by Katherine Tyler Scott
I have always loved stories and the more I learn about and from them, the more I realize the significance they have in our development as human beings and as leaders.
The earliest known preserved written story is the epic of Gilgamesh, which dates to 2,100 BC. This archetypal tale is about a deity-like, abusive King who is transformed through conflict and relationship. When his kingdom reaches a period of peace and stability, he pursues immortality and learns that this gift is accorded only to the gods, not mortals. The King ultimately realizes that his legacy will not be how long he lives but what kind of life he lives. This profound insight remains a powerful lesson for all of humanity and is the wisdom possessed by the most transformational leaders.
Discerning the kind of life we are to live means understanding the process of becoming a person; and becoming a person is synonymous with becoming a leader. It is the work of self-discovery through the process of addressing the profound questions of human existence: Who am I? Why do I exist? What do I believe/value? What is the nature of the world? What is my place in it? What am I called to do?
The major developmental task for all human beings is to make sense of ourselves, the world, and our place in it and to achieve a healthy balance between our inner and outer life. Our mental health as individuals and the stability of societies depends upon maintaining this balance.
This inner work is lifelong and is greatly influenced by story — from childhood through adulthood. Stories speak simultaneously to all levels of the human personality, communicating in a manner which reaches the minds of children as well as those of sophisticated adults (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 5). In childhood, the telling of fairy tales is a primary means through which the critical developmental task of sense making and self-differentiation begins (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 25). It is through the fairy tale that we can best study the anatomy of the psyche, precisely because it externalizes internal processes, and externalization is essential to the mastery of the integration of the unconscious (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 52). Stories can aid in regulating the anxiety that arises when internal desires are in conflict with what is required societally. The ability to self-regulate is an essential trait of healthy mature adults and the mark of competent effective leaders.
The ability to self-regulate is an essential trait of healthy mature adults and the mark of competent effective leaders.
Stories affect more than our psychological development; they influence our intellectual, physiological, and our social wellbeing. Early in our development they aid in language development and social skills, vocabulary, and comprehension of grammatical structure. Just listening to stories can increase focus, improve memory, and strengthen motivation (Erickson, 2018, p. 6).
Emotional literacy and empathy increase through story and storytelling. The ability to better understand and express one’s own emotions and to be aware of and understand others’ emotions are key elements of emotional intelligence — the characteristics of which set apart the most successful adult leaders.
Stories are a rich resource of insight into our psychological motivations and communicate deep psychological truths. “When we contact the inner meaning of a myth, we touch all of humanity,” according to Jungian Analyst, Robert Johnson (1987, p. vi).To touch all of humanity has a potency to it that cannot be minimized.
The psychological power of story is remarkable as are the physiological effects. Psychologist Uri Hasson and colleagues at Princeton University conducted a study in which a student told a story while her brain was being scanned by an MRI machine. The brains of those listening were simultaneously scanned. When the student’s insula — which is the region in the brain that governs empathy and moral sensibilities — lit up they discovered that the insula region in the listeners’ brains lit up too! The insula includes the awareness of our bodies and emotions, how they interact to create our perception of the present moment, and how we imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. Participants reported strong feelings of motivation and empathy, which are required for the development of self-efficacy and agency.
Sharing stories, be they myth, fairy tale, or just family stories, is what psychologists call agency training — the teaching of the ability to process choices and act in the face of uncertainty.
The children who scored higher in agency were from families that told more family stories. They exhibited more internal locus of control, higher self-esteem, higher reported family functioning, higher reported family traditions, and lower anxiety (Brunner, 1986).
Another example is a research project conducted by psychologists at Emory University and the University of North Carolina with a sample of sixty-six middle-class, racially diverse, 14–16-year-old adolescents from two parent families. Using the twenty questions in the Do You Know scale (DYK), they found that the adolescents who reported knowing more stories about their family’s history showed higher levels of emotional wellbeing, identity, and achievement even when controlling for family functioning (Fivush et al., 2010).
The impact of organizational story — what some call narrative — affects systems much larger and more complex than those of individuals and families. They are very formational in the development of culture and identity in organizations, communities, and nations. As Bruno Bettelheim (1976) found, every culture begins with a story and finds its identity and character in the story it tells itself about its beginnings. When a culture loses touch with its narrative, it becomes fragmented and is at risk of losing its identity. Assuming that the narrative is the result of internal discernment and documentation of an honest and accurate look at the past and present, an organization’s knowledge of its story is vital to its integrity and wellbeing. In this way, an institutional or national story has the power to form an identity that promotes progress rather than regression. Remembering accurately is formational. As one foundation executive reminds us, “Historical amnesia is always debilitating and occasionally fatal” (Dr. Robert Lynn, former Vice president of Religion at Lilly Endowment, Inc. as quoted in Tyler Scott, 2001).
As I continue to research, study, and use story as a diagnostic, dialogic, and curative intervention with clients, I am deeply convinced of the truth of this pithy statement. We can see its veracity globally. It is distortion, loss, and/or repression of the truth of stories that contribute to the loss of self and the drift toward autocratic and dictatorial leadership. For so many, historical amnesia has exposed a fragile (or fabricated) identity, eroded trust, and perpetuated distortion of reality.
When the sense of self or the identity of a system is predicated on falsehoods or incomplete information, healthy functioning and long-term survival of the entity is at risk. This phenomenon is occurring in some of the most difficult political and social issues in this time. Knowing and telling the whole truth of one’s story is indicative of a mentally healthy people. Owning the full story is how learning from the past occurs, how wisdom and agency develop.
Stories are who we were, are, and can be. They stimulate imagination and contribute to the acquisition of mature, collective, intellectual and emotional development. They broaden our mental and moral perspectives and inspire our hopes and dreams. They acknowledge and enable the management of fears and anxieties and enable a healthy struggle to balance the inner and outer realities of being.
Our knowledge and use of story are foundational to creating a shared understanding of identity and a commitment to core values and beliefs and to individual and collective character. Remembering our stories and the power they potentially possess is essential to the development of higher societal functioning and future stability.
This is what makes this a significant leadership development issue, now and in the future.
As Bill Buford (1996), nonfiction writer and former fiction editor at The New Yorker wrote:
“Stories … protect us from chaos, and maybe that’s what we, unblinkered at the end of the century, find ourselves craving. Implicit in the extraordinary revival of storytelling is the possibility that we need stories — that they are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle and end of our personal and collective trajectories. It is possible that narrative is as important to writing as the human body is to representational painting. We have returned to narrative-in many fields of knowledge-because it is impossible to live without them” (pp. 11-12).
The stories we will tell ourselves about the past and present co-create both a foundation and a context out of which we can identify who we are and how we will continue to engage in self- and sense-making. The stories we claim and share will help to shape the future and strengthen the global community’s capacity to face our most difficult challenges.
Bettelheim, B. (1976). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Alfred A. Knopf.
Buford, B. (1996, June 24 & July 1). The Seductions of Storytelling: Why is Narrative Suddenly so Popular? The New Yorker.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press.
Erickson, E. (2018). Effects of Storytelling on Emotional Development. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/maed/256
Fivush, R., Duke, M., & Bohanek, J.G. (2010, February 23).“Do You Know…?” The Power of Family History in Adolescent Identity and Well-Being. Journal of Family Life.
Johnson, R. (1987). Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy. Harper & Row.
Tyler Scott, K. (2001). An Introduction to Trustee Education for Family Foundations. Living the Legacy. National Center for Family Philanthropy. https://www.ncfp.org/knowledge/an-introduction-to-trustee-education-for-family-foundations-2/
Before beginning her tenure at KI ThoughtBridge, Katherine Tyler Scott founded and served as President of Trustee Leadership Development, Inc., a resource center for governance leaders and not-for-profit organizations. Katherine is a past chair of the ILA board and convener of the ILA Applied Leadership Global Learning Community. She previously directed the Lilly Endowment Leadership Education Program, a statewide leadership education initiative for professionals in youth service, and she also developed leadership programs and resources for the Community Leadership Association.