Why Every Leader Should Understand Narrative Psychology

A burgeoning psychological field is revealing crucial leadership insights.

Posted Jul 21, 2016

Green Chameleon | Unsplash
Source: Green Chameleon | Unsplash

Last week, we explored the four behaviors that serve as the foundation for next-level leadership.  These behaviors – which I refer to as the “Phenomenal Four” – include:

  • Cultivating Reflective Silence
  • Capturing Meaningful Stories
  • Reinforcing What’s Important
  • Posing Curious Questions

If you haven’t had a chance to read the introductory article in this series, I strongly encourage you to do so before continuing this piece. 

We also reviewed the first of the four behaviors, Cultivating Reflective Silence, and how to fit it into your daily leadership practice.  Today, we are going to dive into the second behavior, Capturing Meaningful Stories.

Story is a passionate topic of mine in general; I have been working with it for the past 20 years and write frequently about it. But before we jump into this behavior, I want to introduce you to the scientific discipline that underpins this behavior: narrative psychology.

What Is Narrative Psychology?

Narrative psychology is the perspective that, as Ted Sabin from UCSC said, focuses on “the storied nature of human conduct.”  The central thesis of this perspective is that narrative is a natural human process that is integral to our ability to make sense of the world around us and our own experiences.

Jonathan Adler, assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering, explained to Julie Beck of The Atlantic in 2015 that “Life is incredibly complex, there are lots of things going on in our environment and in our lives at all times, and in order to hold onto our experience, we need to make meaning out of it…The way we do that is by structuring our lives into stories.”

In the same excellent piece by Beck, Dan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, described how narrative, even in rudimentary form, is with us from an early age.  We all begin as “actors,” playing various roles in the world.  Once we’re old enough to have goals, we become “agents.” Eventually, we start to organize experiences and insights into a narrative conception of ourselves, thus becoming “authors.” 

Narrative Psychology Is Essential for Leadership

You may be reading this thinking, “This is all interesting, but what does this have to do with leadership?”

The answer is: everything.  

According to the American Psychological Association, research is finding that narratives we create about our lives directly influence our futures.  They do this by helping us sift through myriad details, facts, and emotions and select what to encode into our memory.  The sum of what is encoded (i.e. “I am a good leader,” or “I am a failure”) feeds back into the roles we play as “actors” and the goals we have as “agents,” thus directing the future.  

As John Holmes, a psychology professor at Waterloo University told the APA Monitor, "For better or worse, stories are a very powerful source of self-persuasion, and they are highly internally consistent…Evidence that doesn’t fit the story is going to be left behind."

True, next-level leadership requires self-knowledge, self-awareness, and authenticity.  This is why narrative matters so much for leaders: if we don’t know ourselves (or worse, if we lie to ourselves) who can make a meaningful impact and inspire followers?

Mostly, our minds run this narrative-making process on autopilot. But when we retake manual control of the process, it can not only reveal powerful insights but also help us encode stories that support our leadership success.

This is why the second behavior is so important. 

The Second Behavior: Capturing Meaningful Stories

Just like the first behavior, the second behavior, “Capturing Meaningful Stories,” is as clear as it sounds.  Each day, spend several minutes writing a small but complete story from your past. 

These stories can be records of detailed memories, or broader expositions on lessons learned.  They can be snapshots of how you felt in a moment, or complete arcs about your relationship with friends and family. You can write it out on the computer or jot it down via shorthand.  Whatever works for you is permissible here, because the value is in the active engagement of the exercise (not necessarily the legible result). As for me, I write the stories by hand in a journal. It seems to give them a gravity that would otherwise be lost for me. It also uses my delight in the kinesthetic—the sheer act of moving a part of me.

As with all the Phenomenal Four, I practice this second behavior every day. When I started this practice, my stories were short. They captured only enough to recognize the story. When an important story arose, I would then rewrite it so that more of the story could emerge. The more I wrote, the more stories rose up in my memory. After several months of this kind of work, stories I had completely forgotten began to surface. What a treat to see events again that I had forgotten! 

Then something amazing happened. As I wrote and read and rewrote and reread my own stories, I found that I was being introduced to a new person. That person was myself. With each story, my self-knowledge grew wider and deeper.  Each story contributed to my shape as a leader.

This week, challenge yourself to capture a story from your life each day. If you need help getting your story started, click here to learn more about parts of a story.  Tell me about how this behavior is working for you here or on Twitter: @madelynblair!

Next week, we will explore the third Phenomenal Four behavior: Reinforcing What’s Important.