Developing African Leaders with Storycentric Methods
Misconceptions of Story
Common misconceptions prevent many Westerners from considering story as a viable means of developing leadership. Story often conveys images of fairytales or children’s time at the local library. It is perceived as “just for fun” and “just for kids”. We will make an exception for C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or any number of classic myths, but for the most part, stories are for children.
Story also suffers from a bad reputation. In business, politics and education, it is assumed that story is used to put a spin on something. It is seen as a ploy to stretch logic; certainly not a vehicle to convey deeper, more serious thought. Moreover, for many the word “story” is not just a light word, it is a negative word. It means untrue.
As a child, I would say to my grandmother, “I must have lost the change. It was in my pocket when I left the store.” To which she would say, “Now, son, don’t you tell me a story.” With this negative view of story, can we depend on story to serve as a major vehicle for learning? Some doubt it.
R. Sessoms (H)
© The Author(s) 2017 173
K. Patterson, B. Winston (eds.), Leading an African Renaissance, Palgrave Studies in African Leadership,
We tend to grasp the meaning of words or concepts by viewing or defining them in association with their opposite. We understand one word better when comparing it to its antonym. For example, the word hot takes on additional meaning when compared to cold. More meaning is given to high when compared to low. Compared to poor, the word rich takes on relative meaning. But the English language has no antonym for story apart from non-story. And without thought, story is then related to other similar non comparisons: fiction versus non-fiction (fact); truth versus non-truth (lies); real versus unreal (fantasy). Thus, story is often equated with make- believe, unreality and fiction.
Just as my grandmother thought that my “losing the change” was just a “story”, people often use the term “story” to refer to communication that is not true. The comment is heard from the classroom to the centres of political power: “Why didn’t she just tell us the facts?” “Is he trying to cover up something and put a positive spin with a story?” Stories are generally assumed to contain untruths or at best half-truths.
We are usually introduced to stories as children. Most of these childhood stories are fictional, designed to entertain or educate. However, as we grow up, we are taught to put away these childish things. While stories can illustrate and highlight important information, Westerners are encouraged to grow out of the story realm and enter the adult world of non-story facts.
With that idea echoing in the mind, some find it difficult to use story as a primary vehicle for weighty communication. Story just doesn’t seem serious enough. When a listener evaluates the speaker and says, “Well, he told some good stories,” it is often another way of saying, “There was no substance to it.” Story is often seen as “lightweight”, particularly in the grown-up intellectual realm. Institutions of higher learning have created a prejudice in us against story. In college we prepare papers and reports that are graded upon their analytical content. Due largely to the Western education model, story is considered fringe, embroidery or decorative edge.