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. These stories will sit with our collective storybook, wich will be published later in the year.

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.

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.


[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).

%d bloggers like this: