The Collective Leadership for Scotland


Within our wider work, we have been gathering the stories of people working across public services and with Collective Leadership in Scotland.  

Here, we include a sample of the stories, where we have permission from the authors & tellers to share these online. We will be starting with an introduction to Storytelling, specifically looking into why we do tell stories.


Chapter Overview

Chapter 1: Why Storytelling?

Chapter 2: On Supportive Practices

Chapter 3: Individual Stories about Collective Leadership

Chapter 4: Warriors of the Human Spirit

Chapter 5: Collective Leadership Site Work

Chapter 1

Why Storytelling?

It is not uncommon for reports to include short quote excerpts or fragments of narratives gleaned from interviews[1]. Storytelling helps to put this kind of research into context, helping to understand different functions, and what else, beyond the snippet of a quote, might be going on. Humans have special capacities to recall stories, recall them and interpret them in ways that are meaningful to their lives, including the contexts in which they work.

Stories can accompany quantitative (statistical) methods, working alongside numerical outputs, for example, to contextualise processes leading to the output, or to gather experiences of what the output might mean for people, to demonstrate numerical outputs, as well as the things that shape how they are reached, or  There are therefore responsibilities about how stories are told, for what purpose, and whose stories are heard. But, stories can be important tools for understanding experiences and organisations[2]. Story telling has been used organisationally in bodies such as the World Bank, to explain and catalyse support for certain management programmes[3]. Stories show how things are connected, and provide opportunities to see things through different lenses and perspectives, bypassing defence mechanisms, deepening understandings of the organisation and world. Understanding how change does, or does not, happen, is critical to policy making and evaluation[4] [5]. Using stories as research (as policy-makers, researchers and analysts) appeals to all kinds of learners; visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, helping us to make connections to what is being told, and connecting us into the web of relations and connections.

Why We Tell Stories

There are different ways to tell, and use stories. Stories allow us to remember, to relate, and to this ontological concept of ‘being in the world’. Within this, the ways that we understand the world is not inherently the same. Stories can take different forms, told in different ways, with different kinds of ways of telling them. In Collective Leadership, we use some of the following approaches, focuses and methods:

Case Studies can be ways of telling particular stories, or demonstrating a particular part of a story. They use description, and are often summaries of what has happened, or of particular roles, people and experiences.

Often used in telling the story of illnesses, a particular life event, or life story. These are about using stories, conversations, and materials (like photographs) to gain insight into how people understand meaning in their lives.

These stories are told by, or about, organisations. They aim to share organisational  norms and values, develop trust, share knowledge, facilitate unlearning and generate a connection between and with each other.

This way of telling stories is around emphasising or paying specific attention to power imbalances and structures. It might spend time concentrating on comparisons.

The story follows a particular structure that emphasises the challenge first, then the choice that a person has and makes, the outcome of this choice, and the moral of the story.

This is about writing stories with, or by, those who are key players in a story. It is often the case that the person telling the story decides what they want to represent within.

Organisational Storytelling

Here, we’re going to focus particularly on organisational story telling methods[6], as this works alongside much of our work and the things which we write about. This method of storytelling focuses upon organisational systems which cannot be easily classified, categorised, calculated and analysed, for instance, management systems[7].

Organisational storytelling recognises the place of narration within the way that we understand and communicate about systems. Kendall and Kendall (2012) explain that there are four aspects of organisational story telling;

  1. Experiential stories focus upon observations, describing what the business world is about, rather than explaining why it is that way.
  2. Explanatory functions look deeper into organisational working (analysing culture & behaviour, explaining why certain decisions are made).
  3. Validating function seeks stories to support organisations, structure and decisions as they exist.
  4. Prescriptive functions direct the listener to a line of action or possibility. They might suggest particular actions that can be done in the future.

These functions might work separately or in part with one another.

An Example

An example of organisational storytelling

Boje (1991) looked at how storytelling could be performed naturally in an organisation. His study of story performance in an office supply firm “demonstrated the management of sense making as storytellers and listeners, send clues and make decisions about how much of the story to tell, how much to reference, which interpretation is applied”.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Ethical and Practical Considerations for our Collective Stories

As with all qualitative methods, storytelling involves accounting for ethical considerations. Permission must be sought by the person telling stories, and boundaries established in terms of where the story is to be used, and how. There are also additional questions to consider when listening to and using stories. In interpretativist approaches to research, this consideration of multiple perspectives and attention to who tells the story is central[8]. Storytelling should seek to preserve the representations of its informants[9]. Alongside this, care must be taken in consideration of sensitive areas of work. While it may be possible to offer a degree of anonymity to individuals, those included in stories have less say as to how or what is done, as do whole projects. This creates concerns around whose stories they are to tell, and what may be revealed, intentionally, or unintentionally. Within the stories that we will share, we approach these concerns through inviting those who have stories to tell, to do so in their own ways.

The methods we have used to gather stories have varied from creative writing workshops, to individual interviews, to group conversations, and through reflections. Recognising these different ways of telling stories enables us to understand perspectives that apply across the systems in which we work in, and the challenges that are faced as a whole, without revealing sensitive information. Using creative story writing for example, offers ways to transplant systems challenges into different situations- retaining the key messages of the story, while protecting those telling the story, as well as identifiable characteristics that might be drawn from it. There are cases where individuals wanted to ‘own’ their own stories, and we gave all the choice to do this should they wish.  

The stories which we have been developing with others are different, reflective of the diverse ways of working (and writing). They create a powerful perspective, that presents honestly, and bravely, the experiences, challenges and journeys of those working in difficult systems. We begin by sharing with you a story or verse about where it all started.

Starting Stories

How might you show what you’ve done?
The group asked.
How can we measure it?
What about writing through the process?
The bits in between.

So we went away and made a list. Because numbers alone don’t capture all the bits in between.
The how’s, the why’s, the interactions, the experiences.
The list was long and varied. Just like the ways we come together.

Reports and commissions made a good backdrop. They showed the need, the importance of working together.
But, tugging to work faster, more tangibly remained. The tugging was strong. We held tighter to the list of how we come together.

To keep a hold, we pulled in more hands. The hands of those who had stories to tell.
Gripping together to hold and tell and show how we do things. There were (there are)
different hands, enmeshed in grasping, holding, supporting, and tugging. They are the hands
of those who can tell the stories.
The stories are different, sometimes similar, never the same.

And in the midst of the tugging, someone asked;
Whose stories are we telling?
And someone else;
I don’t know how we can talk about it.
We thought;
Whose stories are they to tell.
We knew;
We wanted to tell stories with not about.

And so we went back to the list.
We thought;
What makes what we do matter?
It’s the different ways people are brought together.
The relationships.
The way that the hands hold on through the tugging.

And so, the stories are told by the hands, the people. How they want to tell them.

We went about hearing and listening and reading and talking about stories.
We heard and listened, and read and talked about change.
About sticky systems.
About relationship building.
And about life-changing moments.

And these stories are different.
But they are connected (the change, the systems, the relationships, the life-changing).
Through the bits that make up the in between.

Chapter 2

On Supportive Practices

An important aspect of the Collective Leadership offer is to share approaches and practices. They can be tried out by colleagues, individually or in small groups (you can find out more here). The stories in this section are about these practices, about how they create a route for reflection, for connection, and for trying different things. Our first story thinks about the spaces of dialogue walks.

40 Inspiring Minutes

What a peculiar sensation.
Talking. Uninterruptedly. For 15 minutes.
Being listened to. Silently. For 15 minutes.

Wondering how I should start. What to tell. To highlight. To omit. Scanning my
conversation partner for cues of what kind of person he might be. His likes. His
dislikes. Something – Anything I could build my conversation around.
For the first unsure minute.

Deciding to start talking about the basics. My background. My present. Noteworthy
events and experiences in between. Wondering whether this conversation will end
up being just a run through of my CV. Impersonal. Superficial. Barely scratching the
surface. For the first doubtful minute.

Wondering whether I am being rude. Arrogant. Self-involved. Not interested in my
conversation partner by talking uninterruptedly. Reminding myself that that’s the
instructions we’ve been given. For the first 2 insecure minutes.

Opening up about my beliefs and opinions. Honestly. Personally. Relating them to
the workshop we’ve attended before. The only thing connecting us. So far. For the
first 2 remote minutes.

Looking for a sign of approval. acknowledgement. Some sort of encouragement to
keep going. For the first 3 uneasy minutes.

Then, a nod. A quiet hum. A smile. A sharp exhale. Maybe the wish to reply? To
agree? Or to contribute? Reminding myself that that’s the instructions we were
given. For the next more courageous minutes.

Feeling more encouraged. More relaxed. I’m taking in my surroundings. The sound
of soft rain, leaving the pavement glistening. The buildings of the Old Town reflected
in it. I’m letting my mind wander. Speaking my mind out loud. Feeling enabled.
Allowed. Being given the permission to talk. Without being criticised, questioned,
added to or agreed with. For the next unidentified number of minutes.

Suddenly, a ring. The timer. My 15 minutes are over. The time has gone by
unexpectedly quickly. I became lost in my own thoughts, allowing myself to wander,
having the space to reflect and explore the questions we were given. All with a silent
listener walking by my side.

Now it’s his turn. The following 15 minutes begin very differently from the past ones.
Discomfort replaced by curiosity. Apprehensiveness replaced by anticipation.
For the next very anticipated minute, I am listening to an unfamiliar voice.

For the following fascinating minutes, I am astounded by his stories, how they
relate to me, building on my ideas, sharing in frustrations, aspirations and hope.

For the last eye-opening minutes, I am still listening quietly.
But now to a familiar voice.

What is this peculiar conversation I have found myself in?

Chapter 3

Individual Stories

We are fortunate to work with brilliant people bringing together different organisations and services. The stories in this section are from some of those who have worked with us across Collective Leadership – implementing practices within their sectors and organisations, as well as playing a role in shaping our work.

Eibhlin's Story

I’m not sure I could really pinpoint where my journey with collective leadership started. Much of my early leadership development was focused on how to manage rather than how to lead; developing a vision, mission statement and a business plan, the external environment was seen through the lens of the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. The world seemed to be full of inspirational leaders who had unique human characteristics that were required to be truly successful but which many of us were lacking. Partnership working was more about sharing our separate plans rather than developing a shared understanding of the complexity of the problems that we were tackling or the critical interdependence of our activities on the communities that we served or indeed taking time to understand their lived experience…

Chris' Story

It had been years since I’d done any personal development. My boss said to me, ‘I insist that you take some time this year, because you haven’t’. And I hadn’t done any for such a long time because I never think it’s okay to prioritise my own development. But she insisted. So, I signed up for Common Purpose. It’s this place-based organisation where they draw people from the third sector, community sector, public sector, private sector. I’m from a Methodist background, so here, there’s also something about serving a community and seeking the best for a place which seems to be inevitably using what’s there, and drawing in all the resources and opportunities, rather than any one of us being able to do it all. I’d realised it was legitimate to do something about my own development, after 20 years or so…

Sarah's Story

I’ve been involved with Collective Leadership from the start when it was called ‘Pioneering Collaborative Leadership’, and I was part of the initial group who came together to scope out and define what an approach to collaborative leadership would look like in Scotland and how we would support this. During this time, so many people and conversations have shaped my experiences.
I’ve attended various programmes, like the facilitation programme, and Meg Wheatley workshop. They’ve been powerful, not always telling you something new, but simple and powerful ways of putting things and holding space. I think, at these things, there’s a risk that certain sectors, like statutory public service agencies don’t attend. It is possible to affect change by working and building upwards to those in these roles, but that’s much harder…

Chapter 4

Warriors of the Human Spirit

“We need leaders who put service over self, who can be steadfast in crises and failures, who want to stay present and make a difference to the people, situations and causes they care about.”
Margaret Wheatley
'Who do we choose to be?'

When Collective Leadership for Scotland invited a group of people from across public service to join the Life Affirming Leadership programme in early March 2020, little did we know how much the world would change within weeks of being together, nor how true Margaret’s words above would be. This programme was part of a particular strand of work within Collective Leadership that had begun with Margaret Wheatley in October 2019. The March 2020 programme brought Margaret to Scotland to train a cohort of 30 systems leaders in her approach to developing the skills to lead with insight and compassion. We invited three participants from the programme, Penelope, Colin and Kirsty to share their stories of the programme, their experiences, and what they carried with them.

Penelope's Story

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived with my yoga mat and comfortable clothing. The pre-work had given me an idea, and reading Meg’s book ‘Who do we choose to be?’ had made me curious and rather excited to meet her and find out more. I suspect the group of strangers who arrived with me were feeling much the same. We were an eclectic mix of ages, life stages, nationalities and experiences and by the end of the week we were formed into a band of Warriors of the Human Spirit, armed with our slogans, techniques and knowledge that we were there for each other…

Colin's Story

I work within Police Scotland’s National Safer Communities Division and I am responsible for a number of priority work areas which focus on protecting vulnerable people. My team are located across Scotland.

I joined the division in September 2019 having spent the previous 20 years on operational duties across Ayrshire and parts of Glasgow. The move into a more strategic role has been demanding & challenging. Previous formal training had taken place almost exclusively internal to the organisation based on specific functions…

Kirsty's Story

We were together. I forget the rest.

 The residential Warrior for the Human Spirit training course, led by Margaret (Meg) Wheatley, and organised by Collective Leadership Scotland, seems a lifetime ago. The world in which I got up on a sunny morning in early March, walked out with my backpack and my fold-up bike, and got on a train to Perth, is not the world we live in now. My backpack has collapsed in on itself, slumped over as the despair of millions. My fold-up bike is on offer to any frontline worker that might need it. I’m more likely to travel on a spaceship than I am on a train.

We’re all less mobile now.

I started writing this six weeks ago. But I’ve had to rewrite it. My mood has shifted. For so many of us there is discombobulation. Anger. Fear. Helplessness. There is a constant, tattering edge. Emotional detritus washes in and out on a fractious tide…

Chapter 5

Collective Leadership Site Work

The stories gathered in this chapter serve to illustrate some of the collective leadership site work that has taken place, bringing to life facilitation in complexity. If you are interested in learning more about our collective leadership offer, have a look here.

Facilitation in Complexity
- Case Study: Anti-Sectarianism

The collective leadership work around tackling sectarianism began a year ago with a group of leaders who had backgrounds in policy making, academia, faith, mediation, the third sector, charity and statutory work. Discussions on the next phase of the work highlighted the feeling that it would be good to bring the conversation about our collective leadership work to a wider audience to test out some of the thinking that was emerging from our work.

To do this we hosted an event as part of the Fire Starter Festival to discuss the experience of the collective leadership group. This allowed us to explore perspectives, theories, achievements and barriers in relation to this seemingly intractable issue. Like all Fire Starter events, this was a  public event which considered  what it takes to change a system by doing things differently, emphasizing it’s as much, if not more, about how we create change. 


[1] Maxwell (2012)
[2] Denning 2000, p.70
[3] Denning 2000
[4] Fischer & Forester (1993)
[5] Davidson (2017)
[6] Boje (1990; 1991)
[7] Kendall & Kendall (2012)
[8] Creswell 2007
[9] Gioia & Pitre (1990).