhile.

Over the course of several months as we began our work at MRH, my assistant and I paid careful attention to the language that was used by teachers, administrators, students and community members. What we found was an overarching narrative filled with disappointment, distrust, and lack of hope. The negative mental maps of MRH held by those involved in the work of the school shaped the teaching and learning, the interactions of individuals and groups, and the sense of self worth of the adults and children in the district.

Prevalent Beliefs at MRH in 2000

  • The children who come to us have so many problems that we cannot expect to produce the same results of other schools.
  • These students need the basics: drill and practice is the best way to help them.
  • Teachers and administrators have different goals and can work together only with union monitoring and formal agreements.
  • MRH is not a place where you build a career.
  • Schools within the district must fight each other for community respect.
  • Parents are the enemy.
  • Resources can be pulled away at any moment. It is every teacher for 
  • Improvement efforts are primarily about fulfilling state mandates rather 
than about real change. Wait awhile and the initiative will be gone.
  • I do the best I can in my classroom—what goes on in the rest of the 
district is not my responsibility.

We talked about this list for a long time with our Board of Education and administrators. How do you counter these negative and defeating views of self, student, and school? Laminating a different set of values and posting it on the walls or dictating a different way of being…we knew these strategies wouldn’t work. We decided that part of the answer came in articulating a different story. Story became an integral part of our work over the years. We told stories about ourselves, but we also learned to listen to stories in a much deeper way than we ever had before. And in the reciprocity of story, we built a different kind of school.

We began with that very first institute only two weeks into our administration by taking a very big risk. We decided the afternoons each day of that two-week period would be devoted to writing and sharing the stories of our lives and of our work. Obviously there was huge risk in this. The new superintendent and assistant superintendent were asking people to write and share personal and professional narratives. What right did we have to probe into lives of those we were now going to be supervising? But I remembered an anecdote Peter Senge told us once as he was describing Chris Argyris’ work with the left hand column exercise. In this exercise, leaders were supposed to script what they were actually thinking when they were having a conversation with someone about a tense part of their work. Chris wanted to mine the disconnect between what was said and what was thought. A student asked Chris, “Doesn’t that feel dangerous for the participants?”

“Yes,” Chris replied, “It’s supposed to.” And that, in the end, is the truth about narrative and leadership, as well. It is risky being real with one another, exploring and exposing what is human and vulnerable…but it changes everything. So during those two weeks as teachers and administrators sat and wrote and shared parts of their lives and their work, an amazing bond was formed. Within the first week a quiet high school teacher described his battle with alcoholism, an elementary teacher wrote about the suicide of her teenage son, the high school principal shared his terror when he discovered in August of his first year that none of the students had been scheduled for fall course work. We laughed at funny stories of children’s antics…and we cried at the loss and pain that also wove through our lives.

Each afternoon I taught a lesson on how to tell our stories more effectively: we had time to write; and we practiced responding to writing as human beings committed to honoring every storyteller. It was a simple format, but it left room for everything important.

During that workshop I wrote about a short vacation my family had taken that included a few days at a small hotel in Vancouver. The hotel had billed itself as a “boutique hotel” and family members had initially chuckled at the designation. But we soon learned that the hotel staff took that designation very seriously and attended to our every need. They made it their business to learn what we liked to eat, what we liked to do, where we liked to sit for breakfast and took great delight to insuring our needs were met. The hotel celebrated their unique location and characteristics and capitalized on their small size to do what no big hotel could accomplish. “Maybe,” I suggested, “Our little school tucked in next to the urban center should begin to think of ourselves as a boutique district, offering our families things no big school could ever offer.” The idea inspired a great deal of conversation over the two weeks and beyond, and ever so subtly the narrative of MRH changed. We began to let go of the victim story and to take on a story of power and possibility.

Narrative can do that. It can lead people into places they have never been before. Story telling can help explore an emerging vision for a school; it can communicate values that undergird the school; it can capture the ethos of a school either past or present; and it can help build relationships and support people in seeing why you do what you do as an educator and leader.

Eight years after those initial interviews, we worked with a group of teachers who served on a district curriculum council to identify the current prevalent beliefs about the school district held by teachers as we applied for a professional development award. The teachers identified the following set of beliefs:

  • MRH is a place where creativity and innovation are valued.
  • Collaboration is critical to our work in the district.
  • Our students thrive in environments that support them in building 
their understandings through active, social learning.
  • The learning work our students produce is important to us: we display it, 
analyze it, and celebrate it.
  • MRH hires and supports high quality teachers who assume important 
leadership roles in the district.
  • Parents are an important part of our success.
  • Genuine change takes a long time and requires both outside experts and 
our own best thinking to take root.

This dramatic change from the previous list came, of course, in large part because of the change in practices that we implemented. But it also emerged as a narrative that was deliberately part of the leadership work.

The new narrative that was shaped over the years went something like this:

MRH is a small district with big ideas. We aim to offer a distinct quality private school education in a public school setting. We believe our children and our community deserve and want something more than standard suburban education. We nurture innovation, individuality, and excellence and resist cookie cutter approaches. Our programming celebrates childhood and learning and sees our learners as active, engaged participants in the world.

We are deeply committed to our community and believe we must make our children and their learning visible to the entire community. We want everyone to celebrate these beautiful children, to partner in their education, and to help initiate them into their hometown. We want the children to feel a deep connection to their school community and to the broad range of people who live there. We support our students as they learn in and serve their community.

MRH teachers and administrators are adventurers who are willing to take risks. We work extraordinarily hard and take our scholarship and teaching very seriously. MRH teachers expect to collaborate, to fail occasionally, and to be passionate about our vision of education that goes far beyond achievement on standardized tests. We expect everyone to be able to step forward and lead as the situation demands.

Most of all we demonstrate to our students that we love them unconditionally. We set high expectations for them; we allow them to fall down and are there to pick them up; and we are relentless in nurturing them to be the best leaders, scholars, stewards, and citizens they can be…because after all, we expect them to change the world.

One thing that is important to understand: we began talking the talk before we were consistently walking the walk. But every time we found some event or action or personal behavior that demonstrated this narrative, we highlighted it, and over time this story was articulated throughout the organization. On our application paperwork, for example, we used this language to describe the kind of teachers we were looking for. We used elements of this in speeches, in articles, in the way we framed community events and celebrations, and in what we honored. At the end of the chapter are examples of my writing that drew upon this over-arching narrative to help the community connect to our vision of schooling.

Two years after I retired, the principal of the high school sent me the comments a teacher had made on parent night explaining what it was like to work at MRH. Her comments are below and reflect the overarching narrative that had been woven many years earlier.

Parents’ Night Speech by Patrice Bryan

When Mr. Grawer said I could have five minutes and I asked him what I should focus on, he said, “Talk about what it’s like to be at MRH.” As someone who’s in my 22rd year of teaching, only 4 of it here, I have a lot to say about what makes MRH different and special, but I’m going to stick to my five minutes, so I narrowed it down to what I think are the 2 most important differences.

 #1 The work ethic

There’s no way you can walk onto this campus, look around you and feel the climate, and not recognize the sheer amount of sweat and tears that must have gone in to accomplishing such a transformation. When I interviewed here, the one thing everyone brought up was “you’re going to work harder than you’ve ever worked.” I thought “Whatever. I’ve worked pretty hard up to now.” I had no idea what I was talking about. You don’t truly understand work ethic until you’ve worked at MRH.

When you start working here, the first thing you do is begin observing other teachers and going through what I call the calibration phase. This is the phase where you’re in your first month and you walk out to your car at 4:00 and realize you’re the first one leaving. This is the time when you start reading other teachers’ agendas in D2L [daily plans written for students posted on our online curriculum tool] and realize you have to step up your game if your agendas are ever going to look like Mike Cassell’s.

The word curriculum actually comes from the Latin word “currerr” which means to run. One of the commonalities among staff is many of them are wired to not only gauge how fast they can run, but to constantly push themselves to run faster. These are the kinds of people who teach 6 classes a day, sponsor two clubs, write curriculum in the summer, read professional books, and do it all while juggling a spouse and a variety of offspring. They are super people, and you have to aspire to be a super person to make it here.

#2 The second most important difference is that these teachers have been given license to be creative in their curriculum. They create experiences in the classroom and those experiences are often nothing short of masterful.

I was in the Research and Design Center last week talking to the media specialist, Ms. Baker, and she was trying to find a way to connect a new resource to a class and she said, “Oh I think Rowley does a unit on Picasso.” I said, “Oh yeah! That’s a beautifully written unit.” She looked at me like I was a big dork, but the truth is, much of our curriculum is pure artistry because it’s nuanced with the expertise of our teachers, and each one brings something unique, creative, and often cosmopolitan to their curriculum.

Notorangelo doesn’t just teach a foreign language, she lived in Honduras and served in the Peace Corps, immersing herself in developing world Spanish. Nims and McWilliams don’t just teach science, they go to exotic places like the Galapagos and study hawks—for fun. Henske didn’t just do an activity about the anniversary of Auschwitz, she’s been there and has stood in that space and felt the impact. Rowley didn’t just write a unit on Picasso, he’s studied art and brings that unit to life with a deep understanding of the intersection of art and literature. Sonntag doesn’t just recommend young adult literature to students, she reads from 80-100 young adult literature books a year so she can know what the kids are reading.

 In my very first interview with the superintendent, I was prattling on about all the things I thought I could change and fix. I was saying “This can be fixed by blah blah blah” and “we tried to fix this at my other district by doing blah blah blah”. After a few minutes, she calmly interrupted me and said, “Quit talking about what you’re going to fix and tell me what you can create. That’s transformative.”

It was the moment that I realized I was in a special place where my creativity would not only be valued but encouraged.

 So when you talk to these teachers tonight, tune in to the artistry in the curriculum. Ask them about their passion. That’s what sets us apart from everyone else. That’s what makes MRH different and that’s what makes me love this job.

Below is a list of tips I shared with my administrators as I urged them to draw upon the power of narrative in their school newsletters and in their conversations with parents and teachers.

  • Schools are filled with wonderful stories. Pay attention to them; celebrate them; encourage everyone in your school to become a story teller.
  • Don’t try to pack everything into any one telling of a narrative. Select a few important elements to convey based on the situation.
  • Think of your story as a Super Bowl commercial—convey strong emotion and a clear sense of character tied to who we are as a school community.
  • Show, don’t tell. Put your audience there so they can experience what it is like. Create a movie in your audience’s minds.
  • Use vivid language—strong verbs, hefty nouns first and foremost and then adjectives and adverbs that add clarity,
  • Even if you choose not to tell a whole story, you can use narrative elements—rich details, a sense of place, strong character description to help make your point.
  • Practice before you tell a story. Everyone gets better and the story is sharpened as we practice telling.

Perhaps one of the most important and unexplored roles of the school leader is that of weaver of narrative. Annette Simons captures it so well when she says, “People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, in the story you tell. We need to learn to tell the story.” (Simmons, 2006)

Give It A Go

  1. Use the MindTools site to explore ways to build your storytelling capacity.


  1. Take the free Stanford webinar on using storytelling to fuel innovation.


  1. Listen to Steven Denning talk about the power of story in an organization.


  1. Begin to develop your story telling skills. Keep a journal in a compositionbook or in a file on your computer and begin to jot description and story as you work in your school. You will discover you become much more aware of life in the school as you approach your work as a story teller.

Examples of the Use of Narrative

Opening of School Comments to Faculty During Year Three

So not many of you probably know that one of my favorite movies is Terminator II. I watch it almost every year, usually before school starts. “Ah,” some of you are thinking, “this explains a lot.”

In truth, however, it’s not the terminator that is appealing to me…it is John Conner who is the human lead in the story. If you will remember, the film opens with a horrific battle between machines and humans some time in the future. It is pretty clear that the machines are winning and are well on their way to taking over the world. A small band of human beings are fighting to keep this from happening, and they are led by an amazingly brave hero named John Conner.

For those of you who have seen Terminator I, this is very interesting, because you were introduced to John in that first film as a bratty preteen who made his mother’s llfe miserable. John stole money from little old ladies; he swore like a sailor; and he totally disrespected his mom (and any other adult he encountered.)

Well, in Terminator II, some really evil robot is sent back into the past to knock off John Conner before he grows up to lead the human army. Most of the film is about a good robot and John’s mom trying to save the kid from an early death.

Why do I like this film so much? Well, in addition to providing some great action scenes, Terminator II reminds me that some very unlikely children could grow up to save the world. You know the kids I am talking about—the ones who make our lives miserable with their unwillingness to follow simple rules; who treat homework like an optional activity, who offer world views frequently peppered with four letter words. These are the kids we sigh over…and struggle not to give up on.

And that we must not do– give up on them! Because in all likelihood they will lead something…a gang perhaps if things don’t work out the way we hope. But they can also lead a family, an organization, a town…we just don’t know where their lives will take them. And we have to ensure they are ready to lead, that we have been relentlessly nurturing of their leadership as well as their scholarship. If we don’t take this on, then in all likelihood no one else will. And what a shame for humanity. The machines will win!

 A Letter in Our Community Newsletter

Holy cow! I am finishing my fifth year as superintendent. How is that possible? The time has really flown. These have been amazing, complex, exciting years that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. The MRH community has become my extended family and I cherish the opportunities to celebrate with them when life goes well, and mourn with them when we suffer losses. I grew up in a farming community where everyone helped to raise us. I remember once in the confessional I was reviewing my teenage sins, when the priest suddenly stopped me and told me he had been at the game on Friday night and I didn’t have the right spin on my free throw shot. Or then there was the time the sheriff followed my new boyfriend right down the lane to tell my dad that the young man had been speeding. Yikes. Yes, small towns are intimate places.

How wonderful it is that right in the middle of a metropolis we have an amazing small town where we all can share in raising our youngsters. Our senior citizens are active in helping. Nelda Hoeman wouldn’t miss a band concert; and neither would Jane Moeller. Millie Hardy cheers on our teams at football games; and Rudy Gaston and her husband, John, are avid basketball fans. They serve as honorary grandparents who celebrate our children’s accomplishments.

Our churches also partner with us. Andrew Vander Maas, pastor of Crossroads Presbyterian, is the chairperson of our Joe’s Place Board and gives countless hours to the work. Immaculate Conception, United Methodist, and Maplewood Baptist are always there to support our WOW program (Weekend on Wheels) that helps provide food for our some of our families most in need.

And local businesspeople such as Kay Basta, Jerry Gibbs, Joe Pieber and Jay Hardy and so generous in providing us with their time and with funds for special programs. We would not be the school we are today without them.

As I think back over these years, there are things I will always remember. The pure pleasure of Friday night football under the lights with a hot dog in one hand and a Blue Devil clapper in the other, cheering on the team, standing shoulder to shoulder with other MRH fans. The hugs and excited chatter of returning grads who want to report on all of their successes. The joyful accomplishment of kindergartners harvesting their first crop of tomatoes. The proud elementary students who serve as docents for the exhibits they designed. Middle schoolers returning from one of their big expeditions, exhausted and amazed at what they had done and what they had learned.

MRH is the school that it is because of the passionate people who believe that the future will be determined by the kind of education we provide our students. We are committed to insuring that all students emerge from our schools genuinely equipped to be leaders, scholars, stewards and citizens ready to make a difference in our world. My thanks to the MRH community for the support we receive in meeting that goal.

 A Speech at Our Achievement Celebration (to all students grades 2-12)

Last month I read about a female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and fishing nets in the Sea of Cortez off San Francisco. Humpbacks can remain underwater without breathing for a maximum of about 35 – 40 minutes, and this whale was struggling to stay afloat. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that were pulling her toward the ocean bottom. She also had hundreds of yards of rope wrapped around her body, and a line had become trapped in her mouth.

A rescue team was called by the fishermen who found her, and for more than five hours they worked to save this whale. Team members had to dive under water and use curved knives to cut the nets. She didn’t struggle—she seemed to know they were trying to help. Hour after hour the team pulled away the ropes that bound her. The diver who cut the rope from her mouth said her eyes followed him the whole time, and he will never be the same after that experience.

When at last she was freed, she swam in joyful circles, breaching into the air again and again as she celebrated her amazing abilities to swim and leap and play. And then, to the divers’ surprise, she returned to every one of them, one at a time and nudged them gently with her giant body saying thank you.

So perhaps you wonder why I am telling this story of the humpback whale at this academic celebration. Every one of us from time to time encounters nets and lines that stretch around us, entrap us, keep us from using all of the abilities given to us. Most often these nets come in negative images of who we are and what we are capable of creating. For example, have you ever said, ”I’m not college material,” or “I’m no good at math,” or “I’m just not one of those creative types.”   How about “Writers are special people—not someone like me,” or “Reading is boring.”

Every one of the sentences holds you back, keep you from dancing in this world in the way you were intended you to dance. These words are no different than the treacherous net that trapped our whale. But just as the whale, you have a team to help set you free. Your teachers again and again slice away those nets; they hold you above water; and they encourage you to create in the world what only you can create. You have an amazing life to live… Live it with ferocity. Live it like a whale.

And make sure that you are as smart as our whale… returning to each of those who helped you on your journey to say thank you before you swim out into that great ocean of your life.

  A Graduation Speech

My dear graduates, where did the last twelve years go? You grew up and I grew old…all in the blink of an eye. And here I am addressing you one last time, preparing to send you out into the world to make your way. I have thought long and hard about my final message to you. When you have only a few minutes, you worry about everything…including the title. If you are going to make a long speech, then the title doesn’t matter all that much—you have a lot of words that follow it to make up for a so-so start. Here it represents a significant part of my speech.

So here is the title: What the Madagascar Flatid Bug Can Teach Us About Living a Life of Grace. What do you think?   Catchy, yes? I better get started…five minutes goes fast when you are trying to communicate something important to people who are important.

I hope that we here at MRH have prepared you to live your life with grace. Now some people may be disappointed in that—they will say we should have focused only on preparing you for college or a career or to make lots of money. In fact all of these are fine goals …but they will not serve you well without grace. Only with grace are we able to transform ourselves and our world into something better than it is now. Only with grace are we able to lift ourselves out of the rubble of humanity at its worst and into the light of what is possible when we are at our best.

If you are religious, then you believe grace is bestowed by God. But even if you are not…you can think about living with grace, because grace comes when we are being our best selves in this complicated world. I believe three characteristics define a life of grace: connection, compassion, and courage.

Living toward our best selves begins with our willingness to be in conscious and positive relationship with each other and with the world. This is where the Madagascar flatid bug comes in. I have a bookmark for you with a picture of the flatid bug on it.   Note that it has beautiful coral wings. Actually the wings come in many shades of brilliant orange-red. When the flatid bugs assemble themselves on a branch, they resemble an exquisite flower not unlike a lilac. And because they appear to be a flower, none of the usual predators bother them. The bugs accomplish collectively what none of them could individually—they preserve their species.

Reflect often on your connections to others and to the world. See yourself as part of something bigger. A world of equality, peace, health, and abundance is struggling to be born…but we must link our arms and our hearts with others to make it happen.

People who live with grace practice compassion. I believe compassion to be one of the few things that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives. In fact there are scientific studies that suggest there are physical benefits to practicing compassion — people who practice it produce more DHEA, which is a hormone that counteracts the aging process.

We have offered you many opportunities over the past years to develop your capacity for compassion—from a wide range of community service actions to encouraging committed caring for one another in our daily lives. At the root of it all, we are all human beings. We need food and shelter and love. We crave attention and recognition, and affection. Reflect on these commonalities you have with every other human being. Focus on how you might help others in their quest to become their best selves, in overcoming the struggles that are a part of their lives, struggles you may never even know about…and you will develop your capacities for compassion.

And finally, a life of grace is lived with courage. We have seen amazing courage in our lives here at MRH…Marcos rising from his wheel chair and walking down the school hall. The 2008 state champion basketball team winning a breathtaking final game with one second left to play.   In this graduating class are students who have faced homelessness, loss of loved ones, serious injuries, and they have done so with a resilience that is almost beyond understanding. Any of these individuals could have complained to the world about how unfair life is. But instead they found courage to walk through the fires and into their future… and in so doing they brought grace into their lives.

Connection, compassion and courage. This is my wish for you…because, of course, I am rooting for all of you to live your lives with grace. I am expecting each of you to do your part in changing the world. And through it all, MRH will be here for you. Because no matter where you go or what you do, you will always be the sons and daughters of MRH. We love you and wish you well on your journey.


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