The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

A narrative guide in the wilderness

A Narrative Guide in the Wilderness


As leaders, we need to be guides in the wilderness. We need to help find secure footing whilst navigating unknown territory.

To do this, we need to tap into narrative to connect people to purpose and challenge reluctance to change, says Paul Gentle.

Narratives can enable and empower us to navigate the ideas that structure our thinking, and the emotions that lead us to commit

In 2019 universities are hungry for narratives. All kinds of narratives.

Those that tell how great teaching impacts on students’ lives.

Ones which grasps your attention and speak of the difference research makes.

Narratives that make it possible for leaders to encourage people to embark on journeys.

What these have in common are stories of the value of higher education. There’s a separate debate we need to have about how our sector might find the collective will to counter press hostility which seems to be mounting.

For now though, we have a pressing need to make sure that all those with whom we travel in our institutions have their hands on a map, know how to read it and want to learn how to chart unknown territory.

Like maps, narratives can enable and empower us to navigate the ideas that structure our thinking, and the emotions that lead us to commit. When narratives point to an enticing goal, they create a dynamic which quickens the spirit – and it’s just this kind of stirring of the soul that makes us want to change from the status quo. If it works, and if leaders act as guides through what may seem at times like a wilderness, we see a certain kind of transformation.

Here’s an example: a new Vice-Chancellor has arrived at a University which is underperforming against its potential. In her first few weeks in the institution, she walks the corridors and has conversations in all the coffee shops on campus.

‘We’ll be okay if we can get through the next three years,’ people tell her. ‘We have talented people here who just need to be allowed to get on with it.’

She listens as hard as she can. What she hears is the tale of an organisation at risk of drifting, one that’s not aligned to what students are demanding in 2019, 2020 and 2021. She concludes that the narrative the university needs is about a very different kind of educational proposition: one that’s linked intrinsically to values, not instrumental motives.

The Vice-Chancellor sparks fresh dialogues across every faculty and department.

‘We want to be part of this,’ is what she hears people saying.

In years to come, everyone remembers where they were when the narrative first made sense to them. On a train, during a meeting, in a deckchair on an Atlantic beach…

Narratives are what get people talking

Narratives are what get people talking. The closer their link to a motivating fundamental purpose (such as genuine commitment to working for the greater good), the deeper the resonance with our humanity.

How will your university find the narrative that engages people and makes them want to change? What are you doing to challenge any reluctance?

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like:

The joys and pitfalls of being all-knowing

The joys and pitfalls of being all-knowing

To seem all-knowing can be an irritating quality. Yet when it signals a trustful working relationship, it’s quite the opposite of a problem.

Paul Gentle argues that in helping others to know us better, we kindle the appetite and mindfulness to understand and empathise with colleagues. This builds confidence and trust between one another.

Institutional narrative: is it only a story?

Institutional narrative: is it only a story?

What does ‘institutional narrative’ really mean? Jamie Jauncey delves into the thick of it and examines the role that narrative plays for all parts of university life, and how, in times of need, we can harness it to find direction and purpose.

Show me how and why you care

Show me how and why you care

Internationalisation for universities is no longer just a question of how many international students you can recruit. The cultural value of working alongside people from across the world goes much deeper. But when you’re thinking about how to really connect with potential students, showing them why and how you care is critical to making a meaningful connection, says Paul Gentle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.