Repairing the Collective Narrative

The host of a local radio station asked my colleague and I to do an interview with him and we agreed. As we entered his studio and casually chatted, he shared a few things that signaled a sense of need. I asked him a couple of probing questions and his heart burst. He told us his father had just died and he had given the eulogy.
We asked for the most meaningful element of the eulogy. He told of a time of financial hardship. In order for the family to survive, his father had to take a job seven hours from home. Each weekend, his father would drive the seven hours to get home in time to watch his son practice as a second string kicker. As he shared this fact, he began to cry. They were tears of deep appreciation. He looked up and said, “I do not even know you guys and here I am crying.”
Since he felt safe, he was able to go further and share something that would normally be impossible to share. While his father was passing, an event occurred that he interpreted to be a divine message of comfort for the family. As he shared the sacred story it had many layers of meaning. As he spoke, new layers were being exposed. He was learning by listening to himself tell the story.
Although the father was dead, the son’s memory of the father’s best self was alive. Tending to that memory was altering the son’s current view of his own identity and destiny. He had desires to be more like his best memory of his father. This meant his behavior would change for the better. This meant the world would change for the better.
The sacred story was instructive and uplifting. Yet a skeptic might easily frame the story as simply a strange coincidence with imposed meaning. As this thought flashed in my mind, it occurred to me why sharing the story would normally be impossible.
In social networks (like conversations, marriages, teams, organizations or economies) fear and skepticism operate. The skepticism is functional, it keeps everyone on a logical path. It is also dysfunctional in that it prevents vulnerability, authenticity, trust and the co-creation of meaning and possibility.
Logic without love reduces a human network to a technical network run by economic contracting and control. In such a network people become objects who cannot create meaning. The people enter a fearful, reactive state and the collective network underperforms the potential embedded within.
There are times when each one of us has to create meaning. This particularly happens in times of discontinuity. A significant change disrupts our life narrative and we have to ask significant questions of identity and destiny. We have to examine nuance. We have to interpret the loss in terms of the past, present and future.
In times of disruption we have to ask questions like, who was my father, how and why did he value me, how and why did I value him? What are the important things that I take away from our history?
As answers emerge into consciousness they have an enlightening effect. The new understanding alters desires and creates new intentions. As we clarify our highest purpose and deepest values we embrace a life narrative that is both repaired and enhanced. We become whole. Our relational orientation is altered. We become empowered and empowering to others. We seek to contribute.
This process usually has to be co-created. To learn our story we have to tell our story and this requires someone who listens. By listening, the listener helps the teller to listen as the teller shares the story. The story and the learning are both emergent systems that are functions of co-creation.
Here there is a leadership lesson. Organizations are social networks that are continually jolted. The discontinuities disrupt the collective narrative and the people have to ask significant questions of both personal and collective identity and destiny. They have to examine the losses and see the opportunities.   They have to interpret the loss in terms of the past, present and future. They have to repair and enhance the narrative so they all turn to the future with alignment and full engagement.
Since most authority figures live with fear and a bias towards skepticism, they find it difficult to live in intelligent optimism, which is a cognitively complex condition where the reality of constraint and the reality of possibility continually interpenetrate. An authority figure who lives in continual skepticism cannot fulfill a primary role of authentic leadership. They cannot help their own people co-create meaning. They cannot connect their people to a purpose that matters. They cannot lead, and the organization cannot realize its full potential. The economic paradox is that logic and analysis without vision and love, leaves value on the table.
Leaders can do these things only when they become whole. The key to personal leadership development is to extend the process of deep reflection from required moments of deep discontinuity to every moment of discontinuity. When we spend time every day examining the small discontinuities and clarifying our highest purpose and values, we move forward with a repaired and enhanced personal narrative. When we do we become a leader with the capacity to co-create an ever repaired and ever enhanced collective narrative. We then live in a social network where everyone is human, everyone is engaged, and everyone wins.

  • What was the greatest discontinuity in your life, when it occurred, what did you need?
  • Why does logic without love produce networks without meaning?
  • What would it mean to repair and enhance the collective narrative of your unit?
  • How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?

2 comments on “Repairing the Collective Narrative

  1. To learn our story we have to tell our story and this requires someone who listens. – This statement really provoked some thought for me….Mostly it made me aware that I need to be the listener for some people in my life. Really enjoying these articles, thanks for being a thought provoker!

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