Leadership Development

The role of narratives in leadership development

Leadership development is individual development is organizational development.
Angelica Marte & Michael J. Müller

Leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual.
Nora Bateson

Leadership as a function of context, not individuals

It seems commonplace to say today that we live in a time in which we are more connected to each other and more interdependent than ever before. Our actions create reactions and we are embedded in a network of interdependencies. These interdependencies create also the soil or "terroir" from which specific notions of leadership emerge.

This becomes evident if you follow up on the different discourses that formed around leadership: transactional, charismatic, transformative, situational, agile... leadership. All these notions have and had their merits, in the sense that they have been a response towards the specific developments at a specific place at a specific time.

What unites many of these different viewpoints is that they see leadership as a property of individuals - based on their inherited (19th century anyone?) or learned capacities. What is often out of focus is the context in which these notions about "good leadership" emerge and the specific properties of this context that calls for certain leadership styles.

Or as Nora Bateson puts it:

Leadership is an evolving process and, as such, our understanding of what leadership is must evolve in accordance. In the past the world understood leadership as the great deeds of heroes; now we are in another phase of global transition that requires an understanding of leadership based on our understanding of interdependency.

She understands "leadership" as specific function that emerges out of a specific context. As discussed in recent literature, formal aspects of leadership positions need to be separated from leading or influencing "informally" in the day-to-day work in organizations. Without going into to much depth here, this contextual understanding of leadership sees leadership and our understanding of "good" and "bad" leadership as an expression the specific cultural environment in which this leadership occurs.

Implications for Leadership Development

It is all the more surprising then, that leadership programs are still seen – more often than not – within the framework of programs that support the capacity development of individuals.

But leadership development programs are events that are embedded in the every day flow and the cultural "terroir" of the organization.

Before people enter leadership programs they talk about it. When they leave these programs - they talk about it. They will condense their experience in a story that will account for what happened to them and what they experienced while being part of the program.

Furthermore, these programs are embedded in a specific „terroir“ – cultural assumptions, taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs carried by language and embodied in all of us. Many organizations strive to develop a leadership culture that embraces the diversity, dynamic and connectedness of today´s workplaces and market.

That also means that these programs are fertile soil to re-author these organizational narratives about leadership – to invent, create and maintain new and other narratives about leadership. So the dimension of how the leadership development programs are embedded in the key organizational narratives is an important part to consider in developing leadership programs.

Of course, there is also an individual element to leadership development programs. The organizational role of the manager, his or her formal position, connects the individual self-narrative to the organizational narrative. The key question here is: what does the position I hold mean for myself in my personal life course? How does this position and the way I want to fill it out relate to who I am and who I want to be?

These different narratives are connected and intertwined. The shared understanding of what leadership means in a specific organization or community is shaped by these programs and events. In this sense, "Leadership is an evolving process [and] leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual. (Nora Bateson)". Focusing on individuals outside their context will not do the job.

So in designing leadership programs the consideration of the role of narrative structures should be extended from shaping the "Rhythm and Structure" of these programs to see narratives – individual and organizational – as integral part in connecting the individual self-narratives and the ongoing organizational discourse of what kind of leadership is needed in the specific context of the organization.

We will address the implications of this stance in a set of workshops during BEYOND STORYTELLING:

  • Ute Clement will present on the different individual journeys of women and men in her workshop
  • Angelica Marte and Michael J. Müller will talk about the role of leadership narratives in the context of increasing gender diversity in our organizations
  • Nina Trobisch will present the "Heldenprinzip", a model for developing dramaturgies for change on individual, team and organizational level
  • Chené Swart will host a session of "Re-authoring Leadership

Curious? Get inspired! And don´t miss our post-conference masterclass. Tickets are limited!