Public narrative for new think tank leaders

23 August 2018
SERIES Transitioning into a leadership position: notes from the OTT Fellows 8 items

Adapted from “Public narrative training”, originally developed by Professor Marshall Ganz, Harvard University, and modified by the New Organising Institute.

To consider your public narrative is to reflect on how leaders and their teams understand their individual motivations and values, and to tie that into the motivations and values of their colleagues, and their organisation as a whole. Originating from grassroots and community organisations, the exercise can help leaders in think tanks articulate their personal vision, as a component of a collective vision within their organisation, and the place of their organisation within the broader community and society.

Each of us has a compelling story to tell

Each of us has a story that can move others to action. It is important to learn how to tell a story about yourself, the community you engage with, and your strategy that motivates others to join you in creating change.

Public narrative is a practice of leadership

Leadership is about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Narrative is how we learn to make choices and construct our identities and purpose—as individuals, as communities and organisations, and as nations.  

What does public narrative have to do with this definition of leadership? You can’t ask others to follow you if they don’t understand what your intentions are, and why you are called to lead.

Story of self

This looks at your personal story of why you are involved, what motivates you, what inspired you to be involved and the circumstances, choices and decisions that make you do what you do.

By telling a story of self you can communicate the values that move you to lead. Public leaders face the challenge of enabling others to get the values that move them to lead. Effective communication of these motivating values can establish grounds for trust, empathy, and understanding. In its absence, people will infer our motivations, often in ways that can be very counterproductive. Telling our story of self can help establish firm ground for leadership, collaboration and discovering common purpose.

The things we end up doing and being part of are determined by the things that happen to us, the things we see, the things people say and the circumstances that influence us.

In 5 minutes quickly come up with a timeline of the major events in your life. What are the key events that make up your life so far? Was there an event that happened – even if it is something really small – that started a series of events? Was there a moment when you had a challenge presented to you that forced you to make a decision? Look for that moment and explore it.

Working on your own, or with partners, answer the following questions:

  1. Why am I called to do this work?
  2. What motivates me?
  3. What makes me and my story unique?
  4. What are my values?

Story of us

Our collective story is what makes people feel part of what we do. As individuals working in think tanks, we seek to shape our communities and the wider public around us and itʼs important we understand our values, develop our vision for what we want the future to look like.

By telling a story of us you can communicate values that can inspire others to act together by identifying with each other, not only with you. Just as with a story of self, key choice points in the life of an organisation: its founding, crises it has faced, or other events that everyone remembers, are moments that express the values shared in pursuit of its work.  

Splitting into smaller groups, answer the following questions:

  1. What are the values which distinguish us?
  2. Where have our values come from?
  3. What is our vision for the world?

Story of now

Building upon our personal story and then our shared values and vision, this is about articulating what needs to be done and the opportunities and threats that create and can help overcome the gap between the world we live in now and the vision of the future we have. What choices can we make? What action can we take? What role can our think tank play in creating change?

This is about what is currently going on in the world and the way things are now and outlining the gap that exists between the world now and the future we want to create. Weʼve explored why youʼre involved, what our shared vision is, and this part of the narrative is about what the ʻnowʼ is like and what we must do to change it.

Staying in the same groups as before, answer the following questions:

  1. What is the gap between the world (local community, region, nation) as it is now, and the world as we want it to be?
  2. What can we do to make that change as a think-tank? Through our research?

Pulling it all together

Now work on your own and bring the Self, Us and Now narratives together to form your person narrative. Go through what you would say and how you would tell this story in 5 minutes. Make notes of the three stages detailing what you would say and how you would link them together.