Considering Leadership in the 21st Century: Storytelling, Responsibility and Credibility

One of the initial feelings I have on sabbatical is gratitude. Thankful for the support of my university and family, I am taking time to revisit the disciplines that inspire me: writing, music, film and leadership. I now see leitmotifs across my studies over the last 30 years: storytelling, responsibility and credibility.

Owing much to Howard Garner's writings about leadership as storytelling, I can interpret leadership stories, both my own and of others through a storytelling conceptual framework. What is the biggest challenge leaders face? How to make a convincing case to an organization that what can happen in the future could very well have taken place in the past. That is, leaders' decisions needed to be grounded in organizational mission and culture. The many decisions before an organization, great and small, need to be presented to all stakeholder groups as part of a continuum of change that any thriving institution experiences through its own evolution or transformation.

My personal leadership experience tells me that I have been most successful when I was able to do this, but I also know there have been times when the direction I have asked the university to take only makes "sense" in hindsight. Of course, there have been times when I have misread a situation and have failed in either making the case for change, either in the development or implementation phases. For all of us, the law of averages kicks in at some point. What can develop, if you're fortunate, is a track record of bold changes whose cumulative impact means great leaps forward. They ultimately make sense as a story.

Jim Collins certainly helps us understand that many successful leaders have developed an ability to help the organization appreciate the nexus between financial strength, core mission, and what they can be the "best in the world at." Collins shares that these leaders are not "rock stars." While they are humble, they have a professional will. One that enables them to keep things moving forward, asking the organization to develop new capacities that, in turn, produce new products or services for new and emerging markets.

I have found there has been a consistent need for stakeholder groups to see that you have taken your responsibilities seriously. Your responsibility to customers (students and their families) to provide excellent and responsive service. Responsibility to employees to provide resources that support their work and professional well-being. A responsibility to support thoughtful inquiry for faculty as they fulfill our educational mission. A responsibility to external communities that includes a visible appreciation of what the various communities need, rather than what they can do for your organization. A responsibility to donors to invest their gifts in a manner that demonstrably makes a difference to the organization, the sector, and society. Finally, a responsibility to your governing board that inspires their commitments of trust, time, talent and treasure.

When storytelling and responsibility come together in a manner that complements the organization's mission and culture, the leader can be credible. Much has been written about credible leadership, most notably by Posner and Kouzes. Perhaps one of the greatest leadership achievements to attain, it is also one of the hardest to describe. Am I credible? Do I come into this circumstance with credibility? Have I proven that I am credible? Can I be credible and still make mistakes? These are not easy leadership questions. They are all about trust, aren't they?

With writing, we trust that there is a point to the story and that the story's development will both make sense and captivate. We have developed an appreciation for core storytelling strategies and techniques, but we can be agreeably surprised and inspired by writing that eschews orthodoxy and still finds a way to entertain, inspire, and make us think about the human condition. I have been reading Mantel's Wolf Hall on sabbatical -- a work that I find easily deserves the high praise it has gotten from numerous credible sources. After that I will turn, reliably, to Twain's Huck Finn, a work I know will make me laugh out loud. It is credible with me and worth returning to.

When my wife and I go hear Dudamel conduct in Los Angeles, we are thrilled. He is a very credible leader, one who inspires, serves, and, of course, will come fully prepared to conduct Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. We can both see and hear the respect the musicians have for their leader, who is both joyful and fearless. For many Dudamel is an extraordinary talent, but for me he is a model of responsibility. He is responsible to Berlioz. He is responsible for energizing LA's culture, and, hopefully, he is responsible for bringing classical music to a new generation. After lunch today I will try to tackle a piano composition that has been on my list for years. It's doubtful that I will ever conquer it, but thinking of Dudamel inspires me.

Last week I watched two of my favorite films, Three Colors: Blue and The Double Life of Veronique, and I was reminded of the trust we extend to filmmakers, in this case Krzysztof Kieslowski. We trust that they will entertain us with characters that develop within captivating storylines that pulse forward. I trust that every detail Kieslowski presents, no matter how fleeting or subtle, will make sense when the story reaches its final minute. Now deceased, Kieslowski was a credible storyteller. We trusted that he would use every one of a film's ninety minutes in an efficient, tender and thoughtful manner.

Will that be the story of my sabbatical? I certainly hope so, but as one of my colleagues says, hope is not a strategy.

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