Learning Leadership from Experience: Narrative and Storytelling

Narrative and Storytelling By accidentally bumping into the narrative approach I discovered a potential solution to the problem of making explicit the imperceptible leadership learning that occurs through our lived experience. Narrative is argued to be most appropriate for exploring tacit knowledge (Wengraf, 2001) for the following reasons:

  • Embedded socialized use of narratives – adults have a socially constructed understanding of what is required of a narrative (Goffman, 1969) and this operates at low consciousness and therefore is subject to less censoring control (Wengraf, 2001).
  • Structure – Labov and Waletsky (1967) identified a normative pattern of narrative used in every day conversation.
  • Rich expressive tapestry – narrative is able to blend a mix of lived experience with cultural norms and assumptions that flow out of the respondent to reveal detailed information that would be difficult to access through structured questions.
  • Triangulation – such expressive and enriched narrative is held together as a complete story. Cultural norms compel the narrator to tell the complete story (Alheit, 1994). In essence, censorship within the narrative begins to undermine the completeness and naturalness of the account and it becomes obvious to the listener (ibid.) and difficult for the narrator to hold the themes together.

So the narrative timeline approach provided a number of benefits. It enabled the managers in the interviews to follow a well-practiced structure, that of telling a story – particularly one that they are familiar with.

Issues of truthfulness were addressed through the managers seeking to tell their story, as they understood it. It needed to primarily make sense to them. The depth of the conversation yielded insights that are of significance to the managers – the process needed to be of value to them as much as it was for me.

Finally, the structured narrative would lead to a glimpse of tacit knowledge – a major stumbling block for previous researchers in exploring naturalistic leadership learning.

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