Storytelling, tacit knowledge and a leadership Indaba


“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Rudyard Kipling

Stories matter; everyone seems to be taking on board storytelling – is it a fashion, a fad?

Storytelling bookHuman beings have been telling stories, transferring knowledge, values and history through hundreds of years and generations of tribes. Attention seems to be turning back to our delight in oral histories and stories. Even in electronic forms we see videos and read wonderful blogs that continue the ancient tradition of storytelling through generations, transferring some of our oral traditions to new digital media. It makes me glad – I enjoy stories and they make me laugh and sometimes cry – and I have learnt so much from these stories – they expand my mind.

My personal experiences tell me that stories are a powerful way for me to share my stories, find meaning and knowledge in what I know, that they have a power that charts and sterile traditional business words sometimes miss. My blog has become a place where I try to share stories and in doing so try to unearth some of my tacit knowledge that I wonder if has any value in the world. My stories and reflections are part of my endeavour to share and to move from ‘stuff that is in my head’ to sense making, making it social, transferring and transforming thoughts to a deeper understanding.

Tacit knowledge is deeply personal and hard to extract and measure. It flies in the face of much scientific study and is known to be hard to draw out and share. The spoken and written word, gestures and emotions are in my view part of its transfer and the recipient of it needs to be able to listen, watch and actively participate in the story to sense-make, participate and share.

It is also my view that it is a social activity for many, but perhaps not all; marrying together story tellers and listeners in networks creates a more fertile space for the development of concepts, ideas and taps into our imagination to assess possibilities and create new ‘castles in the air’. I understand that scientific enquiry is vital in our world but I believe that stories allow us to share and interpret experiences in a way that complements our more logical and scientific understanding.

This week I attended a Leadership Indaba.

Indaba is a South African word, with its origins meaning ‘gathering’ or ‘meeting’. More recently they are styled as conferences where there is space for creative thinking and where story telling is likely to have a strong role.

So this week a group of people with an interest in leadership gathered in Leeds as part of an Indaba organised by Centre for Innovation in Health Management in Leeds. The Indaba has an international flavour with colleagues from South Africa and the Netherlands – a great opportunity for story-telling across different cultures and experiences, a chance to collide our experiences and stories together in a way that creates new meaning informed by the people in the groups.

Everyone has a storySo, I went to the day thinking I knew nothing, I knew no theories, and that I may not be able to participate – that I might not be up to the task (Imposter syndrome at its most active). But Indabas are not styled that way…. Story-telling is what I think they are about. I came away bursting with stories and new ideas taken and processed alongside stories from others. It was a social activity, sharing stories, processing meaning and this was just the very first day we had met. I know not everyone was comfortable with the unstructured social nature of the day but I found it liberating. Telling stories links us to emotions that create new ways of thinking and behaving; maybe a creative way to find new and different solutions to complex problems?

So what happened at the Indaba? Storytelling started the process of weaving us together and started us on a new journey. For me it was, and remains, exciting; the chance to hear others talk about their experiences and to weave those stories through mine to create new understanding and meaning. Its early days, we are still building trust and confidence and we also need to work out how we share this learning more widely – I will blog more as our journey unfolds.

Finally, I think that there is a risk in having a single internal story. In this wonderful Tedtalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie she explains about the danger of a single story. If you don’t think that storytelling and sharing is important watch the video – it may just change your mind.

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