"My dream? To retire," a 35 year old man tells me. Something is very wrong with this society.”
Of all modern management’s sins, one of the least recognized is its boredom and its neglect of beauty. After all, life was once viewed as beautiful, even though it’s hard to recall this when reading management books or looking at the working life of most people today. Wealth doesn’t seem to help. As the economy advances, the workplace doesn’t become less dreary, with its total focus on analysis, optimization, and the bottom line. If a glimmer of beauty accidentally occurs in a modern organizational setting, it’s usually regarded as an embarrassment: it will be dealt with by a rhetoric that has no aesthetic sensitivity to begin with.
But what use is a life of work if there isn’t a scintilla of beauty within it? As work consumes more and more of people’s waking hours, the systematic draining of beauty from their lives becomes a graver and graver problem.
This is one of the contributions of storytelling—that of restoring beauty to the workplace. With a well-turned phrase, an elegant telling, a story creates the shapeliness of the beginning, middle, and ending. Through the story’s tensions and resolutions, both the teller and the audience experience continuing coherent existence. These elements can add beauty to lives that are otherwise bereft of it, like flowers making their way through the cracks in a vast cement pavement.
By contrast, the control mode of management is deadening. You can recognize it in the gray feeling that comes over you when you participate in a departmental meeting, listening to the voice that drones on with announcements of “new findings” that could hardly be more banal, or of the latest reorganization that is so like the previous one, or the fatuous anodynes for managers in distress. These are stagnant waters in which no living thing flourishes.
The dreariness of the modern workplace has been attacked so often that it might seem a waste of time to criticize it further. Yet there are grounds for doing so. While the cause of its ugliness—the controlling approach to leadership—is deadly, it’s not dead. Unfortunately, it’s horrifyingly active and energetic, like a garrulous bore who won’t stop talking. In fact it’s this restless energy that suggests the possibility—and even the hope—of change.
For organizations that are run in the control mode, beauty currently has to steal back into departments by way of postcards pinned to cubicle walls, muttered jokes, underground discussions, hurried lunches, or clandestine romances, while the management tries to redirect attention toward mounting a never-ending career ladder. The goal is to get people to focus on minuscule salary increments and relative enhancements of standing—a fancier title or a marginally larger workspace.
What storytelling offers is an escape route from this mortuary by suggesting a type of leadership that includes meaning as well as beauty. Story responds to our human curiosity to know how the world is connected together and to our longing for shapely forms. We not only look for narrative patterns—we yearn for them. We want to know what happens and also that it will make sense. We suffer the hunger for meaning and cannot resist its satisfaction. Through story we experience the many levels of the self as well as a deeper coherence of the world.
Through story, we learn to see each other and ourselves, and come to love what we see as well as acquire the power to change it. In this way we come to terms with our past, our present, and our future.
Through story, we can put an end to the worry, the fever, and the fret of trying to live instrumentally. Finally, we can simply be.
Excerpted from chapter 12 of the Second Edition of The Leader's Guide to Storytelling which is being published by Jossey-Bass in February 2011.