< Leaders and Stories 1
Leaders and Stories:
the Next Generation,
Conveying Values, and Shaping Character
By Ray Blunt
The Public Manager
How senior government practitioners can use their
experience and leadership stories as mentors, coaches, teachers, and
exemplars to help grow other leaders.
Page 1 of 2
A leadership generation in the public service will shortly pass the baton,
but few freshly-prepared leaders are ready to run the next leg of the race.
Coincident with a new administration, well over one-half of today's senior
federal executives are ready to begin the next phase of their lives.
Retirement projections are notoriously imprecise. Yet, according to the
Office of Personnel Management's statistics and historical patterns, two of
three senior executives will likely leave federal service in the next five
years. Many of these current leaders
are in the very agencies where policy and program changes are on the
This is the "quiet crisis" of1eadership that Warren Bennis calls perhaps the
least understood crisis of our times, occurring in all sectors of the
developed world. Bennis maintains that we don't yet know what the effect
will be as this generation of leaders moves on, nor do we really know how to
grow a next generation of1eaders who need new capabilities and a deeper
reflection of enduring character qualities for what Peter Drucker calls a
"time of great change."
Despite the widespread acknowledgment of this pending leadership crisis, we
do know that far too few government agencies have prepared themselves or
their future leaders for succession or for these unprecedented changes. We
also know two things that can be of
immediate value in preparing the next generation of public service leaders,
but only if acted upon.
The Lessons of Example and Experience
First, we know through benchmarking, that in the organizations that have a
track record for growing leaders of character and capability, it is senior
leaders, themselves (not the training shops or human resources offices), who
assume the responsibility for preparing the next generation.
Second, we know that leaders are grown not by the lessons of the "classroom"
but by the lessons of experience--lessons gleaned from challenging and
varied job experiences and from significant relationships built with senior
leaders (both good and bad). It is through these impact experiences and
significant relationships that practical leadership capability is learned
and where character is observed and shaped in the crucible of reality.
These senior leaders that beget other leaders play a role of "exemplar," of
"coach," of mentor," and even of "teacher." They give their time and wisdom
to help make meaning and learning out of experience and observation.1
We also know that senior leaders in the "best practice" organizations have
beneficially employed at least one common thread that ties together these
two absolutely fundamental principles: the lessons of experience and
significant relationships with senior leaders.
Most of us can remember lying in bed and having an older person read us a
bedtime story. We were whisked away to places we could only dream of. Or we
may remember sitting around a table after a meal and listening to our
parents or grandparents tell stories that helped us understand a bit more
about who they were and where our family came from and what we believed in.
One of the great joys of growing older (yes, there are some) is sharing
these stories with the next generation that hasn't heard them.
There is no doubt about it, stories are both heart warming and memorable.
But perhaps what we don’t understand is why we are able to remember favorite
stories so well and why they are one of the most useful tools for leaders to
have in their toolkits.
In my work with leaders of all stripes and in almost every government
organization, I have come to the conclusion that many senior executives do
not appreciate either their responsibilities or their capabilities to help
grow the next generation. I also believe that we
probably don't appreciate the tremendous value of stories in developing
leadership, nor do we realize how many meaningful leadership stories we have
that are just waiting to be told. Storytelling isn't a gift reserved
for the imaginative few.
Stories and Our Brain
A good place to start understanding how important stories are to leadership
would be to begin with our brains.
In today's world, data overwhelms us and access to information practically
engulfs us. The initially hopeful advent of the knowledge worker and the
learning organization sometimes seems a cruel joke played by a vengeful Hal.2
It is in this changing world of work that stories have the strong attraction
of a simpler time and a clearer message.
More importantly, what researchers in the field of artificial intelligence
(AI) are discovering is that the way in which our brains actually work may
be different than what we had previously supposed. To replicate the human
brain with a computer, AI specialists have been trying to find out how we
actually store and retrieve the immense amounts of information that come to
the synapses of our brains every day, and why and how we “trash” other
What their discoveries reveal is that we don't file information in topical
"files" in the way that a word processing computer program might (or an
old-fashioned filing cabinet). Rather, information is "filed" in its context
and retrieved in a context as well in the form of stories that become
integrated with others into parables.
What they have also found is that when we receive information in the form of
bulleted lists, much like a PowerPoint presentation or a strategic plan, we
sort this information and discard most of it. Hence, the "recency-primacy
effect," wherein we are more likely to remember the first and last items on
the list and maybe an item which had a powerful emotional impact. The rest
we discard to "trash," likely never to be retrieved. So what?
How Stories Are Used
The "so what" is that learning organizations, knowledge organizations, and
the other contemporary forms of organized human activity, including
government bureaucracies, are using stories as powerful leadership learning
"technologies." What is being rediscovered is what cultures have known for
millennia--stories are a powerful, indeed irreplaceable method used by
vibrant organizations and superior leaders.
In the "best practice" organizations, senior leaders use stories to shape
and to convey strategic plans (3M), to communicate their culture and core
character values (Herman Miller), and to grow leaders as senior leaders
teach the next generation (PepsiCo). While each of these is interrelated,
let's focus on the latter, how stories can be used to help prepare the next
generation of leaders.
Public service leaders, primarily today's senior executives, may have the
perhaps unrecognized responsibility of growing the next generation, but
absent a well-conceived and strategically-employed succession process, they
often lack a framework for carrying it out.
Unfortunately, few federal agencies have yet come to grips with this need
for managing succession strategically.3 Given all the "urgent" in-box
imperatives that compete for the time of a senior public servant, the
"important," namely, the growing and developing other leaders, often gets
overwhelmed. Where do you start?
Realistically, senior leaders need to begin with their calendars. In Noel
Tichy's work with executives in the private and public sectors, he found
that those who blocked time for the important task of growing others'
careers set an example in the use of time that clearly
conveyed their priorities and allowed for the necessary relationships to be
built. Most of us would be shocked if we were to seriously review our
calendars for the past 30 days and see how little time we devoted to growing
the next generation.
To mentor, to coach, and to teach others takes protected time.
Personal reflection and self-awareness precede any priority action on these
time commitments. Check it out and see for yourself. It may motivate you to
begin to block time each week.
So, once time is set aside, where are senior leaders to find their stories
and how should they be used?
©2001 The Public Manager.