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?
Paul Gentle is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail.
Paul is an expert in leadership development and using narrative to draw out new and unexpected outcomes from conversations, consultations and programmes. To find out how Paul and our team can work with you, take a look at our bespoke programmes or contact Paul directly.
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