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How Storytellers Lead

by Doug Lipman

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Storytelling Coach Newsletter.

You may want to refer also to the workshop handout, The Storyteller as Leader

Table of Contents

Art Is Important
Anyone Can Create
Connecting, Yes; Rating, No.
Showing Who Humans Are

Question: You referred in a coaching workshop to the storyteller's role as a leader in society. What did you mean?

Storytellers lead in many ways:

  1. We lead by the very fact of being artists.
  2. We lead by creating in a very accessible artform.
  3. We can support the creativity of ourselves and every human.
  4. The content of our stories clarifies human reality and potential.

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Art Is Important

Storytellers are artists. By telling stories, we claim the importance of this form of art and of the artistic impulse in general.

Our society tends to value:

  • the material accomplishment
  • the production of commodities
  • the accumulation of profit.
It tends to downplay any endeavor that focuses primarily on:
  • meaning
  • beauty
  • imagination.
Art is not thought of as important, as "real work."

By merely taking ourselves seriously as storytellers, therefore, we send a message that says that storytelling is important - that art is important. Thus, just by being ourselves, we lead by example.

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Anyone Can Create

Contrary to the widespread notion that only some have "artistic talent," every human has an innate desire and capacity to:

  • create
  • adorn
  • make beauty
  • shape meanings.
Everyone is potentially an artist. Everyone is potentially a storyteller.

Storytelling is an art that is already practiced, in its basic form, by just about everyone.

As a result, storytellers show that every human activity can be elevated into art - and, therefore, that the basics of art are available to everyone.

When we tell stories, we lead by helping people to notice the potential art that surrounds them.

Avoid the Talent Trap

As we promote the value of storytelling, by the way, we must avoid a tempting trap.

We may have just put enormous effort into establishing this message:

"Storytelling can be developed as highly as music, literature, or drama."
In the heat of passion to establish the value of our art, it can be easy to forget the other half of the message:
"And everyone is potentially an artist. To function as an artist, you must develop your abilities - but everyone of you has artistic abilities to develop."
Thus, to continue as true leaders, we must not transmit the destructive fallacy of "rare talent" - even when the acceptance of this fallacy might seem to make it easier to establish that great storytellers are great artists.

In the long run, this "shortcut" to the acceptance of storytelling will delay the restoration of storytelling - and all art - to its true, central place in human society.

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Connecting, Yes; Rating, No.

Our society tends to separate all of us from our intrinsic creativity, preferring to make us into consumers of pre-made art and pseudo-art.

To do so, it systematically

  • discourages us from seeing ourselves as artists
  • creates an inflated demand for "the best" or the "most popular" art.

One way that art is turned into a commodity is through the rating of works of art and artists on a scale of "bad" to "best."

In the end, a dollar value is assigned to each work. Most are "worthless," but a few are promoted world-wide.

If we acquiesce in the rating and comparing of art and artists, we support this destructive system.

But if we steadfastly refuse to compare, we become leaders in another way. We demonstrate a way to escape the confusing and debilitating pattern of

  • criticism
  • rating
  • commercialization of art.
We reclaim art as an expression of:
  • human connection
  • cooperation.

To achieve our full potential as artistic leaders, we must never allow any artistic effort to be disparaged, discouraged, or devalued - including our own.

We must remember that works of art, like people, cannot be rated on a linear scale. Instead, we must seek the spark of creativity - no matter how small - in each artistic effort.

In short, to maximize our impact as storytellers, we must also function as coaches.

We must demonstrate our belief in the potential success of every storyteller.

Stay Flexible In Praise

Even as we turn our attention to the creative spark in each artistic endeavor, of course, we remain free to notice the difference between what succeeds at a given moment and what does not.

To avoid the rigid criticism of art we do not have to replace it with rigid, empty praise - with pretending that something works better than it does. Instead, we can find what there is to praise in each effort.

Like Pablo Casals, we can rejoice in the the artistic impulse wherever it surfaces.

Like all true leaders, we will not deny the problems that currently exist, but we will keep our attention focused on increasing our successes.

Storytelling brings out aspects of our true nature as humans:

  • we are all artists
  • we are all valuable
  • we each deserve encouragement
  • it is in our interest for everyone to succeed.

As storytellers, we lead by our example, our words, and our actions. We help each person develop into

  • the respected person
  • the artist
  • and the leader
that everyone has the potential to become.

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Showing Who Humans Are

Just by being storytellers, we promote:

  • art
  • creativity
  • connection.

But the stories we tell can make us leaders in yet another way:

  • they remind people what it means to be human.

Like artworks in other media, stories can portray, in imaginative form, some aspect of human experience or potential.

They can portray:

  • our past triumphs and struggles
  • the opportunities and dangers we face in the present
  • some part of our possibilities for the future.

Stories can accomplish this portrayal both literally and metaphorically.

Our personal, family, and historical stories can show who we have been and even who we might be capable of becoming.

At the same time, a fantasy about a future society can portray a piece of human experience from the past just as easily as a fairy tale or animal story can portray our as yet unrealized potential for heroism or cooperation.

No society can achieve its potential without leaders who remind us of

  • who we are
  • what we can become.

And when we storytellers understand our "high estate" as leaders, we are more likely to act like leaders - in our actions and in our choice of stories.


Copyright © Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman