Corporate Story Competence and Application: An Assessment

Story has been around for a long time

“There have been stories and messages delivered across different media ever since Cro-Magnon man figured out that mineral pigments like iron oxide and black manganese could be applied to the sides of rocks and caves. Whether chronicling life, communicating with others, or creating an inspirational image, there were stories being told”.

“For well over 100,000 years before written language, humans communicated all key information, histories, beliefs, and attitudes through oral storytelling AND archived (stored/remembered) all of that information in story form in human memory. 100,000 years of relying on story architecture as our primary storage and communications system has evolutionarily rewired human brains. We are all now born hardwired to think, to make sense, and to understand through story structure and by using specific story elements”

Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School rightly points out that we find meaning in stories and narratives, not data. He refers to us as possessing a ‘fiction impulse’. And philosopher A. C. Grayling has said: “Throughout human history story-telling has been a central means of informing people about possibilities beyond their personal sphere, and inviting them to understand those possibilities better”

Story touches the whole person

Our lives are stories, and filled with stories. We are immersed in story from womb to tomb, cradle to grave, sperm to worm, ancestry to after-life. We’re touched by story emotionally, socially, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. Story connects us to our higher and deeper selves, and to others. It gives meaning, provides context, frees our imagination and creativity.
“Stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition”

Research shows that story is the way to establish rapport, engage and mobilise the disengaged; that listeners suspend disbelief, reality-testing and counter-argument during the telling; that people prefer reaching their own insights, and that well-told stories stick in the memory and stimulate big conversations and action. People respond far better to stories than they do to facts, figures, statistics, bar charts, bullet point presentations, jargon and business-speak. When a story is told we enter what psychologists term ‘narrative transport’. And “When we have made an experience into a story we have transformed it–made sense of it, transmuted experience, domesticated the chaos”.6 Facts tell but stories ‘sell’. They are catalysts to learning and improved performance.

Story plays a role in the development of important life skills – emotional intelligence, mindfulness, imagination. Jon Kabat Zinn, pioneer of mindfulness in the medical world and neuroscience, in a recent radio interview7 pointed out that “Those trained in mindfulness/awareness light up the narrative network in the medial region of the prefrontal cortex and harmonise with the experiential network grounded in the body”.
Jung wrote: “It is only when the human mind actively brings forth from within itself the full powers of disciplined imagination and archetypal insight that the deeper reality of the world emerges”. And the title of an article by PJ Manney needs no further explanation: Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy.

We relate emotionally to metaphor words in stories. Researchers at Emory University found for example that “when subjects read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active”.

We live and breathe story. And as “Novelist Edmund White once wrote, “When a person dies, a library is burned”

It’s natural. It happens without striving.

“There was a man living by the seashore who loved seagulls. Every morning he went down to the sea to roam with the seagulls. More birds came to him than could be counted in hundreds. His father said to him one day: I hear the seagulls all come roaming with you – bring me some to play with. Next day, when he went to the sea, the seagulls danced above him and would not come down”.

Small wonder that business is fast latching on to the power of story
So, not surprisingly, the story movement in business has really taken off. Hundreds of tertiary educational institutions offer programmes with story modules, a growing number of books on the subject are being published, many more businesses want to use story in their internal and external communications. Jamie Smart of Salad Limited, UK, international NLP practitioner and teacher says, “Stories are the ultimate covert communications technique”.Alas, not all use story ethically. Writer Dan McKinnon points out that ‘A halo has to fall only a few inches to be a noose’. Stories can choke, strangle us or free us, open up new possibilities. How we use them is important. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes has said, “Most (stories) are not used as simple entertainment …. (but) used in many different ways; to teach, correct errors, lighten, assist transformation, heal wounds, re-create memory”.

With wrong intention, tactlessness or deliberate misuse we can tell to win, impose, manipulate, serve self, and we lose credibility. We rob listeners of their freedom to interpret.

Far better that our stories be non-directive, open, honest, even show vulnerability. Then real sharing happens. Dialogue takes place. Snowden believes that “this is key to micro-narrative approaches, creating multiple interaction between many people and their stories”.

And too few realise the full potential of story to improve every part of their business. Narrative has a key role to play in every aspect of business – every department, every business process, in our relating to suppliers, stakeholders, customers. In brand enhancement, knowledge management, training, making sense of issues and challenges, communication, sales connections, scenario construction, change/transition endeavours, presentations, qualitative research.

Far too few understand, accept, internalise and apply this correctly in the new age of story. We’ve come to realise this during our consulting, training and coaching work using anecdote circles, appreciative inquiries, projective techniques, metaphor elicitation with clients and potential clients. Hence our development of this assessment instrument.

Using the Assessment

In these notes and within the assessment instrument, we have generally (in order to avoid tortuous and complicated descriptions) used ‘Story’ an all-embracing term that covers narrative, metaphor, personal anecdote; and biographical, historical, mythological, metaphorical, wisdom stories; past, present, future stories; fact, fiction. Nor have we taken pains to distinguish between oral and written stories. These distinctions are of course necessary in certain situations – but should not blur the principle that what matters more than categorisation or ‘academic accuracy’ is the integrity and appropriateness of the use of story. The assessment is in two parts:

  • Story competence consistently displayed
  • Story application deeply understood and used throughout the business

It reveals the organisations’ strengths, weaknesses and opportunities – in the area of using story in order to advance corporate goals. And its use spawns a number of corporate outcome-measures including level of competence (here we have also developed a further set of story competencies with related behaviour indicators for the individual), brand reputation impact, value of sense-making responses, training effectiveness improvement, development of emotional and social intelligence skills, assertiveness………..(The assessment is best completed in the presence of an experienced business story practitioner, so that the nuances and niceties of each of the questions is well understood before being answered).

Terms of usage

We hope that the diagnostic is used widely and wisely, adds to the professionalism of business story practitioners everywhere, and promotes and advances the effective and ethical use of story within organisations. Proper use of the assessment and monitoring takes place within this business scorecard framework:

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Why Boards of Directors Need a New Profile: insights from psychological and spiritual synthesis

Whereas the 20th century might be viewed as the age of management, the early 21st century is predicted to be more focused on governance”.  James McRitchie

Culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin”. Edgar Schein

 Ongoing Failures and Scandals

A scan of the literature, the internet and my interviews with a number of governance practitioners has revealed that when selecting and developing board directors (profit or non-profit), the focus is very much on what they know, who they know, and what they’ve done. 

Perhaps, given the awesome responsibilities of 21st century directors (both profits and non-profits), with business having a key role in overcoming probable mega-disasters in society, the environment and the economy; the focus should at least be equally on their character virtues, an other- orientation (not self-serving), and purpose …….. 

This is especially true in an era where there continue to be huge disconnects between stated principles and values, and actual behaviours – in both the public and private sectors.1

One does not have to think back too far to recall Banks that have rigged currency rates and chased excess profit because of the ‘banking culture’, Oil Companies responsible for a major ocean spillage after carelessly pushing the boundaries of safety, Coffee Makers using aluminium pods, Water Bottlers who will raid and deplete a community’s underground water supplies (and leave an unwanted plastic legacy as well), Car Manufacturers who design software to cheat emission tests, a Fast-food Retailer pirating unsustainable palm oil, the Furniture Manufacturer who fiddles “forestry stewardship” figures, or the Consumer Goods Marketer who uses plastic microbeads in its cleansing and toothpaste products (justifying this on the basis that the larger plastics are a bigger threat to ocean pollution, and that their customers enjoy using their products! (Notwithstanding President Barack Obama signing The Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015).

A recent case is that of Global Retailer, Steinhoff Holdings, with their impressive codes of conduct, corporate social responsibility programmes, sustainability initiatives and learning organisation claims. They stand accused of fraud exceeding US$ 10 billion and their larger shareholders include pension funds, retirement annuities and provident funds administrators.

We could add to this litany of uncouth and damaging behaviour those of sexual, emotional, psychological and spiritual harassment, abuse and personal violations.

All of this amounts to a systemic rape of the planet, societies and individuals in numerous forms, by a few powerful, immoral leaders, including:

  • Deforestation

  • Stealing of tribal lands

  • Plundering of pension fund monies

  • Personal harassment and abuse

  • Depletion of underground water supplies

  • Tax legislation that favours the rich, disadvantages the poor

Expediency, greed, arrogance, disrespect and self-serving have all come into play. As has domination, violation, abuse and hurt, and the stripping away of others rights, self-esteem and happiness without their consent.

What has led to this highly unsatisfactory state of affairs?

All of our lives have been infiltrated over time by these behaviours.

There are complex and layered exterior forces that shape us and challenge both our egos and our souls. What we think, feel, believe is influenced by our families, communities, institutions, societies, nature and spiritual experiences.  Nancy Klein eloquently describes how the big brands have influenced and often conditioned every area of our being. How the system has spawned Personal Brands (ala the Trump brand), usually with incredibly strong needs to have and to show power, to control, be recognised and praised, to amass wealth. These needs of ‘hollow men’ can never be satisfied. They are products of the system that has been for too many years (consciously and/or unconsciously) driving our exploitive, entitlement-based, consumption- focused beliefs and life styles.2

Widely believed sentiments such as the following have contributed to the rise of deceptive, self-serving behaviour:

That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest.  That the natural world is there for us to pillage.  That the vulnerable deserve their fate and that the one percent deserve their golden towers. 

That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting.  That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this”.2

A New Director Profile is Required

A definite and sharp move is required when choosing directors from what they know, who they know, and what they’ve done – to who they are, what virtues they consistently display, and the purity of their motives.

 But how?  What Personal Growth Needs to Take Place?

 Ferrucci points us to these key dimensions of human life, dimensions that need to be synthesised in the makeup of Board Directors: The emergence of will and self-determination, The sharpening of the mind, , The enjoyment of beauty, The enrichment of imagination, The awakening of intuition, The realization of love, The discovery of the Self and its purpose”.3

In its most basic sense, Psychosynthesis is simply a name for the process of personal growth: the natural tendency in each of us to harmonize or synthesize our various aspects at ever more inclusive levels of organization. In its more specific sense, Psychosynthesis is a name for the conscious attempt to cooperate with the natural process of personal development.  All living things contain within them a drive to evolve, to become the fullest realization of themselves.  This process can be supported consciously, and Psychosynthesis is one means to do this”.4

Ophelia’s statement (used as his book title by Piero Ferrucci)) is a good basis for looking at such a growth journey for director – leaders. 

 We need directors who fit the profile indicated on the chart that I’ve drawn up below. The chart outlines a developmental/ growth model for modern Board Directors and senior leaders

Pain, meaninglessness and possible self-destruction occur when fragmented inner elements clash, hence the need to aim at integration of body, mind and spirit and to reach ‘wholeness’ – the da Vinci virtue of corporalita examined in The Virtuosa Organisation.1   As part of the process participants tackle their shadow side, harmful attachments, addictions, desires, converted fears (for example, prejudice), egoically-driven emotions (such as anger) …  and because of the neuroplasticity of our brains, we can edit, reframe and change our life stories by altering, growing new neurons, connections and pathways, get out of insecure-attachments, override limiting beliefs, develop compassion. We can literally rewire our brains over time. Change slowly but surely to who we need to become. 

The model fits Servant Leadership to quite a large extent. Servant Leadership has matured and is currently enjoying something of a resurrection. It embraces a number of the ideas contained in the above model, has been around for a number of years, and is currently gaining traction in the business world. It is transformational.

Hosted by Conscious Marketer, Ken Blanchard and Berrett-Koehler Publications, over 40 speakers were involved in the October 2017 Servant Leadership Online Training Summit that recently took place over 10 days.6

We believe that the model that we here present enhances the Servant Leader approach in six clear and important areas:

  • conversion of stated values to consistently displayed virtues (via behaviour indicators)
  • combining leadership + purpose + mastery
  • widening the notion of ‘customer’ (internal and external) to include suppliers, citizens and other stakeholders (especially in the sustainability arena)
  • recognising and accessing the benefits of deeper mindfulness
  • identifying, unpacking, understanding and utilising the elements of spirituality
  • utilising advanced conversational processes to guide culture change deftly and speedily (especially in a world of rapid, turbulent change on many fronts)

(The author may be contacted for further elucidation)

Underlying elements and practices in navigating the model, are metanoia and kenosis.

Metanoia and Kenosis

Part of the process is that of metanoia, which Bourgeault describes as the “larger mind”. “It means to escape from the orbit of the egoic operating system, which by virtue of its own internal hardwiring is always going to see the world in terms of polarized opposites, and move instead into that nondual knowingness of the heart which can see and live from the perspective of wholeness”.  Integrated thinking, taking account of the six capitals (financial, intellectual, social, human, manufactured and natural), fits snugly into this description. 

Nothing less than kenotic loving will suffice – self-emptying for others. If we lack genuine compassion for the planet and society, we should not be serving on any Board. Bourgeault:

It’s almost completely spiritually counterintuitive. For the vast majority of the world’s spiritual seekers, the way to god is “up.” Deeply embedded in our religious and spiritual traditions—and most likely in the human collective unconscious itself—is a kind of compass that tells us that the spiritual journey is an ascent, not a descent”.7    Ozdemir cites Karen Armstrong: “We have been living in a time of great social transformation and unrest and ……. we should foster compassion, self-emptying and justice”, then speaks of the approach taken by, and the teachings of, Rumi and Confucius.8 

(We can add the philosophy, writings and lives of Henri Nouwen, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha (the sunyata tradition) ……) 

Metanoia and Kenosis both require a deep letting go. Letting go of egoic self-importance. Letting go during times of adversity and threat. Building inner strength, resilience. Serving outwardly and transforming through letting go. 

As we put the pieces together during the programme, “Out of the clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity”. (Albert Einstein) 

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said, “The beyond is not what is infinitely remote, but what is nearest at hand”.

Daniel Goleman exhorts us to: “Finally, act now, in whatever way you are called to. Otherwise the toxic forces at loose today will define our time. But each of us acting in our own way can together create a stronger force for good”.

A detailed context for this article has been published by the Journal of Spiritual Leadership and Management:


  1. Williams, G; Fox, P and Haarhof, D  The Virtuosa Organisation: the importance of virtues for a successful business   Knowres Publishing  2015

  2. Klein, Naomi   No is not Enough: resisting Trump’s shock politics and winning the world we need Haymarket Books Chicago 2017

  3. Ferrucci, Piero What we May Be: techniques for psychological and spiritual growth through psychsynthesis    Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin  NY   2004

  4. Synthesis Center web site.

  5. Shakespeare, William The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark   Act IV, Scene V

  6. Servant Leadership On-Line Training Summit
  7. Bourgeault, Cynthia The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message     Shambhala   2008

  8. Ozdemir, Ibrahim   Rumi and Confucius: Messages for a New Century Tughra Books  NJ   2013; citing Armstrong, Karen The Great Transformation: the beginning of our religious traditions  First Anchor Books   2007

  9. Goleman, Daniel   How to be a Force for Good   Lion’s Roar   29th August, 2017

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