Running a Storytelling Experiment for Social Leadership

The Social Leader will be a Storytelling Leader: not simply shaping and sharing their own narratives, but enabling, filtering, and amplifying, the stories that others tell. Specifically, they will understand the systemic nature of the Socially Dynamic Organisation, and the way that the stories we get to hear are only part of a far more complex, distributed, and conflicted, landscape.


Over the last few months, i’ve been running various groups through a development pathway for ‘Storytelling in Social Leadership’, and trying to share my own learning, both successes, and failures, along the way. Not all of these pieces that i share will be coherent stand alone, but form part of a wider body of work around both the theory of and, more importantly, the practice of, Social Leadership.

When i started to design the developmental pieces, i have had a clear focus that they should be rooted in Experimentation: no outside expert will give you the answers you need. You have to find those answers yourself. But to do so, we can provide a scaffolding, a structured space to explore, which is an approach that personified Social Learning.

So in that spirit, i’m launching the second module in the ‘Landscape of Stories’ certification today, and it’s focussed entirely on shaping, and running, an experiment around ‘Storytelling in Social Leadership’ within your own Organisation, be it storytelling for ‘change’, for ‘innovation’, or simply as part of your developing ‘leadership’. As part of #WorkingOutLoud, i’m sharing the full six week outline approach here. It’s still pretty rough, as this is a prototype group, but i hope the idea will come across.

Unit 2: Experiments and Report

In this second unit, you will shape and run an experiment within your own Organisation. There is great fluidity in how you shape and run this experiment, and it may relate to the flavour of Storytelling that you wish to pursue [for change, innovation, compassion, coaching, etc].

Week 7: Your Storytelling Organisation

Using what you have learned about your own Organisation, consider what experiment you wish to run. This will be within the context of how we build a more Socially Dynamic Organisation, one which is interconnected through stories. We will consider:

1. How you characterise your current Organisational storytelling ecosystem
2. An area you feel you can explore further
3. Your hypothesis as to what you will find or see as you do so

In earlier work, we considered how stories flow within your Organisation, where they are owned, what power sits behind them, where the spaces are to listen, to respond, to dissent. We have defined the ecosystem of stories as it exists now.

But we can look to the future: as a Storytelling Social Leader, how can you understand this ecosystem, better, how can you help it to be better? Which area should you look into in greater detail?

Week 8: Experimental Design and Technique

This week you will consider the type of experiment you wish to run: it could be an individual activity, activity with a group that you are part of, or maybe you will form an experimental cohort for the experiment. We will consider:

1. Different types of experiments, and the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges, of each
2. The type of experiment that you will run
3. How you will run it, to test your hypothesis

Our aim is not to become expert scientists, but rather to design a simple experiment, which we can manage in our own Organisation. We may set out to simply measure something that already exists, or we may seek to influence something by moving one variable. For example, you may seek to increase engagement by changing a rule set on a social platform. Or you may seek to hear more stories by setting up a Cultural Graffiti wall.

We will consider how you nullify, or validate, your hypothesis. For example, you may say ‘if we set up a graffiti wall, no senior leaders will participate’, and if they do, your hypothesis is nullified.

Week 9: Experimenting and Sharing

This week is time to run your experiment: most of the time we are together this week will be to share progress, and challenges. We will consider:

1. What we have learned about running experiments in an Organisational context
2. Write a story of ‘how it feels to run an experiment’, documenting our hopes, fears, and expectations

As well as running the experiment this week, you will write a story of what you have learned about the process of experimentation so far: how did it feel, what have you learned already, and what would you do differently next time?

Week 10: Experimenting and Sharing

This week is the second week of your experiment: we will mainly work together, within our community, to share results from week 1, and to consider how we can start analysis next week.

1. Document our key stumbling blocks, and enablers

Week 11: Analysis and Recommendations

For the last two weeks, we have been running our experiments. This week, we will start to analyse the results, and tease our our recommendations. We will consider:

1. What our results were, and whether they proved, or disproved, your hypothesis
2. How you can best present your results
3. Your recommendation for a follow up experiment

Now that you have the results of your experiment, you can consider whether they have surprised you, or not! What did you hypothesise, and what do the results show? You will work with your cohort to tease out the meaning from the story the data tell.

You will learn to tell a story with data, to share the results. You will also consider recommendations you would make for a follow up study.

Week 12: The Storytelling Leader That I Will Become

You are in the final week of the Storytelling Certification programme: and it’s time to write the story of the Storytelling Leader that you will become. In this story, you will consider:

1. Your understanding of where you power as a Social Leader lies, and the factors that contribute to this foundation
2. Your own, reflective, understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, and learning, in this space
3. A clear view of the Storytelling leader that you will become, and how you will achieve this

Our development as leaders is largely a personal narrative: the leader that i am, and the leader that i will become. At the end of this programme on storytelling, you will write and share this story.

The Landscape of Stories

Certification Report

Your final step in achieving Certification as a Storytelling Social Leader is to submit a report: this will consist of the full Logbook that you have compiled, alongside your story of the Storytelling Leader that you will become.

This report forms your formal portfolio, which you will be assessed upon.

Alongside this, you will compile, and submit, the view of your community: what is the Social assessment of how you have done. How has your community seen you change? How have your stories achieved effect?

We will provide you with some tools that you may wish to use, or you can make your own up, individually, or within your cohort.

1. We will provide you with a tool to run a 360 survey
2. We will give you a survey tool to send out to your community
3. You could submit stats or analytics from any social collaborative platforms that you have used

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8 Aspects of ‘The Storytelling Leader’

A key aspect of Social Leadership is to recognise that our primary role is not to craft stories of power, pushing them through a network, but rather to act, with humility, to hear stories within a network, to find the storytellers, and connect the dots. The role is to capture the wisdom from within the tribal communities, not impart colonial wisdom into them. It may sound easy, but it can be the hardest thing, because stories are, themselves, vessels of power, and by picking up a story, you subject yourself to the power that it holds.

Storytelling Leadership

In many ways, we can describe Organisations as expressions of belief: sure, they have a physical presence and structure, and both legal and architectural foundations, but their reputation, effectiveness, and even engagement, are matters of invested belief. They are both enabled by, and constrained by, the stories that they are held within.

Some stories fly, whilst others wilt and die: which is which is not simply a matter of volume and voice, but rather a matter of relevance, underlying power, ownership, potential to personalise, and ability to control.

The Landscape of Stories

I’m half way through guiding the first cohort through my new ‘Landscape of Stories’ certification programme, exploring how stories work, how we can understand their power within the context of Organisations, and how we can become a better Storytelling leader, and this seemed like a good time to capture my route notes.

I thought i would focus on the eight aspects of Storytelling in Social Leadership which form my preliminary sketch of the journey: ‘power’, ‘consensus’ and ‘dissent’, ‘amplification’, ‘tribes’, ‘graffiti’, ‘subversion’, and ‘evolution

I’ll start with POWER: i guess my greatest insight has been to view the entire storytelling ecosystem as a network of power. Stories are both shaped by power, and carried by it. The power of the individual (authenticity), the power of our role (hierarchical power), and the power of our network (reputation based power). Our power influences our perspective (if we have power, it’s harder to envisage, or empathise, with views that lack it), and influences our ability to both access, and hear, alternative views. Power dampens down opposition, or moves it into conflict and dissent, often reinforcing existing frames of understanding (rather than helping us to evolve them – just look at the Brexit ‘debate’. It’s not a framework that is changing minds, but rather embedded conflict).


To understand Storytelling in Social Leadership, we must understand how power is granted, claimed, or gained.

Power leads directly into the twin conversations of ‘CONSENSUS’ and ‘DISSENT’: these represent structures within which stories are held. If we agree, we can form consensus, and if we are opposed, we fall to dissent, but these are not passive categorisations, they can be actively deployed, to great effect. For example, much of our contemporary political conversation in the United States is held in structures of dissent. Similarly, to achieve amplification, we may find that dissent is a more powerful mechanism than consensus. It may be counter intuitive, but one of the strongest forces that can bond us is a unified opposition to a third space.

AMPLIFICATION’ is an output from the system: it’s a force that is applied behind certain stories, in certain contexts, and the main feature of this that we have pursued in the ‘Landscape of Stories’ is the notion of ‘Story Handles’, the way that we create spaces for people to invest themselves in the story, to make it their own in some way and, hence, carry it forward. As is often the case, the thing we seek (amplification) may be an emergent feature of a system, not the system itself. It may be the prize awarded for getting everything else right.

The Story That Flew

I’ve had a strong focus on modes of social organisation: how people ‘fit together’ in society, and that has led to an interest in the relationship between ‘TRIBES’ and stories. Our most essential building block of social structure is ‘trust bonds’, those people with whom we share a special, and invested, bond. Because tribes are coherent social structures, they hold stories (the data of a specific tribe, the information that makes it so). The notion of tribal structures relates to stories held in opposition or consensus. You cannot impose a counter narrative upon a tribe, be it a leadership team, a logistics team, or the union. Our only route in here is consensus, or stories of difference and dissent, where we still collaborate in complex ways, but without needing to hit consensus. A tricky step to take, but one which Social Leaders can learn to do more than formal ones, because they do not start in opposition.

I have a long term fixation with ‘GRAFFITI’, as a claimed voice, and we can view it within the context of Organisations as ‘sanctioned subversion’, the spaces and places where we are privileged to hear dissenting voices. We can use graffiti techniques to build a better understanding of the diverse views held within the broadest context of the Organisation.

SUBVERSION’ is, itself, a word that we can reclaim: to move beyond seeing it as destructive, towards a view where we understand it as necessary to deconstruct obsolete and constraining ideas and narratives. Sometimes, in order to change, we have to deconstruct dominant narratives. In the context of ‘The Storytelling Leader’, this is about our ability to understand everything that we have explored above, and use that understanding to evolve the narrative of the Organisation itself.

Which brings us (conveniently…) to the eighth aspect: ‘EVOLUTION’ of stories, the ways that narratives must evolve, or fracture. This is true both for the Organisation, and for us, as individual leaders. The leader that we were yesterday may not be the leader that we need to be tomorrow, and it is the process of evolution, respecting the old story, but definitively writing the new one, which is the journey that we must take.

I describe my work on Storytelling as an exploration of ‘The Landscape of Stories’ for precisely this reason: when we make a journey, we struggle. We have to navigate, carry our luggage, and occasionally get lost. As we travel, we must create space, support, and time, to look around us, and to see how the view has changed. As they say, it’s the journey that counts, not simply the destination. And there is one other context of ‘The Storytelling Leader’ that really counts: we can all travel across the same landscape, and yet build a different story as we do so. What passes underfoot, the things that catch our attention, the views and blisters that we accumulate, these are individual to us all, as we are all unique in our storytelling leadership.

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On Reading

Reading is the process of gently breaking yourself: eroding dogma, undermining opinion, fracturing certainty. It’s a continual process of renewal: evaluating the things that we are sure are true, against new evidence that our certainty maybe unfounded, leaving us with the choice of growth, or stagnation. It’s an aggregated activity: we may not read one page that changes us, but the pages, in aggregate, change us immeasurably. If we are open to the opportunity.

On Reading

Time to read is seen as a luxury, a flower broken by the storm. The first thing we lose under pressure is discretionary time, and yet without this investment in ourselves, we are destined, forever, to be ourselves. To deny the opportunity to become the person who we have the potential to be. To grow is to thrive. If we lose ourselves in the busyness of the everyday, we are simply surviving. Perhaps, as Social Leaders, this is our purpose: to create spaces for others to thrive.

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Loops of Leadership

Engineers describe two types of system: ‘open’ and ‘closed’ loops. In an open loop system, there are inputs, and outputs, but no feedback. The systems presses on regardless. In a closed loop system, part of the output is fed back, and moderates the input, to reduce errors, and increase stability. The central heating system in your house is a closed loop: the boiler kicks out heat, and the thermostat measures the ambient temperature. When it hits a certain level, the thermostat sends a signal to the boiler to ‘stop’, but if the temperature drops again, it restarts. An open loop version of this would lack the thermostat, and would just keep pushing out heat. Your washing machine is an open loop: you put clothes in, and it washes them. It does not stop to check if they are still dirty at the end. There is no feedback.

Loops of Leadership

We can use the terminology to consider decision making systems, and leadership systems, in Organisations too: in a closed loop system of decision making, we take an output from the system to moderate the activity, whilst in an open loop, we follow the process regardless.

Something akin to closed loops has informed much leadership and management thinking for decades: any system that reviews output, and uses that review to moderate the system itself is ‘closed’. But unlike the thermostat, leadership closed loops will typically use a mix of subjective, and quantitative, feedback. Thermostats provide an absolute measure of temperature, whilst i describe that ‘i feel a bit too hot’. Much of the feedback we garner in Organisations is either subjective (self reported, qualitative), or quantitative, but measuring subjective scales that are easy to quantify (e.g. unit output measures boxes that you make, but not wellbeing of the people making them. We have chosen to measure number of boxes, because it’s easy, not necessarily because it’s meaningful).

There maybe value in mapping how your own leadership practice, and that of your Organisation, utilises both types of loop. How often do we act in unmoderated ways, neither seeking, nor heeding, feedback (open loop leadership), and how often do we use closed loop approaches (and where we do so, are we using valid inputs?)?

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Social Leadership: Renewal and Loss

Social Leadership represents a systemic approach, leadership within an ecosystem. But not leadership through hierarchy, formal authority, and sanction, but rather leadership through permission, consensus, and complex collaboration. It is not an alternative to more formal styles, but rather a compliment to them: the likelihood is that you need both. Formal power, which plays within formal systems, and Social Authority, which plays within social ones.

Social Leadership Leaves

A new year feels like a time of renewal, and we may feel rejuvenated and refreshed after the holidays, but remember that growth may start with loss: what can we leave behind? We do not grow by adding on continuous layers of new thinking and action, but rather through adjustment, reflection, revision, and loss. Thinking about those things that we can leave behind.

It may be an evolution of our skills, or an adaptation of our mindset. Or maybe more than that: perhaps we choose to leave behind a conflict, a regret, or a doubt.

The leader that we were is the person that got us this far. But we may not yet be the leader that we can become. And to grow into this space may need us to lose something, before we can grow.

The path to Social Leadership is, with this in mind, a journey. One that we take over time, and which is embedded within our community. Much as our reputation is forged over time, through our actions, so too is our Social Leadership: earned through action, revised over time. Always a work in progress.

At this time of year, the fallen leaves form a pattern upon the ground. These are the leaves that formed the mighty canopies of last years summer. Even in decay they give us a certain winter beauty. We exist in a pattern of renewal and loss, but even as we think about growth, consider the things that we must leave behind.

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Pragmatic Dissonance: Communities of Difference and the Limitations of Consensus

We come together in communities, but are driven apart by our differences: in a systemic view of change, we may need to create the conditions for, and opportunity to, both agree, and dissent. It is unlikely that we will achieve transformation through unity alone, because unity triggers opposition: instead, we may need a broad space, a space for our pragmatic dissonance to thrive.

Pragmatic DIssonance

In my broader work on the nature, and structure, of the Social Age, it’s increasingly clear that we are tribal creatures at hear: we gather together in formal structures, hierarchy and system, but we exist in social ones (tribes, and networks of pride, and trust). ‘Purpose’ may be framed by a system, or our formal leaders, but it’s delivered through individual agency, and collective effort and assent.

Our approach to Organisational change should reflect this reality: instead of driving change through formal programmes, architectural narratives that we drive through an Organisation, accompanied by structural change in the hard (and visible) system, we should, instead, simply seek to frame the change, and create the space for communities to support it. Not only communities of consensus, but communities of difference and dissent.

Change requires us to work with idiots, but the idiots may be us.

This is a fundamental truth of difference: we all tend to be ‘right’, according to our local definition of ‘right’.

If you ask how much i weigh, it’s an unarguable scientific fact, but if you ask how i feel, it’s a subjective judgement. And if you ask how beautiful i am, it’s a subjective judgement that you can externally validate. We may each have our reasons for our answers, but there is no common scale of consensus.

Community Research

Within the National Health Service (NHS), i’ve been carrying out various pieces of research into ‘community’, asking people about the communities that they are in, the purpose that they serve, and what makes those communities effective. Over the last couple of weeks. I’ve asked about the ‘most important thing that your most important community gives you’, and the results are telling. ‘Belonging’, ‘Support’, and ‘Purpose’ rate as the top three. These are words of unity. In the last four groups i’ve surveyed, not one single person listed words of challenge, or difference.

It’s what we should respect and value: we come together to belong (socially), and we come together to be effective (organisationally).

Organisations’ are structures that hold unity, even through dissent. ‘Communities’ are structures that hold unity often precisely because of that dissent. We come together in opposition possibly more readily that we do in consensus.

Moving towards a more Socially Dynamic Organisation will take us beyond aspiration, and into the reality of the radically complex forces that govern interpersonal relationships, and modes of social organisation. That’s no bad thing: Organisations are fake, and people are real. A Socially Dynamic Organisation, deeply fair, founded upon individual agency, and respectful differences, will recognise that. It will find strength precisely through that difference.

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A Home for Everyone

There was a story in the news today about a hotel which has cancelled a booking for 26 homeless people over Christmas. Organised by a local charity, it was an opportunity for people who live on the street to have a roof over their heads for a couple of nights. The irony is extreme: that you need a roof over your head before the hotel deems you worthy of a night in their hotel. The word ‘hotel’ itself, part of the hospitality industry, hostelry, home, surely sharing a common root, is about putting a roof over your head, about a welcome. So to be excluded because you are homeless is a damning indictment indeed.


There is something about extreme poverty that demotes you from society: when we strip away cleanliness and tidiness, when we remove property, we seem eradicate value too. To be homeless is to have no value. It is simply to be like litter on the street.

I sat in a meeting room in Edinburgh today, an old church, fretting about how cold i was, in my white shirt, and comfortable shoes, and tonight i will sleep easy in my luxury hotel, untroubled by the presence of anyone who fails to smell as fresh as i do.

The government recently announced a plan to ‘end homelessness’, with a budget attached, but the issue is not simply a financial one. It’s partly about our sense of society, and nature of our hospitality. Is ‘shelter’, the right to a home, the gift of those who are privileged, or a basic right.

A ‘civil society’ is not a badge we are allowed to pin on ourselves: it’s a value judgement that is imposed upon us. And the challenge we face is not purely financial. It’s a question about our humanity, and the ways we permit inequality to perpetuate.

We describe people who sleep rough as ‘homeless’, but many do have a ‘home’, albeit a doorway, or bridge. Often next to large, formal, or even empty, buildings. The exposure they feel is not natural: it’s imposed. People do not lack a home through lack of enclosed space: they lack a home through the unequal distribution of wealth, and lack of social judgement for exclusion.

There is nothing innate about society: it’s a construct that we can evolve at will, through common consensual delusion. We can dream the society that we deserve, and make it real. Society is generated through our actions and, when we stop to think, i hope we can find the time, grace, and goodwill, to put a roof over the head of anyone who needs it. Not just those we happen to already like.

The image above is a sketch from a photo by Pedro Oliveira.

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