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

Dr Paul Gentle

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Academic Director at Invisible Grail

A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last fifteen years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in higher education.

In 2017 Paul co-founded Invisible Grail, an organisation whose purpose is to empower people to lead with respect and integrity, and to become accountable academic and global citizens. Working in the UK and internationally, Paul is an advocate of sharing learning across the world to enable a more interdependent, sustainable and collaborative higher education system.

Which are the questions that matter most? And what could we achieve when we ask the right questions at the time they’re most needed?

Louise Clifton talks to Paul Gentle about why now is the time that we need to refocus on our purpose, ask the questions we haven’t before – of ourselves and our organisations – and why the answers will help us find the narratives that encourage greater self-determination and agency, and enable us build a better world in the process.

Louise Could you tell us a little about how you came to be interested in organisations and their stories?

Paul I’ve always been fascinated by how organisations work and their values – I remember when I was about 10, my parents used to get the Times and I’d go straight for the business section. I was interested in particular brands and the stories they told; I’d even send off for their annual reports. When I was 11 I set up my own family newspaper, so this – and growing up between the UK, India and Italy – it all began a real love of other cultures, languages and stories.

Louise A few years on and you turned your hand to leadership development, was there something that first sparked your interested in universities and leadership?

I worked in an environment in which some people thrived and others didn’t, and I began to wonder if things could be different.”

Paul I got my first job in education at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) when I was 31, via a whole lot of other routes including youth work and teaching English abroad. But when I started at UCLAN, that’s when I got really interested in how universities in particular, worked. My line manager, a head of department, had a very heroic, dependency-orientated approach which had a mixed effect on my colleagues. I worked in an environment in which some people thrived and others didn’t, and I began to wonder if things could be different. I always believed universities were about enabling people to be the best they can, and this became a lifelong theme for me. I wondered – and still do today – why universities don’t see how much richer and better life could be if everything that works really well in how to develop and transform students, and how to get students to learn, were actually also applied to how they manage their own activity, and how people behave to one another as colleagues?

For example, where universities are really good at helping students to develop by giving them effective feedback, why don’t colleagues treat each other like that as well?

In practice and in so many institutions, colleagues run a mile from any idea of giving or receiving feedback to one another, because they find that very difficult and emotionally threatening to do. And so during my time at UCLAN, I became really interested in how you could create this culture that bucked the trend, and tried to find that alignment. When the opportunity to become a Head of Department for languages came up, I went for it, and that was my first leadership role. After my time at UCLAN, I had a fantastic break with the Leadership Foundation (now Advance HE) that allowed me to put my leadership techniques and beliefs into practice.

Louise If we fast forward to now, you’re championing narrative organisational development. Can you tell us what this is?

We should be asking leaders ‘what do you stand for, and what does the team you work in stand for? What does your institution stand for? What’s its fundamental purpose?

Paul During my career, I came to realise that there were some aspects of leadership development that we could, and should, be making more of, through stories and use of narrative. I believe that to really enable people to work together effectively, you need to find the language and stories around which people can coalesce. That make people say, “that’s something I recognise and I want to be a part of.”

I believe that we should be paying more attention to how you bring a group of people together to share a common vision, based on shared beliefs, values and stories. We should be asking leaders ‘what do you stand for, and what does the team you work in stand for? What does your institution stand for? What’s its fundamental purpose?

These questions are the bedrock of narrative organisational development. And together, they lend themselves really well to asking “Well, actually, couldn’t you make the whole basis for developing an organisation being about developing the story, and then how people live out that story in their day to day practices?”

Finding the answers to this question which looks at wider, systematic change – this is what we hope Invisible Grail can help universities achieve.

Louise Are there leadership habits that can help people create stronger connections in the workplace?

Paul How people do engagement is really crucial. One of my hobby horses is meetings: how do people do meetings, by which I mean, how do they avoid them becoming something which is really predictable, geared around a politicised agenda? Where you can almost script beforehand who’s going to say what, and where certain individuals will dominate.

We already have at our fingertips systems that work. So much of what we do with students – facilitating small group conversations, getting people doing pair work and tasks, and balancing plenary talking time as only one part of what goes on – creates space to test out ideas without fear of surfacing them in public, or in a big group. If all those things work for students, why on earth don’t we use them in our meetings, and in how we organise our political and organisational life?

Louise Do you have any tips how we can do this in practise?

Paul A good starting point is to plan for outcomes. So ‘what do I want people to do?’ But also, ‘what do I want them to be saying about this meeting? What do I want them to feel as a result?

With a bit of foresight and mindfulness, you can find a more empathetic way to make work and our relationships here more successful. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can drive your interactions through being more emotionally intelligent, and really tap into what matters most to people. In universities, we often behave as though everything that matters is based on cerebral cognitive thinking. Which is, of course, part of our stock and trade. But it isn’t everything. Feelings, and people, matter too.

Louise Is feedback important in developing these emotionally rich cultures?

Paul Yes, absolutely. Having the courage to face up to things that are not working as well as things that are working, and making visible things that people prefer to keep hidden under the table is critical.

If you can be really open with people and find the courage to ask the questions that matter, you can begin to dismantle the barriers between you.”

We often shy away from it, and there’s all sorts of reasons why people are afraid. We put up barriers, or we don’t want to threaten a relationship that might otherwise seem quite stable and healthy. But when you start experimenting, although it might be uncomfortable, you get so much more out of it than if you’d done or said nothing at all. The fundamental to all of that is openness. If you can be really open with people and find the courage to ask the questions that matter, you can begin to dismantle the barriers between you.

One of the things that has moved me often most profoundly when running programmes is when people are almost breaking down into tears because they’re getting feedback from colleagues, sometimes people they might have been working in a university for 20 years, and they’ll say, ‘nobody has ever given me feedback before’. We feel the impact of feedback from its absence as much as anything else.

Louise Aside from feedback, if you could only give one piece of advice to a leader what would it be?

To show genuine concern, I think is the real secret of leadership.”

Paul Never miss an opportunity to ask somebody how things really are, whether that’s about themselves, yourselves or the wider world around you. To show genuine concern, I think is the real secret of leadership. It’s not just asking to say I want to evaluate the situation and I need data on this. It’s about how do you feel about how things really are? And what can we do together to make that better?

Louise What is your ultimate hope in championing narrative organisation development? And what would this look like?

Paul I think we’d have organisations that work for love and are run by people who believed in what they were doing, and who saw fulfilment and self-actualization as a core part of their role because they felt that they were serving a greater purpose. People wouldn’t be in transactional relationships, but their workplaces would be a kind of extension of their real self; who we really are as people and what we do wouldn’t be separate.

If universities can role model this kind of change, which is attractive and compelling and is about people taking more control over their own lives, then that’s likely to lead to a society which is better at self-organising, more sufficient and more self-sufficient and ultimately, more sustainable too. But you can’t effectively sustain the planet, or the environment or the wider world, if you don’t start by sustaining yourself and others immediately around you. So the idea of care for oneself is critical, especially if you care for others, and in a leadership context that’s clearly care for those people that you work with and lead, as well as the organisation around you. When you have this foundation, you can look at how you care for society, and you can do some of the really big things, like saving the planet. This is a really key part of the narrative that we have yet to discover in universities.

Louise Given how much change is happening in the world, why is this important now?

We’re in a world struggling for meaning and looking for meaning, and universities should be helping to provide that meaning for people, and to facilitate understanding of what that is and how people can articulate that.”

Paul We’re in a world struggling for meaning and looking for meaning, and universities should be helping to provide that meaning for people, and to facilitate understanding of what that is and how people can articulate that. 

I think across the world there’s a really serious problem with false narratives, and we need critical awareness to help us distinguish between narratives that are true from ones that aren’t. A key starting point is to get people to think about their own narrative which represents who they are, and then how they project this in a really genuine and authentic way. This is one reason. Another is around the idea that over the last 20-30 years some universities have got carried away with the idea that they’re businesses. This has led to practices that are focused on hard metrics and business targets, rather than people-focused organisations. Ironically, as corporate businesses become more people-focused, some universities seem to be going the other way. Rediscovering and reconnecting with our fundamental purpose is critical.

Louise With all this going on, how do you keep curious and focused?

Paul I suppose I have a bit of a magpie spirit because I’m always searching for ideas from wherever I am. I love ideas that come from completely other sectors, I love ideas that come out of all sorts of creative things; I go to plays and pick things up, I listen to music. And that diversity is all a part of it.

Since we launched Invisible Grail, each day also has a feeling of excitement: knowing that every day is an opportunity to make a difference to people, whether it’s the people I’m facilitating with, or whether it’s colleagues whose work I’m helping to support and go out there to make a difference too. This self-determination and sense of agency is a huge part of it, and if we can encourage these conditions for everybody studying or working in universities, then that’s a good day.

Louise If you weren’t doing this, what would be your plan B?

Paul I’ve always wanted to be a writer of fiction. I think that could still be a part of what I do, as well as and not necessarily instead of. And three and a bit years ago that is what I thought I would be doing, but then a much better thing came along. It’s been an incredible journey of learning and discovery.


With thanks to Paul for sharing his hopes, thoughts and stories. Find out more about Paul and Invisible Grail’s work:

Dr Paul Gentle

Find out more about the Academic Director at Invisible Grail

How to connect beliefs and values with writing a strategy

Strategy isn’t just facts, figures and mission statements. It encompasses the breadth and depth of the people who lead and live it.

Drawing on two fictional universities facing real-life challenges, Paul Gentle examines how working with the grain can connect your strategy to the beliefs and values that people live by.

Invisible Grail’s work

We help you unlock your vision. To tell your story. To connect others to your purpose.

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