a long way gone is the title of Ishmael Beah’s memoirs as a boy soldier during Sierra Leone’s civil war 1992-2002. The book concludes on a story he heard many times as a boy. It was nighttime, and the children of the village gathered around the fire to listen to one last story by Pa Sesay …
“There was a hunter who went into the bush to kill a monkey. He had looked for only a few minutes when he saw a monkey sitting comfortably in the branch of a low tree. The monkey didn’t pay him any attention, not even when his footsteps on the dried leaves rose and fell as he neared. When he was close enough and behind a tree where he could clearly see the monkey, he raised his rifle and aimed. Just when he was about to pull the trigger, the monkey spoke: ‘If you shoot me, your mother will die, and if you don’t, your father will die.’ The monkey resumed its position, chewing its food, and every so often scratched its head or the side of its belly. What would you do if you were the hunter?”
An elder told the story to young people in the village once a year, posing this unanswerable question to each child in the presence of their parents. The children never responded, and the storyteller never offered an answer. Afterwards, the children would brainstorm answers. But there was no right answer, and the consequences were always that either their mother or father would die.
Young Ishmael had an answer to this question that made sense to him. He never discussed it with anyone, for fear of how his mother would feel. If he was the hunter, he would shoot the monkey so that no other hunters would have to experience the same predicament.
This stark, emotionally-charged story is made more vivid by the events and travesties of the book. Shakespeare wrote, “An honest tale speeds best being plainly told.” He understood his craft and how important the storyteller’s qualities are to the telling. The lessons of dramatic leadership are timeless.
The leader as storyteller represents a group of people or an organization to the outside world. Representation is the essence of answering questions about ‘who we are’. The power of communication, coupled with interpersonal skills, makes for impactful stories.
There is a growing role for storytelling in public administration – what Sandford Borins of the University of Toronto calls fables or narrative. Fables are ‘street talk’ for learning from storytelling in government circles. And sharing a clear narrative of the vision and values motivates strategic leadership of institutional change.
Our penchant for storytelling is manifest in a burgeoning body of casework, published or in development. Case studies are engaging stories that are intended to enlighten or educate. They reflect the cultural traditions, oral histories, and documentary evidence of people and their institutions.