Spinning a Dit: Leadership and Storytelling
By The Army Leader
I remember the afternoon pretty well. Sat in my OC’s office with a brew and a plate of sandwiches. The OC was a military history enthusiast – as we all should be – and we were spending the afternoon examining the battles for Monte Cassino during the Second World War. Five months of bitter fighting. Steep mountain slopes and winter weather combined with the German defenders’ determination and skill. In particular we discussed the actions of one of our antecedent regiments.
So although we were studying history, we were also listening to the stories of our predecessors.
With hindsight, those stories were not just fodder for our analysis. They were also important cultural touchstones. As we discussed the rights and wrongs of battle plans, and read about the human determination and courage, we were telling ourselves stories about our regiment. We were telling ourselves stories about ourselves.
Stories about ourselves
I am not sure many soldiers join the army to be storytellers. It is not seen as a core skill in the military – or elsewhere, to be honest. But storytelling is becoming recognised as a useful weapon in a leader’s arsenal. Companies like Microsoft, Motorola, Procter & Gamble and the World Bank are teaching storytelling skills to their leaders.
Stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.Howard Gardner, developmental psychologist
Why are stories important for leaders? Because stories bind groups together. They give us culture touch-points.
Stories also hold particular importance in larger groups. It is worth exploring why.
The story of the importance of stories begins not in leadership, but in anthropology. Robin Dunar is a British anthropologist, evolutionary psychologist and a specialist in primate behaviour. In the 1990s he identified a correlation between the size of the pre-frontal cortex in ape species and the size of the social groups each species could maintain. If you took the size of an ape’s brain, you could calculate the size of its social group size. This number – the maximum social group size for a given species, based on pre-frontal cortex size – became known as the Dunbar Number.
Dunbar took the human pre-frontal cortex size and plotted it on the same scale. He concluded that for humans, the Dunbar Number is 150. But his research also uncovered something else interesting. 150 was the estimated size of a Neolithic farming village; the splitting point of religious sect settlements; the basic unit size of professional Roman armies and 16th century mercenary groups; and the size generally considered appropriate for a modern military Company. Dunbar also discovered that Bill Gore (of GORETEX fame) structured his factories to have no more than 150 staff. Above this level, Gore found that teamwork faltered and productivity dropped off.
Put another way, Dunbar suggested that 150 was the largest group in which we can understand human politics. Interestingly, the boundary line between ‘team’ leadership and ‘organisational’ leadership is sometimes referred to as ‘the point at which you can no longer recognise the face of every person you lead’. Beyond that, you cannot remember people and so you cannot be in touch with human politics.
Team leaders know everyone in their group. They can convey meaning through regular human interactions. Organisational leader cannot. Organisational leaders have to lead differently.
What does this have to do with a story?
Stories, so the theory goes, help convey meaning to groups larger than 150. Stories hold inherent meaning, explain values and define who we are. Think of the military groups you are part of. In the small groups, you know everyone and see everything that happens. In the larger groups, you understand what has happened by stories you hear – both current or historic.
Consider the stories from regimental history, or told in the smoking area. They help you understand what kind of organisation you are in. They explain what is valued.
Another well-known anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes culture as “… the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.” An anthropologist views stories as means of creating culture, conveying meaning and values, and defining who we are. Put more formally, they are one of the ways the collective consciousness of a team assimilates new insights, while reinforcing established ones .
That is important if you are leading at any level. It is especially important above sub-unit level – when the team is larger than 150. If you are trying to create a culture you can do it by the actions you take – but only for your closest 150 people. Beyond that, stories are the medium through which meaning and culture flow around a group.
Think about the stories you tell
Yannis Gabriel, author of Storytelling in Organizations, believes that stories compete against each other. Only the strongest survive in the ‘narrative jungle’. The stories that survive are often those that reinforce our biases. If you want a story to convey meaning that breaks the norm, you will need to continually reinforce it.
Next time you are telling a story, think about the meaning it conveys. It may be a story from regimental history or it may be a dit about what you got up to as a subbie. Every unit has a story about how it beat another unit during an exercise, or how it fought in particular battles on operations. Each mess can tell you stories about their most respected members – past and present. All these stories have heroes and villains. All of them create meaning as they are retold.
When you retell them, be aware of the message you are choosing to reinforce.
Equally, next time you act remember the power of the story. Remember that it is not the act, but the story about the act, that conveys meaning beyond your closest 150 people. Annoyed that people’s perception of an act is different to reality? You are complaining about the nature of Dunbar’s Number and the power of stories to convey meaning. If you do not think about the message and story that your actions tell, then you are missing an opportunity to build or reinforce organisational culture.
If you are a leader you need to use stories and narratives to best effect. That does not mean you need to be a master storyteller. Concentrate on being a master soldier instead. But realise that every time you create or retell a story you are affecting your team’s culture, whether you like it or not.
Narratives are also important if you get them wrong. Former officer Dr Matt Offord explains why in Start With Another Narrative: Leadership for the Information Age