Once upon a long ago

by External26 Mar 2012

Working with organisations and their leadership development strategies, more often than not we find programs structured around a leadership competency framework with 360-degree feedback sitting at the heart of the process, and a change management approach consistent with Kotter’s famous eight-step change model (first described in a 1995 HBR article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail). Where objectives are couched in terms of cultivating enhanced levels of authentic and energetic leadership, the outcomes of such programs may be disappointing.

Programs that place an emphasis on competency frameworks and 360-degree feedback encourage deference to external perspectives on leadership, diverting the individual’s attention away from internal reference points, yet competency frameworks and 360-degree feedback are regarded by many as de rigeur.

In the same vein the Kotter model, and other step-type change models, are often spoken about as if they represent the only approach to change. Palmer and Dunford, however, in their 2008 article Organizational Change and the Importance of Embedded Assumption, describe six potential approaches to designing change programs. They label Kotter-type models as examples of a directing approach, most effective only when the context is simple and employees are likely to be compliant. When the operating context is ambiguous, subject to change and difficult to predict, then they suggest that a nurturing approach is more appropriate. In the nurturing approach the focus is on enhancing the individual’s capacity to ‘self-organise’ so as to be able to better cope with complexity and ambiguity.

Theory into practice

We often provide coaching services as part of leadership development programs which feature coaching alongside training. With the current focus on experiential learning, many organisations are now breaking up three- and four- day workshops into shorter modules and contracting coaches to help participants implement what they learn in the modules in between sessions. Some of the people we coach are keen to implement what they’ve been trained, others less so. The first group seem eager to comply with what is expected of them. People in the second group often give the impression that they feel cornered into focusing on something that for them is low priority. These people demonstrate just as much commitment to the success of their organisation as the first group, but for them the leadership program can represent a nuisance, something that eats up valuable time that could otherwise be used to tackle real issues. The best way to engage such people is often to shift attention away from the external perspective, represented by competency frameworks and 360-degree feedback, and invite them to create their own agenda based on who they aspire to be as a leader.

We think there is a fundamental difference between designing programs in which leaders are expected to exhibit behaviours defined by the designers of leadership competency frameworks and 360-degree instruments, and designing programs in which leaders are encouraged to cultivate a stronger internal perspective. Storytelling delivered through coaching is a particularly effective medium for the latter ‘nurturing’ approach.


A storytelling approach doesn’t always appeal to those who subscribe to personality theories of leadership. For example, Cameron Clyne, CEO of NAB, recently declared in public his belief that ‘we are who we are’, that our essential selves are fixed and unchanging. Those holding such beliefs, searching for enhanced ‘self awareness’ may be attracted to psychometric tools that provide insights into the fixed/psychological self. The idea that we have one self, expressed in the form of a ‘personality’, remains only a theory however. Many workers point to evidence, including neuroscience, that suggests there may exist multiple selves. John Paul Eakin, for example, talks about the ‘narrative self’, co-existing with some kind of fixed ‘personality’ or psychological self.

This makes intuitive sense. For example, Joe Smith is a quiet and controlled person. You will never see Joe entertaining a room full of strangers with his witty repartee. On the other hand, there are aspects of Joe that are more fluid. When Joe left college as a psychology graduate he was looking for a job in marketing. A prospective employer invited him to attend a two-day assessment centre at which he was put through s series of interviews and tests. Joe was very much aware that he didn’t have a business qualification and so treated every question as an opportunity to demonstrate his capacity to think commercially. The interviewers asked him what he would do if he was given $1,000, and he talked about the relative merits of cash, stocks and shares, gold etc ...

Joe didn’t get a job offer. The company told him he wasn’t creative. It stayed with Joe for years thereafter that he wasn’t a creative person. He shunned creative roles and decided he was better at analysis. Even psychometric tools that told him he had a creative bent didn’t convince. Though he didn’t see himself as creative, he wrote novels in his spare time. He wrote because he felt compelled to write, but nurtured little hope of ever being successful. One day though, a publisher offered to publish one of his books. Joe decided he was creative after all, and successfully sought out more creative roles in his corporate life. That aspect of his identity was, and remains, subject to the story he tells about himself, to himself. Today Joe is a creative person. Twenty years ago, when he left college, he wasn’t.

The ‘narrative-self’ in leadership development

Alfred Adler, a psychodynamic therapist, devised a simple process to help people understand their ‘narrative selves’. By inviting people to relate their earliest memories, he was able to bring to people’s awareness the stories they constructed for themselves, allowing them to challenge certain aspects of those stories, and to construct new narratives from which to live their lives. We advocate the adoption of similar processes as part of leadership development programs where the objective is to cultivate authentic leadership. Either instead of, or to complement the use of, conventional 360-degree feedback.

We use a simple process for cultivating a more authentic self based on the notion of the narrative self. The process we use consists of:

  1. Interviewing the individual, surfacing stories of the individual-as-leader, helping the subject to disentangle external messages as to what constitutes ideal leadership, from internally held perspectives.
  2. Interviewing some of the individual’s co-workers, surfacing their stories of the individual-as-leader, with particular reference to those aspects of leadership held dear by the participant.
  3. Working with the subject, drawing on these stories of ideal self and perceived self, and the organisational agenda, to define a development plan.

We find this approach is considerably more effective than the use of 360-degree feedback alone in cultivating authentic leadership. Organisations adopting this approach are more likely to succeed in facilitating the emergence of leaders with a strong sense of self and an ongoing commitment to self-development. Leaders who embrace the process are likely to appear to be more ‘resilient’ and energetic in proactively driving an agenda forwards.

Such approaches have in the past appeared to be expensive, reliant as they are upon the deployment of skilled coaches. But with the recent emergence of new innovations in coaching, this ‘nurturing’ approach is now more affordable.

Another objection we come across, to this or indeed any approach where the organisation is not explicitly setting learning objectives, is that the organisation may end up paying for a program whereby the individual defines and implements a learning agenda that is of no benefit to the organisation. From our perspective it isn’t an either/or. We explicitly raise the organisational agenda during the course of a program, but we start the conversation in a different place. We start by considering the individual and their personal model of good leadership, then we bring in the organisational agenda. Without taking the time first to help the individual define their own ‘narrative self’, then the organisational agenda may lack significance for the individual. By starting with the individual, we create an environment in which the individual may engage anew with the organisation and its agenda, in a fresh and powerful way.


About the authors

Paul Lawrence and Kieran White are consultants in organisational/leadership development, and practising executive coaches