The power of narrative in leadership

If there is one single skillset common to all the great leaders I come across in my work, it would have to be the capacity to weave together the disparate elements of an organisation to create a compelling purpose and narrative.

I am not talking about the ‘big picture’ purpose – though if you’re acting to work towards that, that is even better. I am talking about bringing people along on the journey to help them understand how their role and often individual tasks fit in in to the broader culture/decision making/social structure of your organisation. How does any given circumstance make sense in the past, current or future context?

A.S. Waterman describes it as “structuring the unknown”, which I think is my favourite definition.

How many times have you experienced a staff member filling in the blanks when they have not understood an instruction or they haven’t been able to seek advice, and you have wondered how on earth they got there; to that point and to that outcome. Often, I join managers in performance or conduct discussions only to witness what has effectively been on big misunderstanding where both parties have filled in a bunch of blanks based on their histories, personalities, motivations, the weather that day … you get the picture.

A sense-making leader takes the guesswork out of their team’s day. They can develop a coherent story (that must be based in truth) about the “why” of any task. They recognise the “why” likely doesn’t fit a narrative that aligns with corporate spin. And it may not be bound in actuals answers so much as an admission that the answers are unknown coupled with an ability to explain why it matters to find them out.

Much sniping in the workplace comes from the idea that a thing must be done perfectly; it’ll centre around “they didn’t give consideration to x” or “they don’t even understand y”. A sense-making leader can explain why a decision or plan might be followed despite it not being a perfect option. They can articulate why a decision was made to follow the least worst option, or perhaps why something was done for optics rather than the outcome without loss of integrity.

While some of those things might sound negative, they needn’t be so. They are usually objective statements that cut the bullshit. They’re transparent. They acknowledge no decision is perfect. They allow for a dialogue about how to do it better next time. They build trust. They create a space where other people can engage in sense-making rather than corporate weasel words.

Karl Weick, who coined the term sense-making in a leadership context, speaks of seven properties to create order from the chaos of everyday circumstances in his book Sense-making in Organisations (from this blog post on sense-making by Laura McNamara):

  • Sense-making is a matter of identity: our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us.

  • Sense-making is retrospective: it is about how we notice patterns that are meaningful to us based on our experience, and we can only notice patterns retrospectively.

  • Sense-making depends on our socialisation: our upbringing, education, culture and the social norms that shaped us, as well as the people we are currently interacting with, have a considerable influence on our interpretation of the world.

  • Sense-making is ongoing: our environment, relationships, and understanding of the world are fluid and continuously transforming.

  • Sense-making builds on extracted cues that we apprehend from sense and perception. Cognition is the meaningful internal embellishment of these cues. We articulate these embellishments through speaking and writing – the “what I say” part of Weick’s recipe. In doing so, we reify and reinforce cues and their meaning and add to our repertoire of retrospective experience.

  • Sense-making is less a matter of accuracy and completeness than plausibility and sufficiency. Our limited cognitive and perceptual resources make it impossible to know or understand anything fully, so the sense-making process is limited to what works for us in a specific context in order to take action. If we attempt to know the facts and the reality exhaustively, we will get stuck in never-ending analysis instead of progress.

Leaders face a constant challenge to understand the contexts they are operating in; new technologies, new social and cultural expectations, random pandemics.

Weick compared the process of sense-making to cartography. In a circular process, what we map depends on where we look and where others look depend on what we have mapped. The factors we choose to focus on and the elements of the terrain we chose will shape the map we produce. At its heart, it’s an act of creativity.

Influential leaders, then, must determine how the map should be drawn given their particular goals to ensure their maps adequately represent the situation the organisation is facing at any given moment.