Building a Leadership Culture: The Public Narrative

Like it or not, you’re a leader. You can either be dragged or come willingly. Leading does not make you special. No matter your role or position, leadership is what counts but, sadly, it does not guarantee you will be counted.

Leading is vitally important in social change work. We don’t really need a leader when things are simple and the way is sure. We need leaders to motivate, engage, influence, and help navigate when things are scary and uncertain.

Leadership is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose in difficult circumstances (Marshall Ganz).

How’d you end up here? Maybe you had the thought “I need to do my part,” or “I want to make a difference,” or “I have skills to share.” Whatever got you into this and moved you past inertia, congratulations. You’re now in it. You’re the executive director. You’re on the board of directors. You’re running a committee, or generating resources.

The point at which you crossed over to commitment might have passed without fanfare, largely unexamined. This is no big deal, right? But, if you don’t understand (and can’t articulate) your motivations and what brings you to this, you might find yourself confused, demotivated, ego-hijacked, and mired in the stuff and endless complexity of organizations. When you are actually in the world, talking with a friend or colleague about your mission, your unexamined story leaves you flat-footed when you might have truly inspired someone to feel curious and maybe even to engage.

We’re all privately wondering what we ought to be doing on this planet. Not everyone is like Moses who just happened to pass by a talking burning bush one day. People have wondered how to live well for all of recorded history. When asked how to come to terms with this question, Rabbi Hillel in the first century replied in typical consultant fashion with three questions for our consideration:

  1. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
  2. If I am for myself alone, what am I?
  3. If not now when?

What did he mean by that?

Question 1: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If you presume to take responsibility for leadership you need to know why, and what’s in it for you. Why did that Flint Michigan whistle blower at the water utility decide to risk going public with what she discovered? I guarantee you the answers go back to her personal story.

Question 2: If I am for myself alone, what am I?

Your capacity to realize your objectives is bound up with others realizing theirs. You need to know who you should connect with to realize your goals and what they care about. If people can’t trust their public institutions to keep the water safe it’s not just the water we need to be worried about – we all have a stake in this.

Question 3: If not now when?

Perfect is the enemy of the good. Not to say that strategy is not important, but we can wring our hands to the point of paralysis. Through action, we gain understanding. Since blowing the whistle in Flint, activists have uncovered the depths of corruption, and the degree of entrenchment that is keeping the status quo in place. Action brought this to light.

Self, Others, Action. The plot line of leadership.

Rabbi Hillel posed big questions, but paradoxically we’re not supposed to answer them. In fact we never will. Leadership is developmental. It’s not about knowing or having all the answers. On the contrary, when we lead, our job is to keep raising sticky questions that challenge and motivate others. Using our own outrage, grief, and hope, we can move and enable others to tap into emotions to achieve shared goals.

It’s this emotional or heart aspect of leadership that often gets short shrift. If facts alone don’t move people, then what does? What instills a sense that “yes we can?” The answer is story.

Story = Character, Plot, Moral.

Stories teach us. Through a thoughtfully crafted story, we share more than facts. We conjure experiences – our own and others’ — that don’t just tell but show us a way through. After a long career practicing the methods of harnessing story for social change, Marshall Ganz became a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where he now teaches storytelling for social change. He calls his approach to storytelling “The Public Narrative.”

Public Narrative has three components:

  • The Story of Self,
  • The Story of Us, and
  • The Story of Now.

The Story of Self: Why and how you were called to what you have been called to.

This part of your story recounts the experiences that have shaped you, including one or more key moments of decision – what Ganz called “choice points.” – in which you faced a challenge, made a choice, experienced a lesson, or learned a moral. These moments construct our moral identities, define our worldview, and make explicit the implicit values driving us. The Story of Self helps the listener tune in by illuminating the speaker’s connection with the topic of discussion, and by revealing possible places of resonance and connection. In this way, the Story of Self taps into a listener’s own stories, and invites relationship.

The Story of Us: How your story connects with their story – the experiences we all share.

This section of your narrative links your personal experiences with the people you are aiming to bring together. It uses shared experience to evoke shared values and feelings. It reminds us what we have all been through, how those experiences have affected us, and the hopes and dreams we have in spite of the uncertainty and even improbability of achieving what we seek.

The Story of Now: The urgent challenges – or tension between how the world is and how it should be – and the invitation to specific and decisive action.

This section is where we can say “enough is enough and here is what’s possible if we act.” It invites the listener to act from their values, respond from their hope, and join with others to engage. It is not overly general, as in “let’s all get involved (and then go eat pizza).” It offers a specific path to make a difference. “Let’s show up at this time in this place by the tens of thousands to send a powerful message to policy makers.”

Curious and want to learn more?

If you want to learn how to incorporate Public Narrative techniques into your approach to advocacy, fundraising, organizing, or management, there are scads of publically available resources. For an introduction to the Public Narrative, enroll (for free) in the Resistance School (it takes 30 seconds), and view the Public Narrative workshop taught by Professor Ganz himself for organizers from around the United States. The workshop videos are excellent and take 90 minutes to view in total.

To put public narrative into practice for yourself, it helps to see it modeled, try it yourself, and get feedback from others. Here are some YouTube samples of Public Narrative in practice:

Here is James Croft at Harvard using public narrative to inspire his fellow students to create “It Gets Better” videos to respond to a rash of suicides by gay men who were bullied and harassed.

Here is Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The Generosity Network, by Jennifer McRea describes how she worked with Marshall Ganz at Harvard to integrate the Public Narrative into her approach to donor engagement and fundraising. If you can, order a copy of Jennifer’s book from your local independent bookseller. Jennifer also teaches fundraising workshops at the Harvard campus which incorporate Public Narrative.

I am glad to talk with you about designing a Public Narrative training for your Board and staff. Already using Public Narrative? I would love to hear your stories. Please leave a comment or send me an email.


What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.

 

Putting Values to Work

When you’re spending a Saturday afternoon, a sunny one, away from family, in a “retreat space,” seated on a plastic folding chair eating Costco snacks, talking about values, it begs a few questions:

What are values?

Can we go home? What do values have to do with making this an effective social change organization?

How do we know what our values are? After we define them, then what?

Values are core principles expressed as action, norms of behavior, or attitudes. They get forged in an individual or group psyche by positive models or painful experiences. Whether or not you measure up every day, values are the gauge.

It’s important to define our values. Great Britain might easily have surrendered to the 3rd Reich. Surrender was a no brainer. But working backwards from values, not knowing how it would turn out, Churchill stood up to his naysayers, and called on his entire country to fight. Values compel us, no matter what the data say.

Action guided by values has persuasive power at an order of magnitude that boggles conventional thinking. This is why values are the cornerstone of any worthy human endeavor and essential to our community-benefit-driven enterprises.

Our nonprofit organizations aren’t facing down tanks and fighter jets, but pretty darned close. Chronic homelessness, under-resourced education, straining health care systems, chronic disease — big stuff. Whatever our missions, collectively speaking we are Winston Churchill, facing challenges that will overwhelm us unless we can inspire people to pay attention, dig in, share resources, and confront the gaping maw of uncertainty.

Values compel us to do what’s right by the world, yes, but internally, with our organizations, they guide us to be true to our standards of behavior such that our means are aligned with our ends. Ever been mired in the misery of an organization that says one thing and does another? Values disconnects are the stuff of workplace hell. Why the high turnover? Why are we losing some of our best board members? Frequently, values disconnects occur not out of malice, but because an organization’s board and senior leaders have not invested the time to define and integrate values into the functional and decision making processes of the organization.

Whether you need to update your values or start from scratch, here’s what not to do. Don’t start asking people to swarm over a list of words and place sticky dots next to their favorites. The dictionary assigns each word multiple definitions. Words are complex and laden with our subjective meanings. Let’s not doom ourselves to this frustrating rabbit hole.

Instead, start with stories of when you’ve lived your values. Your good times, your challenging ones, the more epic the better; stories are how you suss out what you truly care about.

Here’s an exercise I use with board/staff groups to discern organizational values. This exercise takes about 90 minutes. (Skip past the fine print if you prefer to refer to this later.)

STEP 1: (15 min) Work on your own, timed writing exercise:

  • Write down a story of a time when your organization did something you are proud of. What made it challenging? Why did it come together?
  • Write down a story of a really hard time your organization faced and how you got through it. Who were the s/heros? What made the critical difference?
  • Write down the story of how your organization got started? Why was it imperative your organization come into being? What was special about it?

STEP 2: (15 min) Work with a partner, share stories, listen for values:

Turn to a partner and share your stories one at a time. Partners, as you hear the stories, listen for and write down values words. Words like honesty, equity, tenacity, fairness, creativity, etc. When the first storyteller has finished telling all three of her stories, the listener reports back the values words to the storyteller. Now switch. The first storyteller now becomes the listener and writes down values words while his partner reads aloud his stories. Repeat the process above. After having heard both person’s stories, choose your favorite, most values-rich story from among your six to share with the full group.

STEP 3: (30 min) Work as a whole group, each pair shares favorite story, facilitator lists values words.

As a group, the facilitator asks pairs to share out their favorite story with the whole group plus their corresponding values words. The facilitator writes down the values words on a sheet at the front of the room.

STEP 4: (30 min) Work as a whole group to define categories, group values words, select:

After all groups report, review your full list of values words. Notice any natural groupings or themes and whether any categories seem to emerge. Group words by category (aim for no more than 6) and pick a single word from each category that best captures the essence of that category. Finish up by assigning 1-3 people to draft up descriptions next to your values words for review at a subsequent face-to-face meeting.

After defining values, then what?

Here are a several excellent examples of Values Statements or Guiding Principles. Creating a written statement is a fantastic milestone. But don’t stop there. Operationalize it. You can use the following questions to get started:

  • Where are we already living our values and how can we build on that?
  • What would integration of our values in our workplace and board culture make possible? What would it take to create that integration?
  • If our program approach were 100% aligned with our values what would that make possible? What would it take to move toward that alignment?

Looking for examples? In her September 11, 2015 column in Nonprofit Quarterly Column “Values in Your Organization and What they Have to Do with Making Money: Part 2”, Simone Joyaux offers eleven ways to operationalize values in your organization. My idea number twelve is to build values into high stakes decision-making with a “Strategy Screen.” Your Strategy Screen reminds you to consider what’s important — including values — as you weigh which direction to take.

A values vacuum hurts people and compounds the suffering our sector exists to ease. In 2012, Susan G Komen announced it would withdraw nearly $700,000 in funding from Planned Parenthood claiming it was doing so in response to in inquiry by a member of Congress. Its decision directly defunded breast screenings for poor women. In response, Komen affiliates experienced a huge backlash and support plummeted. The organization has never recovered and continues to see declining revenue and affiliate consolidations. In 2010, The American Red Cross raised $500,000 for Haitian earthquake relief that today, in 2018, has not been accounted for. No rebuilt roads, no more than six permanent homes. Contributions are on a death spiral. What values were at work here?

Our values guide us to stand up and do what’s right even when it’s difficult or lonely. But don’t think that values are old fashioned, even in this crazy era of rampant lying by people in high places. Rock solid, unambiguous values are your power source to advance along your strategic mission making path.

Need help operationalizing your values? Let’s talk.


What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.

Casting the Role of Your Next Leader

“I can’t afford to make a mistake on this next hire, Andrea. It has to be the right person. What should I do?”

On hiring the right person, especially in our “data-is-all-powerful” era, advice abounds. Here is mine:

  1. Your organization and the environment have not stood still. Be clear what brand of leadership is needed now for your community and for your organization’s evolution.
  2. Your organization is about the purpose, the people, the culture, and the experience of being part of the team making it happen. Knock prospective candidates’ socks off with a position description that captures your organization’s heart and soul.
  3. Leadership is not management. If you want to attract a leader, frame your description as a call to adventure.
  4. Management is important too, so check in with your team about what effective management would actually look, smell, and feel like. In addition to experience, qualification, and know-how, describe qualities and style traits in your position description.
  5. Source outstanding candidates from your existing team and peers in your field. Internal referrals result in a higher quality candidate pool, and far greater retention.
  6. If you can, use a qualified, highly recommended search firm. Expect to collaborate with the process, and not just outsource it.
  7. Candidates are assessing you as much as you are assessing them at every touch point. Conduct a relational, respectful, and expeditious hiring process.
  8. Set your pay scale and your overall compensation to attract the very best, and share your salary range on your position announcement. Don’t believe the adage that nonprofit staff work for the mission. People have families to support and retirement looming. Turnover, lost productivity, opportunity cost, talent burnout are real – take care of your most crucial resource — people.

Even if you check off every item on this list, all of you grizzled veterans out there know, the likelihood of a failed hire is still high.

Why?

To reflect on this question, I turn to the world of casting. After a movie, do you stay behind watching the credits roll on the screen? Next time notice the casting director. The casting director works closely with the director, studio execs, sometimes even investors, to find the perfect actors to play every single role in the film. It’s an incredibly important and often unsung role.

Ever heard of Marion Dougherty? Of course you haven’t! Marion was a hidden figure of the motion picture industry who pioneered the field of casting. In the 1960s, she set up a casting office in New York City and was ultimately recruited in the 1970s by Paramount. At Paramount she developed a reputation for casting “unproven” actors in high profile, big budget films. Her choices were gutsy. Marion launched the careers of iconic talents like Dustin Hoffman, Glenn Close, Robert Redford, and Jon Voight. Her choices were responsible for one epic blockbuster after another. Her success was uncanny. How did she do it?

As Jon Voight said, Marion “could see what people couldn’t see.” What was her secret? Unlike the stodgy studio executives who fought her tooth and nail, she understood the changing social context of the 1960s and 70s. Audiences wanted a more authentic kind of human being on the screen. She was not afraid to innovate – to bring an edgier style of acting to film. She had a sense for chemistry and ensemble – how a particular actor would play with other actors.

But Marion was not casting from a recipe book. Her decisions came from the genius of “gut reaction,” as she called it, or what Malcolm Gladwell referred to in his book “Blink” as the “adaptive unconscious.”

“Blink” explores the way people make decisions. Through stories and research, Gladwell debunks the conventional assumption that decisions based on tons of data and analysis – aka “conscious strategy” — are superior. In fact, it turns out, conscious strategy is less reliable than adaptive unconscious decision-making. Such heresy! (If you have not already, I highly recommend checking out “Blink” and all of Gladwell’s wonderful books.)

Even if you are still skeptical about this business of gut instinct, consider the metrics — Marion Dougherty’s successful track record. When you engage in a hiring practice, should you follow all of basics (see above)? Of course! Does that guarantee a great hire? Of course not?

Think back to the times you’ve faced an unsuccessful hire. In spite of doing all of the right things, were there warning signs you ignored before you made the offer?

Before you decide on your next hire, consider this. Can you see this person bringing something fresh, perhaps something unexpected (maybe even some much needed creative tension) to shift things into a higher gear? Could this person be more than good, but great, and could their presence on the team help others feel and be great?

What about you job seekers out there? Try these questions on from your vantage point. Looking back on your career, where did you become the role and experience yourself in a whole new way? When did your team bring something out of you that inspired or antagonized you to be your best self? What epic community results were made possible in part because you were part of that cast?

Do your due diligence of course, but in the end pay attention to your gut.

Are you embarking on a leadership transition? Let’s talk.


What’s your purpose, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright July 2017