Leadership
May 7, 2012

Narrative: Why it matters

Narrative has become a buzzword in politics and public management – Google it and you’ll find 46 million hits. What is being said and meant? Why should narrative matter to public managers, and how can you develop your narrative skills?

Narrative denotes an ordered representation of events, though the order need not be strictly chronological. The events, and their order, create meaning. They engage and persuade their audience. Consider the following public sector narratives:

  • Political. Every political party creates a narrative of recent history to establish its claim to govern. Party leaders present narratives that enhance their life experiences and leadership capabilities. Because these rival narratives are necessarily conflicting, parties and their leaders attempt to disrupt and discredit each other’s narratives.
  • Personal. When public servants apply for promotion, they must not only document their credentials but also generate a coherent narrative of their employment history and its meaning and why it has uniquely prepared them for the challenges of the new position they seek. They tell their story, using personal examples.
  • Accountability. Failures are bound to occur and they must be explained. These explanatory narratives, often embodied in auditor-general’s reports or public inquiries, provide sequence and locate agency and culminate in an attribution of responsibility.
  • Policy and Planning. Policy work always involves a narrative component, for example a recounting of how a policy developed. Similarly, departmental plans involve a predictive narrative of future interactions between environmental forces and departmental commitments.

Narratives pervade the public sector, making narrative competence – skill at creating and communicating compelling stories – essential for both politicians and public servants. Narratives conflict, necessitating skill at the analysis, critique, and disruption of rival narratives.

But where do we look for these narrative skills?

Public management is an applied field of study with a history of looking to other disciplines. Thus, we turn to political science to clarify accountability issues and analyze voter sentiment and decision-making, and to economics, through its analysis of value-maximizing behaviour in market contexts, to predict the impact of taxing, spending and regulatory policies.

Where should public managers look for an understanding of narrative? The obvious choice is the humanities, in literature and film studies. There is an inter-disciplinary field called narratology that focuses on narrative in any medium. So a desire to understand narrative has taken me far from my original training in economics to cross one of the Chinese walls that, unfortunately, exist so frequently in the academic world.

Crossing to the other side of that wall, I have found much to think about and apply. The novel, as originally developed in the eighteenth century, established the convention of story-telling by an omniscient narrator. In the last century, creators of narrative dispensed with this convention, depicting narrators who are inside the narrative, rather than standing above it. What becomes critical, then, is the point of view of the narrator.

Given that many points of view could be brought to a narrative, there is a counterpart here to one of the fundamental tenets of bureaucratic analysis – where you stand depends on where you sit – which is that what you see depends on where you were looking from and what you are looking for. This leads the public sector analyst to look closely at the narrator for the factors that influence point of view, such as experiences that make his or her voice distinctive, or deliberate or unexamined biases that might mislead the audience.

I teach a course in narrative and management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. The pedagogy involves closely analyzing a variety of contemporary narratives about managers and organizations to look at their leadership lessons (sometimes what to do and sometimes what not to do) and their formal narrative lessons, namely what we can learn from how the story was told that we can apply to the telling of our own stories.

In developing the course, I look for narratives that are particularly rich and thought-provoking, those that have received critical acclaim and have withstood the test of time. I am, therefore, not trying to give my students a packaged narrative “cookbook,” but rather leading a collective effort to learn from modern classics. To provide a snapshot of the process I will outline two particularly compelling examples.

Reginald Rose’s 1957 movie about the deliberation of a jury in a murder trial, Twelve Angry Men, continues to be performed on stage. Its leadership lessons come from juror Number Eight (played in the movie by Henry Fonda) who alone has doubts about the prosecution’s case, and slowly brings all the other jurors to a verdict of not guilty. Number Eight displays a full range of skills at persuasion. He doesn’t start by looking for converts, but only asks for a discussion. He is effective at reading the others, listening carefully to and thus empowering those who are undecided while eventually exposing and attacking the hidden agendas of the most dogmatic proponents of a guilty verdict. His leadership is also physical: invading the personal space of two jurors to snatch the paper on which they have been playing tic-tac-toe, re-enacting one witness’s testimony about seeing the murder, and letting the most sadistic juror use him to demonstrate how he thought the knifing occurred. Number Eight demonstrates the persuasive skills of a minister or senior public servant at the top of his or her game. We can therefore learn from him by applying his skills at persuasion to our own contexts.

Twelve Angry Men also has an important lesson about the narrative implications of the burden of proof in criminal trials. The prosecution is required to construct a coherent evidence-based narrative. In this case, it was that a teenager, after a fierce argument with his father, storms out of the house after dinner, buys a switchblade, returns before midnight and stabs his father to death, with two witnesses in nearby apartments. The jurors ultimately question the plausibility of the evidence sufficiently to render the state’s narrative incoherent. They were not required, and did not attempt, to construct an alternative narrative, only to deconstruct the state’s.

The Fog of War – Errol Morris’s biography of Robert McNamara – won the 2004 Academy Award for documentary. Based on 20 hours of interviews with McNamara, it begins with the attention-grabbing Cuban Missile Crisis, and then tells McNamara’s life story, deducing eleven management lessons. Some, for example, “empathize with your enemy,” which proved to be the key to resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis, are unexceptionable. Others – “get the data” and “belief and seeing are often wrong” – contradict one another, as became apparent, with devastating consequences, in McNamara’s management of the Vietnam War.

The film’s formal narrative lessons are powerful, as biographer Errol Morris struggled with McNamara – still articulate and forceful in his eighties – for control of the narrative. Under Morris’s polite but persistent questioning, McNamara is revealed as a misleading narrator, avoiding responsibility for his military decisions and refusing to confront the agony the Vietnam War caused his own family.

Two hours of interviews of an elderly man, even one as articulate and dynamic as McNamara, would have lost the viewer’s attention. Instead, while we hear McNamara’s voice for the entire movie, we see him much less, as Morris uses the

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