Storytelling Leaders

David Boje

June 29, 1999    



     In the beginning leadership theory was very much rooted in storytelling. Shakespeare told us stories in theatrical form of leaders, their behaviors, traits, styles, and situations before leadership theory was born. When leader theory was born, it began with storytelling, but quickly turned away from its narrative roots.  For several decades, leadership theory forgot its roots in the storytelling leadership work of David McClelland (in the 1950s and 1960s).  Stories told to leaders by parents and teachers were ways to train leaders to achieve, affiliate, and exercise power. The leadership field, far to quickly dismissed the need to study stories. Instead McClelland's story typology became one measured by survey items, with no stories told at all.

    In the corporate culture movement of the late 1970s and 1980s,  founders' stories were collected. They were deemed important to setting out the leaderly values and vision, and a way to socialize new members. Founder stories however were studied without attention to their context, their in situ performance. Worse, stories became objects used to measure abstract concepts. Stories were measures of strong or weak culture.  

    My own work on storytelling and leadership (Boje, 1991, 1995, 1999) has focused on how storytelling inevitably involves storying and restorying an organizational collective memory recorded in the performance of stories, where there is selectivity, rearranging of elements, and creative additions to the storylines. I view storytelling as constitutive of both leadership and organization behavior. To study storytelling, to me, requires the study of the collective behavior of storytellers.  Leaders and followers, customers and vendors, tell their stories in a dynamic storytelling organization. Storytelling is the work of leadership and the behavior of organization. Stories are collectively disputed, contested, and negotiated. No one story tells all. With every story told about corporations, such as Nike, Gap, and Disney, executives reframe what will get left in and left out of the official story; what is left out is the non-official tellings.  Framing and reframing stories is part of the art and language of leadership (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996).  People in organizations tell stories, some with all the rhythms and charisma of oral storytellers, others whose anecdotes are bureaucratic refrains, but all become part of the collective and storied memory that is organizations. It is a collective memory that can be panoptic, recalling ways to discipline the soul, and it can be a way to forget what is not convenient to recall. 

"Effective leaders put words to the formless longings and deeply felt needs of others. They create communities out of words. They tell stories that capture minds and win hearts." – Warren Bennis’ Leader as Storyteller, HBR 1996  

    But, by the 1980s and 1990s, storytelling is once again considered essential to business leadership (Bennis, 1996), public administration King, 2000), and HR training (Hicks, 2000). Effective leadership means building a storytelling space by spending time at each meeting listening to whatever stories people wanted to share (King, 2000). King reports that some are so enamored with concept that they institutionalized storytelling, opening and beginning each meeting with a space for stories. Leaders are good at telling stories to give their vision words a context and visual imagery so followers could see and remember. The problem for leadership theory is a field that began in storytelling studies, in the content analysis of stories, has adopted non-narrative methods. 

    For me the frontier issue of storytelling leadership is to return to the field to collect stories, to analyze not just the content of stories, but the behavior and theatrics of storytelling. In this way we can explore our complicity as storytelling leaders in maintaining the existing system of privilege and oppression that is the storytelling organization. As Cochran-Smith (2000) asks: Stories about Whom? Stories for Whom? To change leadership is to tell a different story, and to change organizations is to restory collectively. And as McClelland observed, this storytelling is more about fantasy than rationality. 

About Storytelling In General - People, it seems, are by their nature storytelling animals, and spend a fair amount of time sorting out the truth of stories.  Barbara Hardy (1978: 13) says:

We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.

Storytelling is a central way we organize and understand all experience (Mishler, 1986; VanManen, 1990). Storytelling is also a primary way we construct our multiple identities as human beings for whom race, gender, class, culture, ethnicity, language, ability, sexual orientation, role, and position make a profound difference in the nature and interpretation of experience (Tatum, 1992, 1994 1997; Thompson & Tyagi, 1996). 

Paula Wehmiller (1998: 96) testifies to the power of storytelling: 

When there are walls of ignorance between people, when we don't know each other's stories, we substitute our own myth about who that person is. When we are operating with only a myth, none of that person's truth will ever be known to us, and we will injure them-- mostly without ever meaning to. What assumption did you make because she's a woman? What assumption did you make because he is black? What myths were built around the employment of the father or the absence of the mother? What story did we tell ourselves in the absence of knowing this person's real Story? (As cited in Balderrama, 1996) 

    There are many attempts to develop rational models of storytelling. These usually contain the word "narrative" somewhere, as in Fisher's Narrative Paradigm Theory. Story listeners, says Fisher (1987) assign meaning in two ways: coherence, the degree to which a story makes sense or has meaning, and fidelity, or whether the story rings true to the listener. Coherence is measured structurally (the story hangs together), materially (relevancy to other events), and characterologically (the believability of the characters). Fidelity is measured by the values espoused, whether those values are appropriate for the story, whether the values have a positive effect in the stories, whether the values are consistent with the listeners' experiences, and the values' being part of an ideal vision for human conduct (Littlejohn, 1992; King, 2000). The problem I will raise with the formist approach to narrative is that it lacks context.

   Storytelling Leaders -  I am toying with the idea of just starting over. Going back into the field to collect stories about all kinds of leaders, such as those depicted in Table One.


Bureaucrat pretending to be heroic; Hero who is tamed by bureaucracy 3. HEROIC LEADER

Bureaucrat pretending to be the prince; Prince who has become engulfed by bureaucratic counter measures EXECUTIVE LEADER W/ 4 CHOICES? Heroic leader who leaves the group to find self; Superman who becomes puppet of group

Prince who gains power but does not know how to handle it; Superman who becomes prince 4. SUPERMAN/ SUPERWOMAN LEADER

Table One: Four Types of Leaders and their Rhizomatic Hybrids

   Storytelling leader work owes much to Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and the brilliant work of Eugene Jennings (1960).  What did Jennings (1960) contribute? He looked at situation, behavior, and situation theories of leadership and found them fit for the modernist organization man, the society that preferred bureaucrats to heroes.  He developed a typology of leaders: as mixtures of superman/superwoman, prince and hero. Again the problem of context looms large; how do we know these styles are embedded in the social milieu of storytelling organization? Still typologies are quite tempting. I added a fourth category, that can easily be missed: the bureaucrat executive (See Figure One). 

What is interesting is the rhizome, the flights between the types, the migration of leader as actor from one to the other.  The bureaucrat pretending to wield power like the Prince, but not knowing how. Or the CEO trained to plan and organize who picks up the latest book on servant leading, trust, and visioning, and now pretends to be a Leader-Hero. Leadership has made us prefer weak leaders. And Weber correctly described bureaucracy as the attempt to keep the manager under strict control. In a time of robber barons and greedy entrepreneurs, there was great need to tame leaders.

My point is not to lay out yet another 2 by 2, we have more than enough. It is to show that leader and storytelling work has left out important practices. In the history of leadership studies, the storytelling aspects of  princely and supermen or superwomen leaders have been erased to keep the focus on an occasional hero and mostly on how to be a bureaucrat. This is because, such studies are reduced to "great men" or "great women" studies, which is trait theory, that got superceded by behavioral and situational theories of leadership. 

But before beginning again, let us take a closer look at the ways in which McClelland has been forgotten, and then reborn. Despite many concerns and problems I will raise, McClelland was more situational and behavioral than leader theorists give him credit.  His was the first globe leadership project, well before House had this idea.


    Forgetting McClelland's Theory of Leaders and Stories - Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, leadership theorists turned to David Clarence McClelland for a global theory of storytelling and leadership. For twenty years he and his associates at Harvard studied the storytelling aspects of the need to achieve, and the need for power, or affiliation in nations around the world (or at least in the stories told to children here and there). 

     McClelland's early experiments looked at the effects on fantasy measured by Murray's TAT and story writing  given experimentally aroused states of achievement motivation. We will spend some time reconstructing this work, since at its root is a theory of leadership based in storytelling, not in survey items.  The work has an experimental psychologist's approach: "First the achievement motive was aroused in a group of subjects to see what its effects on behavior might be. In this way we could avoid the mistake of assuming a priori that the strength of the achievement motive may be inferred simply and directly from some particular type of behavior" (p. 39). The early work by McClelland et al (1953: 105) looked at situations in which achievement n leaders would be more suitable. 

    McClelland begins his work, with Henry A. Murray's (1938: 164) definition of need for achievement: To accomplish something difficult; to master, manipulate, or organize physical objects, human beings, or ideas; to do this as rapidly and as independently as possible; to overcome obstacles and attain a high standard; to excel in one's self; to rival and surpass others; to increase self-regard by the successful exercise of talent ( as cited in Oshodi, 1999: 216). For some reason, instead the need to achieve took priority over the other two leader styles.  

    Over the years, leadership theory turned away from the stories and reduced McClelland's theory to the need to achieve, need for power, and need for affiliation. McClelland's storytelling theory became just one more need theory, overshadowed eventually by Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs (Need to Achieve combined with Need for Power becomes Need for Esteem in Maslow). The difference is important, since for McClelland, there was not a hierarchy of needs, his was a need arousal theory. Still from time to time some leadership professor would bring out the rings and a peg, and ask students to chose a comfortable distance and make a few tosses. It seems leaders with n achievement like a moderate level of risk, so they can influence their rate of success. Gamblers, on the other hand, stand at a great distance, preferring the thrill of chance. 

    What was his storytelling and leadership theory and method? In a series of experiments they varied instructions given to subjects and then had samples of subjects write brief five-minute stories suggested by TAT pictures flashed on a screen for a few seconds. Photos were taken from a variety of life situations likely to arouse the achievement motive. This idea, McClelland (1961) says came from his look at Freud's methods, in the interpretation of dreams.  "Stories represented short samples of the things people are most likely to think about or imagine when they are in a state of heightened motivation having to do with achievement" (McClelland, 1961: 40). "Need for achievement reflects individuals' motive to accomplish difficult tasks, maintain high standards, get involved in competitions, and put forth effort to attain excellence" (

In short, McClelland posited a motivational arousal theory in which fantasy behavior was the effect of such arousal. Stories were written by subjects under aroused and non-aroused conditions. The stories written under "aroused" conditions contained references to:

Example: The boy [in the photo] is taking an hour written. He and the others are high-school students. The test is about two-thirds over and he is doing his best to think it through. He was supposed to study for the test and did so. But because it is factual, there were items he saw but did not learn. He knows he has studied the answers he can't remember and is trying to summon up the images and related ideas to remind him of them. He may remember one or two, but he will miss most of the items he can't remember. He will try hard until five minutes is left, then give up. go back over his paper, and be disgusted for reading but not learning the answers.

   STORY METHOD - The method used was to count the frequency of various achievement-related ideas and outcomes in the fantasy stories.  n Achievement stories had subcategories (McClelland, 1961: 103):


POWER STORIES (McClelland, 1961: p. 167-168) 


    Power stories were hypothesized to be more prevalent in totalitarian and fascist regimes (Hitler, Franco, Stalin). This created an interesting problem, since the U.S. in 1950 studies had high power scores.  McClelland reasons that the US however was "without totalitarian effects presumably because it is check by a high n Affiliation which limits the extent to which people are willing to override the interests of particular others" (1961: 170).  

    The economic development analysis using stories collected two samples of stories, one stories of 1925-50 and the second between 1952-58.  The early studies found that American males with high n Achievement scores came more often from the middle class than from upper or lower classes (1953). Low n Achievers scored better on more complex tasks (i.e. unscrambling words) than did the High ones. the Highs performed better only when performance outcomes had significance for them personally. In "relaxed" experimental conditions the high n Achievers did not do any better than others. 

    n Affiliation - groups with high affiliation scores were persuaded to work harder by appeals for cooperation, but the high achievers were not swayed by cooperation appeals. 

   My thesis is that storytelling aspects of McClelland's leadership theory, were all but forgotten in the collective memory of leadership theory. But in the 1980s, with the culture movement in organizational behavior and the 1990s with renewed interest in charismatic leadership, the storyteller leader was again the object of study. I would like to restory leadership theory and its history and give McClelland the character role he deserves, not the off-stage one of today, but a leader and story theory that is center stage. There are always exceptions. For example, McCormick (2000) summarizes the relationship between achievement and affiliation needs, as follows:

"A good deal of evidence exists supporting the idea that an organization populated by individuals with a high need for affiliation might resist technological advancement. McClelland's (1967) research in this area notes that a negative relationship exists between the need for achievement and the need for affiliation. Individuals with a high need for achievement tend to use whatever means necessary to gain success, including new technologies. In contrast, individuals with a high need for affiliation tend to focus on relationships with people rather than nonhuman technology and economic outcomes. As a result, McClelland notes that cultures populated by individuals with a high need for affiliation do not tend to experience economic growth. "

    McClelland Revisited - McClelland taught and researched internationally human motivation and entrepreneurship for 57 years. " He published a persuasive article in The American Psychologist in which he stated that commonly used I.Q. and personality hiring
tests were poor predictors of competency. He argued that companies should hire based on competency in relevant fields, and do away with SAT scores" (Harvard University Gazette, 1998). Along with John Atkinson, he developed the scoring system for the Thematic Apperception Test which was used in achievement motivation research. Later, he became interested in the relationship between achievement motivation and economic development (Source). 

    McClelland and Global Differences in Achievement  - McClelland (1961) was persuaded by a study by Winterbottom (1953, 1958) where she studied the link between achievement and economic development. "She was interested in trying to discover how parents, or more particularly mothers, produced a strong interest in achievement in their sons" (1961: 46). It seems that mothers of sons with high n achievement scores had set higher standards for their sons, and expected self-mastery at an earlier age. This is represented in Table One by the Green Lines.

    McClelland asked what is it that produced economic development and wealth? He reasoned that it had something to do with max Weber's thesis that the Protestant ethic and certain religious and world views were somehow associated with the rise of capitalism (McClelland, 1961: 6, 11). This is represented in Table One by the Red Lines. The hypothesis he says gave rise to his study, "is that achievement motivation is in part responsible for economic growth" (1961: 36). Drawing on his earlier work McClelland et al (1953), he decided to measure the kind of motivational force in country and assess its correlation with economic development.

 McClelland's reading of Max Weber's protestant ethics, was that a need for achievement is
necessary for entrepreneurship. The stories told to the child in a particular country or religion would influence their n achievement (McClelland, 1961; McClelland & Winter, 1969).This is a learning model where "all motives are learned, that not even biological discomforts or pleasure are urges' or drives' until they are linked with cues that can signify their presence or absence" (McClelland & Winter, 1969, p.43). 

Figure One: Storytelling and Economic Development 

(Adapted from McClelland, 1961: 47). 

McClelland and his associates set out to study every country on the planet to make the link between storytelling, Protestant Ethic, and economic leadership as measured by the n Achievement in children's stories and other imaginative literature (poems and  plays). They collected 1,300 stories and coded them for Achievement, Affiliation, and Power needs.  In leadership terms, storytelling about Achievement was a way for parents and nations to raise n Achievement Leaders.  Protestant children were encourage to save their money, set long-range goals, re-invest their profits in business and be successful in the post assigned them by God (Weber, 1904: 71). Catholics did not stress this nearly so much (a hypothesis that has been challenged in more recent study). Nevertheless, McClelland did find significant differences in n Achievement among Protestant and Catholic countries. 

McClelland and Entrepreneurship  - Garland, Garland, and Stewart (1996) described the entrepreneurial psyche as a gestalt of cognitive style and multiple personality factors including the need for achievement, the propensity for risk-taking, and the preference for innovation. 

Research studies report that achievement-oriented business owners are more successful than those who are not (McClelland 1986; Singh 1978; Cooper & Gimeno-Gascon 1992; Spencer & Spencer 1993). In his review, Rauch and Frese (2000) conclude that achievement orientation is positively related to the success of small enterprises. A recent study of small business leader success and their achievement orientation by Rauch,  Frese, and Sonnentag (2000) concludes that planning in small-scale enterprises is related to success only in cultures that value uncertainty avoidance.


CURRENT RESEARCH on N Achievement - 

    Egri and Herman (2000) found that personality and skills profile of environment leaders closely matches the important personal attributes identified in Yukl's (1989) model of effective leadership; these include need for achievement, need for power, self-confidence, emotional maturity, technical skills, conceptual skills, and interpersonal skills. They also found very few differences between for-profit and nonprofit leaders in regards to either their personality characteristics or leadership skills. We found that the most frequently mentioned personality characteristic was a high need for achievement, followed by high needs for affiliation and power, self confidence, and emotional maturity (this last one was identified more often by nonprofit leaders than by for-profit leaders). 

    For McClelland it was achievement, not power that matters. Yet, recent Stringer (2000) argues that the motivational profile that is most likely to be successful in a large corporate environment is one dominated by the need for power, not the need for achievement.

Social skills-including the ability to influence others, the patience to work across organizational boundaries, and the mastery of the political aspects of organizational life-count for more than having an aggressive competitive spirit. Innovators tend to be high achievers, and they are attracted to working environments where they can "call the shots" and be individually responsible for results. Smaller companies offer far more opportunity for innovators to satisfy their needs for achievement.

McClelland Reappropriated into the 2 by 2 - McClelland's 1979 study, "The Impact of Achievement Motivation training on Small Business," identified 12 specific steps in teaching n achievement. I believe that it became the basis for survey-studies of two and three-factor leader studies (Ohio State and University of Michigan each had a 2-factor model).  McClelland's n achievement become the basis for imitating structure, and his n affiliation is quite close to the consideration factor, overlapping with participation. . And n power is the factor that the Ohio and Michigan models of leadership systematically ignore.  However, whenever Stogdill or Bass review power theories of leadership, there is McClelland's n power along with the ever popular French and Raven model. 

    Storytelling Theory gets reinvented without McClelland - When the culture movement took off in the early 80’s, leaders were discovered as the chief storytellers and spokespersons of organizations (Martin, Feldman, Hatch & Sitkin, 1983; Lombardo, 1986). The Tom Peters books of that era told us that better leaders were better storytellers, able to communicate corporate vision in two-minute stump speeches.

And we began to think to ourselves, you know, everybody in the company ought to be able to, in five minutes, tell you the three most important things that you need to know about pricing in the greeting card industry. And the fact is, that story isn't o ut there, that knowledge is not readily available, it's not on people's tongues, or in their minds, but we've got tons of data and information (Source

The marketplace" says Peters "is demanding that we burn the policy manuals and knock off the incessant memo writing; there's just no time. It also demands we empower everyone to constantly take initiatives. It turns out stories are a - if not the - leadership answer to both issues." Stories are more memorable and interesting than policy manuals and they seem to "empower." Tell a story and people will stop sleeping through your meetings. Bennis (1996) continues in this vein, as does Conger (1991), Stewart (1990), and Gardner (1995). David Armstrong (1992) heard stories in church and realized that storytelling could be a effective way to communicate morality and togetherness in his corporation. Armstrong’s (1995) book promotion (see summary points to the irony of this use of storytelling to empower: "Armstrong disarms the thorniest of management problems with a simple story. And then, with cruise missile accuracy, drives the point home with an easy-to-apply moral." The irony, I observe, is stories are more than a leader tool, they are a means of control and disempowerment. The Armstrong stories (1992, 1995) seem very empowering.

Without consulting anyone at Corporate, the managers decided to remove the time clock. "If we really believe our people are our strongest asset, then we should treat them as if they are," the managers said to themselves. "Why should we have a time c lock that humiliates them? They're adults. They know what time they are supposed to be at work. They know what's expected of them" (Armstrong, 1992 http://www.arm

In the 1990s knowledge leaders also use stories much like the evangelist to empower and transform. "As storyteller, the knowledge leader creates connections among people, process, and practice across boundaries of time and space: a critical function in today's dispersed and mobile workforce" (Delphi Consulting). But, if we look a bit, deeper, there is the disempowerment of deskilling and Managerialist control in the new knowledge leaders:

Yet, there is often a fair amount of knowledge that people want to protect and feel very proprietary about. Knowledge brokers create a sort of demilitarized zone for sharing knowledge, which removes some of the impediment of reluctant knowledge workers .  



    McClelland (1961: 76-79) raises some issues that still may be of concern:



David McClelland's (1961) use of a single personality factor, n achievement, to explain differences in economic development is a gross generalization.

  1. McClelland defined economic progress as the rapid rise of the factory system in a given country.  There are other measures of progress, that are not tied to modernity-emphasis on converting populations to factory workers.

  2. The thesis by Weber that a Protestant Ethic is associated with a nation's economic development has been questioned by more recent work.  The presumed connection between religion and the emergence of an energetic entrepreneurial class leading a nation to economic development is not as strong as once thought. 

  3. The history of a particular country is unique and achievement imagery of imaginative stories is not the only reason for economic success. 

  4. Problems with the early TAT studies. "It is amazing that TAT, introduced over 40 years ago, still can be  sold with the original 20-page manual, a publication that gives no data  whatsoever on reliability and only speculation regarding validity" (Source). 

  5. Cause and Effect - Do leaders whose mind is full of achievement dreams, strivings for success, and entrepreneurship cause economic development or are they selected as leaders by cultures who value achievement imagery. 

  6. The idea that an entire country can be summarized by one facet such as Achievement orientation, denies that there are regional variations and other heterogeneities. 

  7. The Need for Achievement (or Power or Affiliation) may not be universal. For example, studies using Asian samples have shown that the positive association between n Achievement and individualism may not be universal (Ang & Chang, 1999). In Arab countries, there is a proverb that  states that "paradise without people should be avoided." Islam values "cooperation"  in social life more strongly  than over-achieving "individualism" in the West. Therefore, in some countries and religions helping others is the path to achievement. Tang and Ibrahim (1998) conclude, "Mideasterners' endorsement of the Protestant Work Ethic is related to their Altruism and not related to Compliance."

  8. White-male-oriented samples, and theories of personality/motivation advanced by Euro-American scholars use an ethnocentric theory of what constitutes achievement and entrepreneurial leadership.  Oshodi (1999), for example, argues that African personality revolves around nonlinear, spiritual, and holistic expression of oneself, including Africentric values and beliefs, such as the collective self, spiritual supportiveness, cultural identification, and family loyalty.

  9. Barley and Kunda (1992) contend that the practice of management has vacillated between waves of rationality and waves of cultural ideology. That is there could be an ebb and flow of national preference for Achievement vs. Affiliation or Power.

  10. Even within the individual, there is recent work suggesting that Achievement (and other) personality traits of leaders may not be stable (Miller & Droge, 1986; Miller, Kets de Vries, & Toulouse, 1982). 

  11. It could be that organizational life cycle has an effect. That is in the start-up and growth phases the need to achieve leader is a good fit, but in maturity the power leader works out the political wrinkles and in decline, affiliation is in order. For example, there is some evidence of strong motivational differences among small business owner/managers at start-up and other phases (Blatt 1993; Krueger, Reilly, and Carsrud 1997; Orser 1997).


Narrative Styles - Beech (2000) applied this frame in 33 focus groups and 23 one-on-one interviews with a total of 150 research participants from the three organizations. Content analysis involved use of NUD*IST software on four narrative types posited by Jeffcutt. Jeffcutt ( 1993, 1994) identifies four representational narrative styles used by organizational theorists based on plot-type: 

There is a problem with Beech's (2000) narrative styles approach. That is we do not know how the people behave their stories. Beech relies on interviews and focus groups, such that the stories are performed out of their narrative context. 

Text and Context in Storytelling Leadership

Ellen O'Connor (2000a, b) picks up on the need to interpret discourse in relation to its context in a one year of fieldwork (1996-1997) study conducted at a high technology research organization in Silicon Valley. Her ethnography links narrative text to its context (Chambers, 1984). Instead of this context-sensitive treatment, stories have been treated as "objectified social facts . . . mere texts, with little empirical attention" to the circumstances of their telling (Boje, 1991: 107). O'Conner (2000a) argues that with a few exceptions (ethnographic studies, e.g., Czarniawska, 1997; Linde, in press; Orr,1996), research on narrative continues this separation of text from context.

Leaders and Their Storytelling:  

Is it Empowering or Disempowering?  

 How do leader stories empower? Despite all the goodly comments about empowering workers to be free, storytelling is being used to disempower (Boje & Rosile, 2000). Storytelling is being used to induce workers internalize an ideology of empowerment that is turned to purposes of tightening the iron cage of managerialist control (Agre, 1995; Barker, 1993, 1999). There is something very disempowering as the leader tells stories that immerse employees into total organization cult of commitment. This is what Barker (1993, 1997) terms concertive control.

Sharing knowledge to empower "best knowledge practices" becomes appropriating knowledge to deskill and disempower. "The stories lay out the guidelines and leaves it to the employees to get the job done. Once they understand what the expectations are, people will manage themselves" (Blackstone, 1998). Yet, we find something disempowering in these leader stories of empowering others. 

Boje and Dennehy (1993: 204), for example, state:

Empowerment implies that you have been disempowered. To be disempowered is to be on the margins, to be peripheral to power, and even to have access to power denied. We think much of what is called empowerment is very token.

How could anyone think leaders ripping out the time clocks is not empowering? It does make for a nicer workplace, but the point is that stories occur within a context, and for critical postmodernists, that context is a field of power. Jacques (1996: 14 1), for example, looks at empowerment motives, observing a "phenomenological slip" in programs as a "way to overcome worker resistance to management agendas" by making them "feel empowered." "Feeling empowered is not the same as being empowered" (p. 141). Parker (1993: 250) sees a more insidious plot: "a kind of worker empowerment takes place, but only insofar as it conforms to an even more carefully regimented shop floor regime." The critical theory (CT) and critical postmodern (CP) work on leader storytelling, especially around the issue of "empowerment" is growing increasingly skeptical of leader enlightenment.

And ‘empowerment’ is seen as an essentially passive process that is bestowed upon employees by progressive, enlightened managers... In contrast, a CT-guided perspective insists that emancipation and empowerment necessarily involve an active process (or struggle) for individual and collective self-determination (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996: 162).

Covin and Kilmann (1994) raise some cautions about how well a leader’s story represents the variety of experiences of an organization. Boje (1991a,b) looked at how a new leader was able to utilize an old timer’s stories to redefine changes he was makin g to the organization. The leader’s storytelling was a way to gain power.

"Narrative accounts of TQM implementation" argues Agre (1995) "portray that process as a crusade of empowerment that shakes up hidebound bureaucratic structures and liberates their demoralized victims." While TQM weds itself to the rhetoric of empowerment, the employee is further encumbered in a regime of measurement and self-administered panoptic discipline (Boje & Winsor, 1993). Empowerment does not reverse the trends in deskilling employees within labor process that are managerial controlled or within managerialist, rather than workers’ governance structures.

            Stories leaders tell can be empowering or disempowering. Neuhauser (1993) argues, for example, "The stories people tell can be positive and inspiring or negative and destructive to the future of a business and the people who work in it. Neuhauser ( 1993) thinks corporations can learn to tell more positive stories about themselves. However, by contrast (Boje, 1995) argues that storytelling organizations such as Dis ney tell official stories that seem quite empowering, until you look carefully at all the marginalized tales of disempowerment.

At one extreme, the storytelling organization can oppress by subordinating everyone and collapsing everything to one "grand narrative" or "grand story." At the other extreme, the storytelling organization can be [creatively liberating, by showing members that there are always] a multiplicity of stories, storytellers, and story performance events…" (Boje, 1995: 998-1000). 

Leaders are just one of many storytellers in an organization. They have one of many interpretations. When their story becomes the only story, the results can be disempowering.  



    Leadership study began with the study and content analysis of story.  Even with McClelland there was not much attention to storytelling behaviors. Stories were lifted out of the social and cultural contexts and subjected to content analysis to create a universal theory of achievement, affiliation, and power. This theory was taken up by survey researchers and the need for studying storytelling behaviors lay dormant.  In the 1990s the study of story in context began in organization studies, though it had been practice for a hundred years in folklore.  But to organization studies it was a new adventure to actually observe leaders and everyone else performing stories in an organizational context.  


Agre, Phillip E. (1995) "From High Tech to Human Tech: Empowerment, Measurement, and Social Studies of Computing." Computer Supported Cooperative Work 3(2): 167-195.

Alvesson, M. and Willmott, H. (1996)   Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage.

Ang, Rebecca P. & Chang, Weining C (1999) "Impact of domain-specific locus of control on need for achievement and affiliation." The Journal of Social Psychology. Aug 1999;  Volume:  139 (4) :  527-529

Armstrong, David M. (1992)   Managing By Storying Around. NY: Doubleday. I first saw drafts of this book in about 1985.

1995   How to Turn Your Company's Parables Into Profit. Mass market Paperback, Armstrong International, Inc. The CEO of Armstrong International uses stories to motivate, lead, and control his family corporation.  

Balderrama, Sandra Rios (2000) "This trend called diversity." Library Trends.  Volume 49 (1): 194-214.

Barker, J. R. (1993)   "Tightening the iron cage: concertive control in self-managing teams," Administrative Science Quarterly, 38: 408-37.  

Barley, S. R., & Kunda, G. (1992). Design and devotion: Surges of rational and normative ideologies of control in
managerial discourse. Administrative Science Quarterly, 37(3), 363-399.

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Review, 22(2) 429-452. (press here) for on line copy.

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The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Volume:  36 (2): 210-228.

Bennis, Warren (1996"The leader as storyteller." Harvard Business Review. Jan/Feb. 74(1): 154-161. Effective leaders embody the stories they tell.

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Gardner looks at the lives of eleven leaders ranging from Alfred P. Sloan, to George C. Marshall to Pope John XXIII to Eleanor Roosevelt and comes away with one characteristics that they all had in common--storytelling. "Leaders achieve their effectiveness chiefly through the stories they relate," writes Gardner. He then examines the types of stories leaders tell. This book is a great way to learn the fundamentals of a critical leadership skill. Also, a very interesting read.

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