If you are putting a lot of time and energy into trying to develop a new story for your organization and finding that the more you strive to change the story the more you get bogged down in the old one then you might be caught in a Monkey Trap.
In parts of India where people still catch monkeys to eat, they put a morsel of food inside a hollowed-out gourd which is staked to the ground. There is a small hole in the gourd, just large enough for the monkey to reach through and grab the bait inside. The monkey clenches its fist round the food and, overcome by greed, cannot remove its hand. If it refuses to release its prize, the monkey is caught, captured and eaten.
The fact is that changing our stories isn’t easy and usually the hardest thing is letting go of stories that have served us well enough in the past but have become outmoded and dysfunctional. Sometimes even high stakes are not enough to release our grip on such stories – especially when we are unwilling to bear the short term consequences of facing long term issues.
Nevertheless, as leaders, we need to understand how and when to let go of old stories – as well as developing the skills to tell a good new story – because the stories we tell are fateful: our ability to change ourselves, our organizations and our world depends on our capacity to re-imagine them. In a profound sense, nothing changes unless the stories change.
So here are some questions to ponder as Spring approaches:
• What “big story” is your organization in right now?
• What types of leadership story are you telling?
• How well do they fit the changing environment?
• What types of leadership story do you really need?
• What stories are you finding it hard to let go of?
• What stories should you hold on to at all costs?
Narrative Leadership is about the stories we tell and the stories we live; the stories that shape us, our organizations and communities, and our worlds. It’s about differentiating between those stories that serve our human needs and those that don’t; about knowing when to hold on to a story and when to let it go.