Last evening, I once again had the pleasure of attending one of Rick Wolfe’s “Kitchen Table Conversations” on Storytelling for a Purpose. The dozen or so people around the table – not in his kitchen, but at the Centre for Social Innovation—Annex in Toronto – shared story snippets, experiences of the power of stories for both personal and business purposes, and various aspects that comprise effective, purposeful stories and storytelling. A light bulb went on for me towards the end of the session; not an earth-shattering light bulb, but one that provided some illumination on what is, retrospectively, sort of an obvious issue.

People tend to hold onto their stories. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, “we are the stories we tell about ourselves.” In fact, we construct our individual experiences of reality – to which we also hold very tightly – by creating stories that contextualize our experiences in a product comprised of our context at the moment, our prior experiences of similar contexts, and our history. In fact, the effects of many of these constructed stories are to serve the maintenance and sustainability of that constructed reality, irrespective of how objectively absurd it might be. [Note: objective and absurd are in the eye of any particular judgmental beholder.]

If one of our objectives in the process of leadership is to enable some sort of cultural congruence throughout our organizations, that necessarily requires congruence among the stories that pervade the lives of our members. This can be accomplished by edict – the so-called alignment of values, vision, and mission that characterizes 20th-century leadership practices. Alternatively, this can be accomplished through collective storytelling: Creating a series of stories and storytelling venues that can eventually create a congruence among contexts, experiences, and history. The mythic tales of an organization create and have the ability to re-create (as in, “enable an alternate future” which comprises my definition of leadership) the organization itself.

An organization, like an individual, is the stories it tells about itself. Change the story; change the organization. Change the story; enable the possibility of an alternate future.