Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Stories Leadership Resilience

There's been some interesting ways that stories have played out in the life of Queensland and the local community in recent times. Floods, cyclones, inland tsunamis, whole communities swept away (and in recent days bushfires taking huge tolls on the other side of the country). The response in my immediate community (and others across Brisbane and the state) was remarkable. People came out without hesitation to help their neighbours and to help total strangers. We were told by commentators that this was characteristic of Australians.

I was a little sceptical at times, finding it a little jingoistic, but then heard one story (Bill and Bong - the next post) which seemed to support this and later spoke to an English friend who asserted that this huge public effort would not happen at the same level in the UK and other European countries. So are we self mythologising or is there something in the Australian character which is different or is it just academic?

Perhaps it's the telling of the stories that is significant. Do individuals, families, communities and nations have narratives which help shape them? The field of Narrative Therapy would argue that we all carry multiple narratives and it's in the choosing which ones to preference (or believe) that the shaping occurs. Narrative Therapists help people recognise the possibility of choosing a story of strength and optimism over one of the defeat and helplessness. We are the victims and the beneficiaries of our own narratives. Narrative Therapists have begun to explore the power of these stories at the community level using a process of listening, identifying issues, themeing, telling and retelling stories which offer honest pathways to recovery. This is being trialed in Aboriginal communities in particular.

In the days and weeks following the flood disasters I heard many stories told over drinks, dinners, in streets, on radio and in meetings, all of which spoke of the amazing experience of working together, of people taking the initiative, of resilience and the determination to survive. Almost all spoke of rebuilding, starting over, acceptance.

Even the Premier, Anna Bligh, not loved by many in this state (undeservedly in my opinion), received overwhelmingly positive response to her role. What did she do? She played the role of leader. She spoke of pain and of loss. She acknowledged the realities. Her constant theme was: "We are tough. We are Queenslanders. We will get back on our feet. We will get through this together." It was a bit twee at times but the community loved it. They trusted her. She tapped the narrative of hope and survival.

In stark contrast I have recently experienced a work environment where the leadership did not understand the importance of the survival narrative in challenging times. In that case the story of hope was not told and the result was an environment of despair and despondency. Leaders, as well as being good administrators need to be great storytellers. We can survive anything if we have hope. And stories can carry that hope.

Back to the local. I'm interested in what we do with these stories to help cement them within the collective psyche. Is that important or does the evidence of their existence indicate that all is well and we need do nothing? My gut feeling is that our personal narratives are powerful from the constant telling and retelling of the story, the narrative. Who can't relate to the family gathering where many of the same stories are told once again and the family storyteller reminds everyone of their family connections through story and tears and laughter. They slowly become normal, assumed as each generation takes them as truth. This is why the negative ones can also be so utterly debilitating.

Writing them down is powerful but in some ways the oral tradition is even more powerful as each member of the clan takes the story and makes it their own. Writing risks fixing the story and giving ownership of it to particular individuals. Perhaps the written accounts need to be even more powerful to justify their existence and be written in a form which invites reflection rather than passive acceptance.

I have volunteered to help write an account of the role played by the local community organisation in this recovery program. It is an opportunity to tell a story which acknowledges the importance of community strength and to bring to the surface some of the invisible networks which act as a binding agent within this community. I expect to find that a cool account of the week(s) will not be as effective as a series of simple stories which illustrate the range of ways the community worked together to overcome this challenge.

I am also searching for a way to embed a story component into the community development work I am involved in Vanuatu. The theme of that work is strengthening community ownership of decision making; strengthening the role of culture and tradition. At the same time there is a desire to gently challenge assumed norms in terms of the role of women and young people at the village level. Vanuatu is an oral culture. The challenge will be to work alongside the local leaders to find a narrative form which will carry the learnings from this work beyond the immediate project. What will the form need to be to ensure that the story is likely to be one which is told and retold? I suspect that it will need to be like the best of stories - dramatic, funny and grounded in the experience of local people.


Elisabeth said...

Such an interesting, Steve, especially as regards the nature of survivor narratives and the contrast between the oral and the written form.

Good luck with your work. It sounds terrific.

I think maybe there is a more laid back approach in Australia that might be absent in other cultures, though not entirely of course. And Australians can also be rigid and unyielding as you'd know.


Queen of the Tea Cosies said...

Dramatic, funny and grounded - and hopeful.
Yep. That is definitely good story telling.
Much to think about here.
I disagree though with the idea that the incredible community response to recent disasters is particularly "Australian". It is easy to help each other in a wealthy country, with governments prepared and practiced for every kind of natural disaster. It is easy to help each other with honest, practical and heartfelt leadership. If I could name one difference between Australia and other first world countries (for we cannot and should not compare ourselves to oranges) is that our leaders hail from amongst us. There is nothing priveleged about Anna Bligh's life. She leads us from within. We can believe her. We can follow her.
A proud lucky Australian.

little hat said...

Elizabeth and Loani, Great comments. Yes I agree I am uncomfortable with the idea that we are "better' at helping each other. Surely this is a universl quality. I do think nationalities have certain characteristics - influenced by geography, weather, history, intercultural conflict, etc etc. I agree that perhaps it's easier to be generous when there is greater capacity. The Bill and Bong story of my next post explores that a bit.

Jennifer said...

Love. Love Love. I guess I don't have to tell you about my opinion, re: the power of the story.

I recently had an exchange with another blogger about the idea of "choosing" the stories we are tell to the world - choosing what kind of lives we're living and how we're defining those lives.

There is lots to complain about in this world - for some more than others. Personally, I [mostly] choose the positive in my story as conveyed in my writing, because it's my way of surviving. I'm choosing this perspective. Maybe I should have been a Narrative Therapist.

But enough about me! GREAT stuff Steve. I am so looking forward to seeing your projects unfold.