Leaders can inspire others through stories. Their fables, adventures and achievements provide a rich narrative through which they frequently appear as larger than life characters, conquering heroes, devious schemers or immoral villains. In these scenarios, leaders use the medium of the tale to paint portraits of the future, "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.” (Bennis, 1996, p. 160). In this sense, stories become powerful means of communication and persuasion, imparting meaning to ambiguous events, disseminating moral (and immoral) messages and prompting action (Weick, & Browning, 1986, Gabriel, 2005).  Scholarship in this area has also delineated the functionality of stories in training and developing leaders (Morgan & Dennehy, 1997), facilitating change (Adamson, Pine, Van Steenhoven, & Kroupa, 2006; Brown, Gabriel, & Gherardi, 2009) and influencing culture (Schein, 2006).

While the literature is clear about the centrality and functionality of stories in leadership processes, it is also acknowledged that stories are uncertain and complex, and hence difficult to use as tools (see e.g. Boje, 2006; Parry & Hansen, 2007; Sintonen & Auvinen, 2009).  It seems appropriate to re-visit this literature in the light of the recent rise of ‘post-truth politics’ and the emergence of political and organisational leaders who are avid storytellers and willing to use (or abuse) the plasticity of stories. This new political climate raises various interesting research questions, new intellectual challenges and moral dilemmas about the use and abuse of storytelling. For instance, what makes leadership storytelling effective in the post-truth era? While previous studies highlighted some of the attributes of effective stories, such as skilful use of rhetorical tropes including metaphors, plots and characters (e.g. Gabriel, 2000, Denning, 2000; Snowden, 2003, Hatch, Kostera & Kozminski, 2009, Foroughi 2014), we know little about various storytelling strategies used by organisational leaders, and whether and how leaders alter their storytelling tactics in different situations.

To what extent does leadership storytelling work, for the leader and the led? And more, specifically, how would we know?  While traditionally the effectiveness of stories is understood by analysing the meanings listeners assign to stories (Sintonen & Auvinen, 2009), in the post-truth era, we have to be more vigilant on how stories are circulated, in what Gabriel (1995) described as an ‘un-managed space’. This adds to the complexity of storytelling, and the process through which leaders conceptualise the “realities” of their stories.

In this seminar, we will discuss how new conceptual and methodological developments in storytelling literature, including narrative and discourse studies (e.g. positioning theory, rhetorical analysis, and psychoanalysis, and counter-narrative) can help explore and elucidate the complexity of leadership storytelling processes. We welcome researchers as well as practitioners who are interested in the topic to participate in the debate as a presenter or to act as a discussant. In particular, we would welcome the discussion focused on, but not limited to, the following topics:

  • Leadership storytelling: a domain of inspiration and domination?
  • Leadership storytelling: using the past for the future
  • Leadership Storytelling: how leaders shape and engage with counter and master narratives 
  • How do leaders use various different rhetorical tropes?
  • How do leaders create their own mythologies?
  • What is the role of academics in shaping leadership mythologies?
  • How are leader-follower identities constructed through storytelling episodes?
  • How is the relationship between leaders and followers shaped through storytelling?
  • Can leaders be victims of their own storytelling?
  • How do organisations try to control the circulation of stories about their leaders?
  • What are the different ways that leaders try to tame destructive stories?
  • Are there differences in how leaders practice storytelling in different cultures?