Leadership as narrative: Idea #1… We’re all artists

A few weeks ago I read the criticism that flew at the UK Labour leader from within his own party for his coming up short on energy, strategy and narrative.

As a lifelong student of leadership I’ve learned and taught much about how leaders can improve the first two. However, I’d never even heard anyone directly make any link between leadership and the creation of narrative. What a weird idea!

My curiosity was peaked and so over the last few weeks I’ve mulled, read, researched, tweeted and pondered my way to having shaped five ideas on leadership as the creation of narrative…

These ideas will not be wholly original, nor completely revolutionary. However, I’ll venture that they’ll be quirky, provocative and hopefully contribute to an evolving conversation that is going on across interesting and colourful corners of the internet where thinkers are reaching for fresh insight on how to lead well.

The next five blog posts will unpack these ideas, and I’m hoping that you will join the debate on how narrative and story-telling are applicable to those on a journey of leadership.

Before I unwrap idea #1, let’s do our due diligence and define our terms. Question. What is narrative?

Starting with grammar 101, the word “narrative” is a noun… a thing.

But it’s a thing in the same way that “honesty” is a thing. Or “beauty”. Or “love”. It’s an abstract thing; a thing that you can’t touch, taste, smell or even see in the physical world around you. A narrative is something that you can only discern in your heart and make sense of in your mind.

Websters defines narrative as the representation of an event or a story in art. I like that. It’s worth repeating… and reading again… slowly…

“Narrative is the representation of an event or a story in art”

A simpler way to say it might be that a narrative is effectively a story expressed through some kind of art. So, knowing what narrative is, let’s move onto the “why?” question. Namely, “Why would I as a teacher / corporate exec / property-manager / scientist / pastor / fill-in-your-own-blank be interested in the idea of narrative and art??”

Here’s my answer: Idea #1 sets out that…

We’re all artists, it’s just a question of whether we’re consciously practising


Hang on Sean, I’m not an artist I’m a…

  • bookstore manager
  • teacher
  • data analyst
  • student nurse
  • youth worker
  • pastor
  • boardroom exec
  • soccer mom
  • whatever

Yes, you might have a label that defines your occupation, but don’t buy into a worldview that being an artist is limited to a profession in the same way as is – say – being a surgeon.

The simplest definition of an artist is someone who creates things that move people. And therefore the creation of art is not restricted to the traditional Masters we think of like Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Mozart or the modern notorieties of Damien Hirst or The Chapman Bro’s. There’s a growing school of thought that rightly declares art to be something WE ALL engage in inside of our various careers and vocations. And it’s an idea that has profound implications if we take it seriously…

One of the most followed bloggers in the world, Seth Godin, put’s it this way…

Making art 

My definition of art contains three elements:

  1. Art is made by a human being.
  2. Art is created to have an impact, to change someone else.
  3. Art is a gift. You can sell the souvenir, the canvas, the recording… but the idea itself is free, and the generosity is a critical part of making art.

By my definition, most art has nothing to do with oil paint or marble. Art is what we’re doing when we do our best work.

Our best work.

Entering data. Nursing a patient. Managing a project. Teaching a class. Leading a team. Running a home. Whatever you spend your week doing I bet there’s some element that counts as “work”.

Here’s how I’d suggest that your work becomes art and then a step further into becoming narrative… stay with me…

  1. As you go about your work you bring something of yourself, your character, your essence to that effort, particularly when you want it to be your best work.
  2. As you carry out that work with your own unique “flavour”, your work becomes a creative exercise.
  3. Creativity that has conscious intention behind it becomes art.
  4. A cohesive collection of creative artwork develops a pattern.
  5. That pattern evolves into a thread, a story… a narrative.

So here’s the thing… the issue is not whether your work and life has a narrative – it does! We’re all busy in the creative process everyday, and as days turn into weeks, turn into months we create a story, a narrative of life that has the potential to communicate, to impact and to change.

When they’re doing their best work, leaders construct narratives that usher their followers into purposeful action. They know where they fit in the story and they move in harmony with its evolution. When leaders fail to create a story that their followers get caught up in – or, even worse, create a story that confuses or bores their followers – the potential to lead and achieve is limited.

If you’re someone looking to influence and you get that you’re creating a story that inspires, confuses or bores, then can you get started in building a narrative that is compelling…?

That’ll be idea #2

This is an incomplete and evolving thought and I’d love to hear from you. Let me know your ideas in the comments section by using the box below/link above. 

Teacher image courtesy of kodomut : CreativeCommons

MonaLisa image courtesy of  xiquinhosilva :  CreativeCommons

About Sean
Writer, Reader, Leader, Trainer, Coach, Thinker, Hiker, Musician, Uncle, Writer, List-maker, Blogger

9 Responses to Leadership as narrative: Idea #1… We’re all artists

  1. Pingback: Leadership as narrative: Idea #3 – Bless Yourself with Space « MuchClearer

  2. A long time ago, as an art student, I attended a lecture given by the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. He said:
    “An artist isn’t a special kind of man, every man is a special kind of artist”.
    The words have always stuck with me, and supported me, as a I drifted away from any practice of Fine Art.
    It’s strange, and uplifting, to hear the same thinking coming now from what many would consider to be the antithesis of art.
    I suppose that is where seeking clarity out of complexity brings us.

    • Sean says:

      “An artist isn’t a special kind of man, every man is a special kind of artist”. – Love that Brendan! Thanks for sharing.

      Yes I guess I’ve always felt that there’s much more that comes under the banner of “artistry” than simply that which we walk past in museums, but its only been of late that I’ve found myself able to put any language to it.

      Thanks for stopping by, hope to hear from you again.

  3. Pingback: Leadership as narrative: Idea #1… We’re all artists | Coaching pour entrepreneurs et intrapreneurs | Scoop.it

  4. Pingback: Leadership as narrative: Idea #1… We’re all artists | Just Story It | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: Leadership as narrative: Idea #2 – Don’t just tell stories, build a narrative « MuchClearer

  6. Pingback: Leadership as narrative: Idea #1… We’re all artists | Story and Narrative | Scoop.it

  7. I thought I’d waste some time early this morning checking some of the 7,000 emails in my hotmail inbox BUT your blog post (sent direct to the inbox – if you don’t already – subscribe people) proved it wasn’t a waste of time at all.

    Your thoughts on leadership as narrative were so well communicated and fresh. You’ve done what the best communicators do; given words and expression to some of the profound, intuitive elements of human behaviour. Not only worth a read but also worth meditating over and living out.

    • Sean says:

      Thanks Emma… that’s great encouragement. Am loving your own musings at thinklaughcry, look forward to more of your thoughts as the series progresses…

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