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.