NOTE: In June 2014 I spoke at the State Conference of the Queensland Secondary Principals’ Association (QSPA). This is an extract from that presentation.

In this new era of leadership, much leadership skill is about winning hearts and minds. The old command and control system has gone. People no longer necessarily follow instructions.

Leaders now have to be good persuaders. Leaders need to be able to connect with the heart as well as the mind.

Therefore, yet another task for school principals, as leaders of their educational communities, is to be a school’s primary story-teller.

The Importance of the Story

First, a story can help make sense of the situation. In our “post-modern” world there are many competing facts, rumours and ideas. A person in today’s Australia can acquire as much “information” in a day as they would have done in a year in 18th century Australia, which had far more limited means of communication. There is now information overload, as people are blitzed and overwhelmed with data.

A good clear narrative can help people understand what is happening. It concentrates down all the competing facts and ideas into one coherent story. “This is our school; this is how it was created and this is what we seek to achieve”. This is who we are.

Second, telling a story is part of the school’s branding process. A brand is a promise that the school makes to the students and parents about the student experience at the school.

“By attending our school, we aim to provide the following experience…” A school cannot guarantee that a student will excel in terms of outcome, but it can promise to do all it can to help the student do so via the input. This is what we provide each student.

Third, the story sets out the school’s culture. “This is how and why we do things around here”. A story can bring the school’s culture to life and make it interesting. This is the organization you will be joining and this is what will be expected of you (as a student or as a member of staff).

Creating the Story

Stories are not official histories of the school; though they may contain episodes from that history. Stories are not a list of the facilities available at the school; though they may contain information on the buildings etc. Stories are not a set of rules; though they may contain information on how the school is regulated.

  • the story is designed to inspire, not merely to inform.
  • the story has to be engaging – the hearer wants to learn how it all ended.
  • the story needs a language that is familiar – and so free from alienating jargon. 
  • the story needs a point: why should the listener invest time in listing to it?
  • the story needs to be uplifting and so encourage the listener to want to join the community
  • the story needs to be memorable: the listener does not need a list of dates and numbers: the intention is that the storyline/ narrative itself remains in the listener’s memory.

Components of the Story

The components of the story are virtually limitless and will vary from school to school.

It may be that the school itself has been through a difficult period, such as a risk of closure or a natural disaster.

Perhaps there is an inspiring story of a particular student or teacher who triumphed over adversity and came through to a personal achievement.

Whatever the story, it needs to be retold. Never assume that the listener will already have heard it. In today’s information-saturated world, there is a competition for attention: the story needs to be retold to keep it lodged in a listener’s memory.

In today’s knowledge-based economy, talking is itself a form of work.

Author: Dr Keith Suter
Managing Director
World of Thinking Pty Ltd